The Democracy Diet
How Vermont's political campaign staffs fuel the fire in their bellies
When Matt Dunne, Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, held a reception in Burlington last Wednesday, he invited voters to meet him at Viva Espresso. The Old North End café serves sandwiches and baked goods that are made mostly by Vermont producers using local ingredients.
One woman sampled an apple blackberry muffin made with local cornmeal and sweetened with Vermont honey. Several attendees sipped Vermont Coffee Company brew. Dunne snagged a spongy slice of coffeecake filled with locally grown pears.
The southern Vermont state senator admits he doesn't always eat so well during election season: For lunch that day, he'd scarfed down leftover pasta during a car ride to Burlington. But even that's healthy, compared with what campaign staffers and volunteers are consuming in their makeshift offices across the state.
State-wide campaigns take care to choose the right food to woo voters. Bernie Sanders held a pig roast this summer, Rich Tarrant hosts frequent spaghetti dinners, and on Friday the Vermont Democratic Party sponsors a "Crackers, Cake and Candidates" event in Jericho. It's another story for staffers of all political stripes. They concede that, during the intense pre-election grind, they often pay little attention to what or when they feed themselves.
Emma Mulvaney-Stanak, field director for the Scudder Parker for Governor campaign, often takes her evening meal with potential voters at one of Parker's dinners across the state. Mulvaney-Stanak helps organize the events, which typically feature Vermont-grown salad and corn and lasagna made with local ingredients.
But during the day, Mulvaney-Stanak stays parked at her desk in the back of the Vermont Democratic Party headquarters on Battery Street in Burlington. At 1 p.m. on a recent Tuesday, she hadn't yet had lunch. That's usually postponed until 2 or 3 in the afternoon, when she snags a sandwich from Cobblestone Deli or the Burlington Bay Market across the street. She adds sheepishly, "I've been known to eat stale doughnuts when necessary." That's not an option today: The Dunkin Donuts Munchkins box by the door is empty.
Democratic State Party Director Jon Copans hasn't eaten a midday meal yet, either. "I've had some [Pepperidge Farm] Goldfish," he says, perhaps a little defensively. "I have a thing of salami and Cabot cheddar cheese that I pull out."
Party Communications Director Andy Bouska is about to heat up a dish of leftover mac and cheese. He says the staff and volunteers who run the phone banks at night consume vast quantities of pizza from Leonardo's. "I haven't seen a lot of salads being eaten this cycle," quips Bouska. "Campaigns are not conducive to dieting."
To quench their thirst, campaign workers drink soda and the occasional after-hours beer, according to Bouska. The minifridge next to his desk holds a half-gallon of cider, a half-drunk bottle of Vitamin Water and a half-full growler of Magic Hat #9.
The scene isn't much different at the Republican Party offices on State Street in Montpelier. On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Denisse Casey, Governor Jim Douglas' campaign manager, opens a minifridge in a back room to reveal a plastic foam box of leftovers. "This is probably pretty old," she offers apologetically. The icebox also contains a half-full bottle of Vitamin Water, several bottles of Long Trail and an empty Bud Light six-pack holder.
There's not much food in sight, but from a cabinet next to the fridge, Casey produces a packet of ramen noodles.
Not that she'll be eating them any time soon. It's already 2 p.m., but Casey hasn't eaten lunch. She says she usually just grabs a sandwich somewhere and snacks in the meantime. What she snacks on is clear from Casey's folding-table desk in the office she shares with Field Director Erik Mason. A bag of Planters roasted and salted sunflower seeds has place of pride there, while her trash can is almost overflowing with a pile of dark shells.
As for Mason, his trash can holds a pizza box from Positive Pie down the street; he enjoys a slice of cheese and pepperoni daily. Today he washed it down with a Mountain Dew.
They're eating a little better at the Rich Tarrant for Senate campaign offices in Colchester. Campaign Manager Tim Lennon lets a reporter peek inside the campaign's chest-high brown fridge on a Thursday morning. It reveals lots of Breyer's Natural Vanilla Yogurt, a block of Cabot cheese, some homemade iced tea and a bottle of Newman's Own salad dressing. No beer. Lennon points out that they've got plenty of soft drinks, though - several cases of Mug Root Beer and Sierra Mist Lemon-Lime soda occupy a nearby closet. The staff serves them with pizza to the evening phone-bank volunteers.
Lennon claims he hasn't abandoned good eating habits: For breakfast he ate "a granola bar and two apples." Tarrant, he says, is an early-morning oatmeal man.
Deputy Press Secretary Jeff Bartley, who prefers McDonald's, is sitting down to a sausage McMuffin and a hash brown. As he draws his hash brown from the paper bag, Bartley notices a game piece affixed to its holder. "Dude," he says excitedly, "Monopoly's back!"
No fast food is in evidence that same morning at the Bernie Sanders for Senate office on St. Paul Street in Burlington. In fact, the Sanders camp eats surprisingly well. Most of the folks are noshing on bagels from Price Chopper, browned in the communal toaster oven. Office Manager Kim Locke puts Muenster cheese on hers, topped with a slice of tomato from another staffer's garden.
Locke shows off the office's kitchen, which sports shelves of Kashi cereal, Lucky Charms, Pop-Tarts, microwave popcorn and Pringles. The small nook's central feature is a full-size refrigerator-freezer the campaign bought used. A smaller Coke- and Barq-filled minifridge sits under a table that holds a toaster oven and microwave.
The big fridge is packed with treats - Bagel Bites, Eggo waffles, frozen bean-and-cheese burritos, tubs of hummus, meaty Hot Pockets, organic cider popsicles and pints of Ben and Jerry's. Locke grabs an opened box of meatless Boca chicken patties. "These are goood," she gushes.
The fridge also boasts plastic bins of carrot sticks and leftover kale stew. Several times a week, Burlington resident Janet Hicks delivers hot meals, such as falafels and tabouli or salmon casserole.
It's enough to put Sanders over the top - at least in the campaign food contest.