For both days of Hometown Holidays, the annual street fair in downtown Rockville held over the Memorial Day weekend, I manned a booth to publicly declare my candidacy for City Council. I was the only candidate or elected official at any level (city, county, or state) with a booth and one of two booths related to politics (next door was the Republican Womens Association).
The days were long and hot, but it was a great way to meet lots of people, even though the booth was a bit off the main axis of activity (I was one of two booths on Montgomery Avenue in front of the Regal Movie Theater; most booths lined Maryland Avenue). When I wasn’t chatting with people, I was being entertained by live music from the “Montgomery Stage,” each day bringing three great bands (I was expecting at least one band that would cause me to grind my teeth for an hour, but really every band was top notch).
Here’s what I learned:
1. This isn’t a great place place to collect signatures from residents for a petition, but it is a great place to meet and watch people. It seemed that 75 percent were teenagers or parents with young children, confirming the event’s goal of being a great activity for families. As people would stroll by and chat, I would ask the adults if they were from Rockville (of course, to capture their signature on my petition). Most were from out-of-town, coming primarily from Gaithersburg/Germantown to the north and Bethesda/Silver Spring to the south. When I did talk with Rockvillians, they almost universally expressed their frustration with the inefficiency of the current City Council. “They don’t get along,” “they’re always fighting”, “they’re not making any progress”, and “we need a big change” was a refrain I heard continually. And although I mostly had conversations with people over fifty, I was nicely surprised by a couple people in their 20s who were geniunely interested in improving the quality of life in the city and wanted to learn how to get more involved.
2. You quickly learn how to be a “public figure“. By meeting so many people in such a concentrated time, you are able to practice and refine your message. You learn how to talk with people from all walks of life, find topics that encourage conversation, figure out how to extricate yourself from someone who just wants to argue, and discover ways to help people, even if it’s “not my job” (my location near an entrance prompted many people to think I was an information booth).
3. This is a festival of consumption as well as celebration, but you also see people who are doing good things for the community. Yes, Hometown Holidays coincides with the Memorial Day weekend, but it is primarily a temporary marketplace. People come out to consume, whether it’s food, music, or merchandise, especially if it’s free. I was astounded that McDonalds would always have a line of two dozen people waiting for 30 minutes in the sun for a free 2-3 oz sample of coffee. Of course, I picked up on this strategy and quickly moved to giving away my postcards of Rockville (note to new candidates: if you are standing with a clipboard and pen in hand, people will imagine you are recruiting a crew for a pirate ship and immediately find a way to stay 25 feet away from you). The ugly aspect is that some folks expect something free unconditionally. Although I was giving away free postcards, a few people wanted my pen, my water bottle, even the decorations in my booth. The great elements were the non-profits and Taste of Rockville sections. The non-profit organizations promoted programs that improved the quality of life in the community, from biking to theater to nutrition to sports to parks to reading to treatment of animals. I was especially impressed by Jackie Price‘s efforts to help end hunger for children. She’s a fourteen-year-old Rockvillian who baked hundreds of cookies for sale and is donating the proceeds to Share Our Strength. And although the Taste of Rockville may have seemed to be simply a promotion for local restaurants, the ticket sales support the Chamber of Commerce and Community Ministries of Rockville.
For a candidate, the $250 fee for a booth is significant, it’s not the best way to gather signatures to get on the ballot, and giving up most of a three-day weekend is tough, but was a great way to better understand the people who live, work, and visit Rockville. For elected officials, I’d recommend it because it’s an informal guaranteed way for people to meet you and share concerns and solutions (of course, it could feel like you’re in a dunking booth and people are waiting for a chance to lob a baseball at you). Thanks to everyone who stopped by to chat, especially those who signed my petition to get on the ballot.