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The Ride of a Lifetime

by joan lukey '74

Lukey illustration

(Illustration by Richard A. Goldberg)

An alumna who worked for John Kerry ’76 reflects on the ups and downs of his presidential campaign.

When I was a little girl, I had a love/hate relationship with roller coasters. The anticipation on the way up made my heart pound in exhilaration. But each time the downhill plummet began, I couldn’t imagine why I was there.

Roller coasters have a lot in common with presidential campaigns.

I’ve long admired Senator John Kerry’s devotion to public service, dating back to when we first met at BC Law. So when he decided to run for president, I wanted to help.

Thirty years of private practice as a trial lawyer really hadn’t equipped me to do anything on the policy side, or in the field. So I was slated into finance (a polite euphemism for fundraising). I still vividly remember the get-acquainted meeting for those who were to be core finance leadership: November 2002, twelve people in a private dining room in Manhattan. The press was already touting John as the frontrunner. As the only woman, surrounded by men who knew a lot more about electing a president than I did, I was definitely at a personal apex on the roller coaster ride.

But every zenith has its nadir, and a few months later, we hit it. By the summer of 2003, we were slipping badly in the polls; by autumn, most pundits considered us moribund. Any money we were able to raise was a testament to the political maxim that donors give because of the person who asks, not because of the candidate who receives.

Whatever the rest of us were thinking, our indefatigable senator had not abandoned the fight. Perhaps Ted Koppel should be credited for lighting a fire by asking John on Nightline why he didn’t drop out of the race, given that Howard Dean was obviously going to be the Democratic Party’s nominee. John, justifiably irritated, shot back that not a single vote had yet been cast. He wasn’t going anywhere until the voters had an opportunity to speak.

And, speak they did: In Iowa, John won a decisive victory in the caucuses, after which Dean, his chief rival, imploded. The really interesting thing was that, for several days before the caucuses, John knew he was going to win, while the rest of us were still crossing our fingers. By March 2, the Democrats had selected their candidate. Fundraising became like taking candy from a baby (well, not quite, but almost).

The Kerry for President finance effort concluded when John accepted post-convention federal funds, and the focus then shifted to the Democratic National Committee’s presidential fundraising vehicle, Kerry-Edwards Victory ’04. That effort was headquartered in Washington, DC, so in September this Bostonian became a Monday-through-Friday Washingtonian.

I was working the equivalent of two fulltime jobs: seven hours at the K-E Victory Headquarters, sandwiched between three hours every morning and a few more most nights at my firm’s DC office. But calling donors from a 202 area code was a fundraising aphrodisiac, and I raised more money than I ever imagined I could.

Back in Boston on election day, the exit polls indicated that all the pain was worthwhile. Talk about a roller coaster. In some ways, those polls were the cruelest blow.

That night will always be an unbearably painful memory. It is hard to say when the realization hit that the actual numbers were not in accord with the exit polls. Like moths to a flame, we were inexorably drawn to the big-screen televisions as the results trickled, and then poured, in. The impossible, the unthinkable, was happening.

By first light, I felt as if I were in mourning, and that embarrassed me because a political loss should not feel like a death.

Our candidate had given his all. Thousands of us had worked ourselves to the point of exhaustion. But, we had come up short. Fleetingly, I wondered why I had taken so much time out of my own life, and whether I would ever do anything like that again.

But I already knew the answer. From the beginning to the end, John Kerry remained the committed, compassionate visionary I’ve known for the last thirty years. A campaign is a wild ride with an uncertain ending. Daring to take that ride had only made him stronger.

So, if he asked me, I absolutely would.

Joan Lukey is a partner at Wilmer, Cutler, Pickering, Hale & Dorr LLP in Boston.