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Local politics 101
by Kathryn Gallien
It was no one’s first choice,” says Skidmore professor Bob Turner, without a trace of self-pity, about his freshman Scribner Seminar “Who Governs Saratoga Springs?” At first, “everyone was, like, why do we want to know about that?” admits premed student Margaret Relle ’11. But Chris Iredale ’11 says, “I looked into what it entailed—following around local politicians, getting hands-on experience—and I thought, This is awesome.”
In fact it entailed demographic studies, a postelection survey, and a formal presentation to a packed auditorium that included news media and city political leaders of both major parties. Twelve first-year students, barely two months into their Skidmore careers, stood before them and reviewed election results in the context of major shifts in the city’s political climate.
In the weeks before, each student had been assigned to interview and follow a candidate and write about his or her strategy. Iredale shadowed Democratic public-works commissioner Tom McTygue, who was in the fight of his political career, and got to witness a classic political strategy by
a veteran campaigner. But it didn’t work, as the incumbent lost to Republican Skip Scirocco, whose campaign, according to its student follower Ben Vail ’11, “seemed both organized and disciplined.”
After the election, students set to work on a telephone survey. Calling voters cold—it took about eight calls to net each one of the 223 survey participants—made students “sympathize with what telemarketers go through,” says Vail. But he was pleased to see “how passionate citizens of Saratoga Springs were about their government.” Long a Republican stronghold, the city still has more conservatives than liberals, but Turner says, “The overwhelming majority consider themselves moderate, and people who moved here in the last ten years are much more likely to consider themselves liberal.” In fact Democrats took control of the city council two years ago. But they wrangled so publicly among themselves that the poll respondents ranked civility in government as the number-one election issue, and in November voters handed council seats back to Republicans.
Confident in their data and armed with a solid Powerpoint display, the freshmen presented their analysis to the community on November 15. “We explained that the reason Tommy McTygue lost was because of his feud with [then-mayor] Val Keehn,” says Iredale. “Saying that when he was watching you from three seats away was intimidating. But he loved it.” And so did Iredale: “After watching the political scene play out in Saratoga Springs, to finally be in the spotlight and have everyone take interest in the work you did was incredible.”
Turner says he heard gasps in the audience as data was revealed, and credits the students with “incredible guts.” When the audience came at them with questions, they didn’t flinch. “Most of the questions pertained to the correctness of our data and whether it could be interpreted in other ways,” Iredale says. But they stood their ground. “Since we learned so much about it, we felt a connection with the people locally,” according to premed Relle. “We knew that they understood what we were talking about. They countered what we said, but we could back it up.” For her, “It was the best class I ever took.”
So many people in the community wanted copies of the results that Turner has posted the data and presentation here.