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Hardy Merriman clasps hands with his boss this summer.

PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF HARDY MERRIMAN

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Oberlin Student Helped Put Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Senate

By Betty Gabrielli

 

DECEMBER 21, 2000--Thanks to a Cole scholarship from the Oberlin Initiative in Electoral Politics, Hardy Merriman, a senior from Newton, Massachusetts, got an inside look at politics this summer, when he was an advance planner for Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign for the New York U.S. Senate seat.

Merriman also helped get out the vote at Rodham Clinton's New York City headquarters during election week.

"My impression was that there was a feeling of confidence but absolutely no presumption that we were going to win," he says.

Before his immersion in Rodham Clinton's campaign, the most political role the politics major had played on campus was as a member of the environmentally focused Oberlin Design Initiative, which planned the Lewis Center for Environmental Studies.

Merriman got his first real taste of political life as an intern in an environmental economic think tank on Capital Hill during summer 1999, and then as an aide in the press office of Senator John Kerry, Democrat from Massachusetts, during last Winter Term. But nothing, he says, compares to this year's experience.

"Being on her schedule for two months was huge," he says. "I learned how absolutely exhausting campaigning is. If you are going to do it, you have to love it, because it will rule your life."

Twenty-hour days were usual for Merriman, and his always-charged cell phone was his constant companion. His job was to arrange each day's schedule at an event site--such as a meeting of the Niagara County Democrats with the candidate at a local hotel--and make sure everything went smoothly.

"As an advance planner you have to be on top of everything so that every appearance of the candidate is a win-win-win situation, The advance person represents the campaign and mediates the interests of all those involved so that everyone--candidate, media, secret service, political groups, service staff--is happy with the outcome."

Working within extremely tight time constraints, Merriman had to schedule each campaign day so that the candidate achieved her political objectives; the media representatives made their deadlines; the political groups were able to focus on their concerns; the secret service could maintain security; the event sites functioned normally; and all parties had their public-relations needs met.

At the meeting with the Niagara County Democrats at a local hotel, for example, Merriman ensured Hillary was accessible enough to shake hands with visiting dignitaries, but not so available that she alarmed the Secret Service. To solve that problem he had the hotel cordon off a safe area with stanchions and rope. Since the barriers were in short supply, he had to persuade the hotel staff to rent or borrow them.

A crucial part of Merriman's job was to conduct daily briefings with Rodham Clinton on how the schedule was to unfold.

"She's amazing," he says. "Such a quick study. She never once asked me to repeat myself."

Observing how the candidate responded to the tactics of her opposition was enormously illuminating, Merriman says.

"What do you do when your opponent takes statements out of context or exaggerates or stretches the truth; how do you respond to tactics like that? I learned by watching how she did it: by directly confronting at times, through counter attack, or by letting them slide.

"What is really difficult is that a candidate is constantly under observation. When your opponent is going after you, you have to find a way, in a five-second sound bite, to convey to voters who you really are. Crafting a truthful image and selling it to the public is damned hard!"

After graduation Merriman plans to do some teaching and go on to law school with an emphasis on environmental, intellectual, or immigration law--or maybe on all three--with an eye on running for public office. He is also considering returning to work in the Senate for more experience and then running for office in New York or Massachusetts with a focus on the environment.

"The environment is so inextricably linked to our economic and educational systems and is the way to bring them all together," says Merriman. "Working on those things would have a tremendous impact."

 

 

 

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