Saturday, June 14, 2008

Speakman: an artist of chaos

June Speakman sits rigid at the table, her eyes trained on the cell phone placed before her. Its 9:05 PM on Nov. 4–Election Day—and the RI polls closed five minutes ago. Any minute the phone will ring, and results will begin to stream in, marking the end of months of campaigning. Soon the wait will be over and she will find out if she has been reelected to Barrington’s town council. Her hand hovers, ready to answer at the first vibration.

At 9:08 the phone rings. “This is June,” she says into the receiver. “Tell me the results.”

You might say that she is an artist of organized chaos; a sculptor of disarray. Professionally June is a walking conundrum; simultaneously a mother, a daughter, a teacher, a politician, a wife, and a political scientist.

“She wears many hats,” says her mother. “There’s nothing she can’t do.”

At 8:00 AM June dons her professor hat and strides energetically into her American Government and Politics class. Here, in front of 26 half awake students, June seems in her element, seamlessly weaving quick wit and personal anecdotes into her lecture. Of the many things she does, June says she puts teaching first. But the balancing act isn’t easy; many of her days are spent split between her students and constituents—all of whom require her undivided attention.

When the class ends she hurries to gather her things en route to the Barrington Senior Center polling location. RI’s Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Roberts has promised to campaign there with Barrington democrats in order to build relationships that might help in her possible run for governor in 2012. At a red light June the politician emerges. Pulling down her overhead mirror she quickly combs her hair. The light turns green; she flips the mirror up, and drives on. Today fashion travels at 35 MPH.

As the car passes through Warren, the roadside becomes increasingly cluttered with campaign signs blurring past in a choreographed political dance. On these well manicured lawns, political aspirations have bred inspiration. One politician prefers his name emblazoned on an elephant, while another has his monogrammed on helium filled balloons attached to bulging leaf bags.

June arrives at the Senior Center and quickly settles into the comfort of conversation. June is a master of banter, a skill she relies on in all of her professions. It wasn’t always this way.

“When we were in graduate school she was kind of shy about public affairs,” says her husband Jay Speakman. “It’s nice to see her come into her own in that respect”

While she discusses RI politics with Roberts, other candidates shake the hands of passing voters.

“She’s not a typical politician,” says Jim Hasenfus, a Barrington school council member who occasionally lectures at RWU. “She’s got a real good head on her shoulders, and good common sense.”

Soon Roberts is swept off to pander her prestige in another town, and June makes to depart as well. On the way to her car she crosses paths with a small child.

“I’m supposed to kiss it,” she says. “But I don’t know.”

Even on a day as frantic as Election Day, June the Good Samaritan takes the time to help out fellow councilwomen Kate Weymouth, whose car broke down and needs a lift home.

The drive through Barrington proves the town to be the picture of a New England fall: a man with a leaf-blower fights the inevitable in his attempt to blow a spectrum of fallen leaves into the street; children play in their front yards, raking foliage into piles only to leap into it laughing hysterically; venerable wooden houses stand framed in the morning sun light.

Barrington is in many ways still a small town. A box in front of June’s house is left out for the local milkman, a remnant of bygone times. A slightly eerie and wholly beautiful calm hangs in the air; only the rustle of the trees and the occasional chatter of birds overhead breaks the silence.

Come 10:30 AM June proves she practices what she teaches by voting. She proudly displays her completed ballot. An active democrat, she voted the party line. For the next hour, as she waves a sign for a friend also running for office, she explains how 28 years ago she became a teacher, and how she got her entrance into politics.

“Sarah Palin and I entered into politics in the same way,” says June. “Through the PTO, which is a very common way for women to enter politics.”

Though she lost her first campaign for school committee in 1998, she ran again in 2002 for town council. She won that year and has held the seat ever since. To her delight and surprise she garnered the most votes in her 2004 reelection bid. As she reminisces, she slowly waves a campaign sign back and forth.

After about an hour, June decides she has done enough sign waving and makes her way home for a quick break. The house is mildly cluttered in a cozy sort of way. She laments the sorry state of her fruit bowl as she crosses her threshold.

The hiatus is brief, a short conversation with her husband about possible dinner plans before heading back towards Bristol.

On her way back to school June stops off at a Bristol polling place to visit with a few students from her campaigns and elections class. The students are dressed to kill, in suit pants, starched white shirts and pastel colored ties. If it weren't for the ties they would look remarkably like missionary Mormons. For the class, June requires that students spend at least 10 hours volunteering for a campaign. These students estimate their volunteering time at between 18 and 25 hours and seem to love their work.

“I know that a lot of us wouldn’t have done this without her forcing us to do it, and now that were involved, we do it on our own,” says George Siares, a senior at RWU. “So yah, she kicked our asses out the door, but after that’s it’s your responsibility to take it as far as you want to.”

“This would be my hidden agenda,” says June, “to get students excited about politics and to get them to meet real politicians.”

“A lot of teachers teach based strictly on analysis, and what they have read in books,” says Aaron Kerzner, another student of June’s who feels her political status makes her lessons more dynamic.

“She actually campaigns, she’s elected”

Around 1:00 PM June admits she is getting somewhat tired and hungry. Before returning to her office for lunch she makes one last stop at RWU’s Performing Arts Center which has temporarily been converted into another polling location.

“My next door neighbor said ‘do you have to be the president of everything?,’” says June, noticing a poster advertizing a political forum she will be moderating the following day.

“And then I reflected upon that, and I thought, ‘I’m chair of the [political science] department, I’m the past president of the [faculty] senate, I’m the president elect of the [faculty] union, I’m the vice president of the [Barrington] town council, I’m the president of my neighborhood association. I don’t understand that … am I fulfilling some psychological drive to dominate?’”

At 2:00 PM June returns to her RWU office, satisfied to take a much earned rest. She slumps down into her chair intent using the next few hours to make a dent in a towering stack of papers.

June’s office is a microcosm of her hectic personality. Packed to the brim with books and political memorabilia, a steady stream of students and professors filter in and out. On a bookshelf she keeps a bowl of candy that is so frequently plundered it must be refilled multiple times a day. Her view of relaxation is different than most.

In six hours June has done more than many do in a day, and there are still seven more hours until the polls close.

“The attempt to both run for office and to help students understand the electoral process through my teaching gives me a very stressful election day,” says June with a sigh.

During a moment of down time June the daughter emerges. She tries hard to convince her mother to let her take her to vote but has little success. Her mother’s heath has been sub-par, and lately she has been bothered by a bad back. June decides to visit her parent’s house in Barrington before going home to grab dinner.

On the way there she stops to pick up a pizza for her mother and father. "Half cheese half veggie," she says.

June’s parents live in a cluttered house in Barrington. They moved there a few years back to be closer to their June. A picture of a younger June climbing on some rocks sits behind the kitchen table which is littered with newspaper clippings.

“Give her a mountain to climb, any mountain and she will climb it,” says her mother. “By mountain I mean not a real mountain.”

Her father, a jazz drummer, once worked as Motown Record's distributor in New England. Their basement is filled with soul paraphernalia.

“As you can tell, my mom is funny, she’s edgy, and she’s tough, and all of that is a good thing. And she’s stubborn,” says June. Her mother interjects “Oh I’m a bitch too”

June kicks back and opens a beer: Busch. She says she drinks it, not because she needs it, but because she wants it.

The entire day–with her reelection hanging in the balance–June remains remarkably calm, maybe because she’s been here before.

“She was disappointed,” her husband says about her loss in 1998. “I think there was probably some element of personalizing it, you know, ‘they’re rejecting me’, but she took it pretty well.”

This year however, he says she probably has less riding on her reelection.

“She’s not so heavily invested, I don’t think that she would lose any sleep if she lost the election,” he says. “It would be one less thing on crowded plate.”

At 8:05 PM June arrives at the Barrington Democratic Club where she will receive the election results, and meet more of her students. These students have been trusted with the important task of driving to the polling places, phoning in the results after they close.

Upon entering the room June begins to resemble a general assembling her troops for battle.

“Do you all know here you are going?” She asks the assembled students. Some nod confidently while other’s nervous faces give away their confusion. Like all good leaders, June knows who needs more guidance and goes around individually helping those in need.

At around 8:30 PM the students disperse and June becomes visibly nervous; she is unable to stop pacing the room. In constant motion she gathers a series of the town’s democratic bigwigs by two plastic tables. For her there is always the need to lead.

At 8:45 a number of cell phones are placed on the tables. By each phone there sits a person hunched over the table ready to react instantly upon vibration. June paces some more.

When June’s answers the phone the room becomes noticeably tense. At one end a large whiteboard stands ready to receive the totals and tally the votes. In another corner a TV blares out statistics from the national election. At this moment, nobody cares whether Barack Obama or John McCain won Ohio; this is Barrington, the center of the universe.

She begins reciting candidate’s names into the phone. A student on the other end gives her their precinct’s totals for each name. She jots down the numbers vigorously. All around her the other phones begin to ring.

As the precincts report the numbers, a lady copies the results onto the larger whiteboard. Candidates stand by their families, watching intently, calculating in their heads whether they are ahead or behind. From time to time silence gives way to spontaneous eruptions of emotion.

June’s early results look good. She is receiving the most votes in majority of the reporting precincts. She continues to pace.

And then as quickly as it began–like a political orgasm–it is all over. The results are in and the votes tallied.

When the calculation is complete June has, for the second election running, received the most votes of any candidate. She is elated.

“I think it validates the work that my colleagues and I have done for the last four years, and me for the last six years,” says June.

Asked what is next for her, June admits she aspires to higher political office, saying she might run for RI’s House of Representatives in the future. But according to her mother, that is selling her dreams short.

“She has eyes for Washington,” she says.

1 comment:

  1. "If it weren't for the ties they would look remarkably like missionary Mormons."

    "This is Barrington, the center of the universe."

    "And then as quickly as it began–like a political orgasm–it is all over."

    hahaha, i thorougly enjoyed this article.