EVANSVILLE, Ind. — Politicians at the West Side Nut Club Fall Festival? Nah. Actually, they’re everywhere. So are their signs, volunteers and handouts.
But does it really work?
“I get a lot of, ‘Good luck, but I live in Warrick County,'” said Stan Levco, Democratic nominee for Vanderburgh County prosecutor.
Standing outside a Young Democrats booth Wednesday night, Levco’s glistening face and damp campaign t-shirt spoke to the effort he was putting forth pumping hands, passing out literature and chatting up passersby. Republican Prosecutor Nick Hermann, similarly clad, also was working Fall Festival hard.
But each man knows that among the thousands of people he meets at the week-long event are many who can’t vote for him. And if they do live in Vanderburgh County, they may not be registered to vote.
If you want to go strictly by the numbers, Levco and Hermann might have been wasting their time flailing around out there. Maybe they’d be better off with a list of active voters and a phone or a door-knocking team.
But campaigning at Fall Festival isn’t just about the numbers. It’s about being seen to make the effort. Renewing contacts. Meeting people.
“Someone came up to me last night and said, ‘I’m the sister of one of your former secretaries,'” Levco said with a smile.
Hermann said there was never any question of Fall Festival’s worth to him as a political opportunity. He was always going to be there. But there’s more to it than that. Fall Festival is a fundraiser for area non-profit organizations.
“Growing up here, the Fall Festival to me has always been about helping the community,” the prosecutor said. “Obviously, the Nut Club gives a lot of money to the community, and all the different booths are sponsored by churches or community groups.
“I think part of being a public servant is getting out and helping the community and helping with this event.”
Hermann wasn’t opposed to helping himself at Fall Festival, too. He hired Evansville Pedicab to ferry festival-goers from their cars to the event and back from the event to their cars. To help the voters — uh, festival-goers — remember who helped them, Hermann festooned the pedicabs with campaign signs.
“You always try to find something unique and different, so that was our unique-and-different for the year,” the prosecutor said with a chuckle.
Levco also clearly hoped he was making an impact with voters.
“There’s such a volume,” he said, glancing around. “If I talk to 12 people in five minutes, if only three of them are voters, that’s a whole lot more than I’d talk to if I knocked on doors for 12 minutes.”
Hermann and Levco, of course, aren’t the only candidates who made the scene at Fall Festival. William Tanoos, Democratic challenger to 8th District Republican Rep. Larry Bucshon, showed up Wednesday night. Bucshon had a visit scheduled too. Other candidates made appearances all week. Each party’s booths were covered with candidate signs.
One thing that was lacking in it all: Political controversy. Fall Festival and political controversy are not strangers.
In 2011, an Evansville police officer pulled Democratic Party Political Director Alex Jarvis from a parade float and detained him on a warrant for failing to appear in court on a misdemeanor traffic charge.
Jarvis, an outspoken critic of then-Democratic mayoral nominee Rick Davis, claimed the move was an attempt by Davis’ campaign to humiliate him and the party. Davis had defeated Troy Tornatta, the party leadership’s mayoral choice, in a bitter primary fight that left Democrats divided. Davis subsequently lost the general election to Republican Lloyd Winnecke.
But that wasn’t the first time politics intruded on Fall Festival’s spirit of celebration.
In 2006, local Republican Chairman Brent Grafton refused to let GOP sheriff candidate Robert Goedde place his campaign literature on a Young Republicans booth and forbade Goedde from riding in the party’s float. Goedde was not the preferred candidate of GOP leaders — but he later trounced their candidate in a primary election.
Just three years ago, an admittedly overzealous supporter of then-Democratic mayoral nominee Gail Riecken crafted a Fall Festival campaign poster so controversial Riecken at first accused Republicans of creating it to embarrass her.
The pro-Riecken poster caused a stir by blaming Republicans for a series of decades-old scandals and calamities — including the Great Depression, McCarthyism and the fatal shooting of four Kent State students by Ohio National Guard members in 1970. It also attributed to Republicans more contemporary disasters such as “Post-Katrina human suffering” and “the rise of ISIS.”
Winnecke, Riecken’s opponent, endorsed a supporter’s description of the poster as “a new low in Evansville politics.”
That’s politics at Fall Festival. Sometimes controversial, nearly always a chance to socialize with candidates and elected officials — and once in a while , good for a free ride to your parking spot.
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