My son the candidate
A mother’s not-so-objective report on her son’s losing campaign for Congress
The Hill by Arlene Herson
The day our 28-year-old son, Michael, told my husband, Milton, and me he had been asked to run for Congress in the 6th District in New Jersey against Democratic incumbent Frank Pallone Jr., I felt a wave of emotions. I was bursting with pride. This was a dream come true for him. But I was also apprehensive. Was he ready? Was he too young? How would I feel if his opponent said something negative about my son?
There were also practical concerns. How much money needed to be raised and where would it come from? Who could it come from? Who could we depend on to help? Would Michael be the target of negative campaigning?
Michael had always wanted to run for Congress. Since he was a young boy, he had talked about the day he would be a candidate. Not everyone believed him. After all, how many people have aspirations to run for public office, and how few actually do it?
Throughout high school in New Jersey, undergrad years at Georgetown University and law school at Rutgers, Michael pursued his dream of a political career. While at Georgetown University, he was an intern in the Reagan White House and for Rep. Jim Courter. He worked for Vice President Bush’s speech writing team. After law school, Michael received an appointment from President Geroge Bush (41)to work at the Pentagon and completed his master’s degree in national security studies from Georgetown University. He loved his job and living in Washington – and then President Bush lost the election and Michael lost his job.
Shortly after landing a job as an executive in a health care company in New Jersey, Michael was asked by the leadership of the local Republican Party in Monmouth County if he would consider running for Congress. How could he not do it? This was a once in a lifetime opportunity, even though he was warned that the incumbent congressman,Frank Pallone, would be a tough opponent. Many thought Pallone was unbeatable.
Before facing Pallone, who was running for a fourth term, Michael was challenged in the primary by a second older politician who had never lost an election. Few thought Michael could win but we were prepared to meet the challenge.
What we did not realize was the first fight would not be against a political opponent – but against the obstacle of raising money. Without money you can’t get your message out. I had never asked anyone for money before. We sent letters, arranged fund raisers and asked everyone we knew to contribute to the campaign. It was encouraging to see the people who responded and disappointing to see those who didn’t. After all, this was my son who was running.
Our entire family joined forces. My husband, Milton, and I and our daughter, Karen, made telephone calls to potential voters. We even enlisted the help of the movie actor, Chuck Norris, a good friend of the family, who wrote a letter of support for Michael that received an outstanding response. At 6 a.m. the morning of the primary, Karen and I were at the Long Branch train station passing out campaign material. Michael was shaking hands and greeting people at the Matawan train station. By the time the eve of the primary rolled around we were exhausted.
The exhaustion gave way to elation when the returns started coming in and we were ahead. When we realized Michael had won the primary with a resounding 58 percent of the vote we were ecstatic. The jubilation and pride I felt as a mother was fantastic.
But the real challenge lay ahead.
Michael grew up in New Jersey and lived in Monmouth County most of his life. However, as with most new comers to politics, his name recognition was low. He assembled a dedicated group of campaign workers, who bombarded the newspaper with press releases with his views on the issues. This was one of the first startling realities of the advantage of being an incumbent. Headlines read “Sixth Congressional Candidate Says,” instead of using Michael's name. However, his opponent’s headlines invariably read “Pallone says.”
Michael needed name recognition. Every day and night he was at the train stations, ferry boats, shopping centers, fairs and festivals. Slowly people started recognizing his name and face. Driving down the highways seeing “Herson for Congress” signs plastered all over was absolutely thrilling for me and my husband.
The first negative attack came when Pallone sent out a mailer starting that Michael Herson was not from New Jersey and had moved there only a year ago (he was now 29) just to run for political office. This time the headline read “Herson.” I was outraged. This was not true – he grew up in New Jersey and had moved back to take a job. Could you say anything you wanted to a political campaign? Apparently so.
Nevertheless, we continued to think positive.
Members of the New Jersey GOP congressional delegation – Bob Franks, Dick Zimmer, Jim Saxton, Marge Roukema and the late Dean Gallo offered Michael their help and support.
Michael decided early in the campaign that he would not take PAC money from special interest groups. This made fundraising much harder but Michael felt very strongly about this issue. He stuck to his guns, never changed his mind on issues and was forthright in his answers to voters, even if he knew it might not be what they wanted to hear.
The strategy paid off. We were gaining momentum. Sen. Bob Dole, Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, former Gov. Tom Kean, New York Reps. Susan Molinari and Duncan Hunter campaigned for Michael. And Jack Kemp endorsed him.
On Oct. 17, Michael’s campaign received national attention when William Safire featured Michael in his column in The New York Times. (As Safire noted, I was his office manager before he joined the Times).
The Cook Report and Congressional Quarterly both wrote favorable reports on Michael and the night before the election, the New Jersey Network predicted a toss up. The morning of election the largest radio station in Middlesex County predicted Michael the winner.
Our election night headquarters was at the Oyster Point Hotel in Red Bank, where I had been living for the last six weeks of the campaign. We were surrounded by devoted, hardworking volunteers, family and friends. We were optimistic.
But we lost. I met Michael’s campaign manager, Declan O’Scanlon and assistant Tom Apostle just as they were about to enter the ballroom to give Michael the bad news. I hugged them both, and thanked them for their incredible support. Declan cried. Michael’s concession speech was outstanding. He handled himself with dignity and composure. I was proud of him.
Running for political office is a remarkable experience. Michael’s life will never be the same. Neither will mine. He lost 15 pounds during the campaign. I gained 15 pounds. But I also gained the opportunity to work with my son in a way that few parents do. I feel privileged to have been part of his great adventure and I am so proud of my son. Even knowing the outcome, we would do it all over again.