By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 28, 2008
CHAPPAQUA, N.Y. -- People who live in this small town tucked into the hills above New York City adhere to an unofficial code of conduct: When you drive past the Dutch colonial on Old House Lane, don't rubberneck, slow down or pull over to the side of the road. Don't gawk at the Secret Service officers sipping coffee downtown. Don't ask Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton or former president Bill Clinton, your neighbors, for autographs.
"We don't look at it like we live in Clinton's backyard," said Chappaqua resident Marty Cohen, 53. "We look at it like she lives in ours."
Some places go out of their way to celebrate their hometown presidential candidates, but not Chappaqua. The 9,000 or so residents revel in their spacious houses and their easy commutes to Manhattan and their public high school that sends 99 percent of its graduates on to four-year colleges. They don't need Hillary Clinton.
Trouble is, the senator from New York needs them.
The state will hold its crucial presidential primary Feb. 5, and Clinton's campaign is counting on loyal constituents to deliver a resounding victory. Early polls indicate that Clinton leads Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) in New York by as much as 25 percentage points, but the Obama campaign is looking for targets of opportunity, and Clinton's home town may be one of them.
Some people are ambivalent about Clinton; others resent her for moving into the area in 1999 to establish New York residency before declaring her senatorial campaign six weeks later. After winning that election, Clinton has spent much of her time out of town.
Sensing a possible disconnect, a grass-roots organization of Obama volunteers has amplified its efforts here and in surrounding Westchester County, opening a local office and canvassing train stations. "With grass-roots and organizational support for Obama growing by the day," campaign spokeswoman Amy Brundage said, "our campaign in New York is strong going into February 5th."
Obama volunteers in Westchester believe they can overcome Clinton's advantages in New York by outworking her, which is why one night last week Ashley Craig said goodbye to her three children, told a babysitter how to warm chicken, carrots and peas in the oven, put on makeup and a pink ski jacket, and rushed out into the 18-degree cold.
Craig, a former Republican, had never volunteered for a candidate before this election. She saw Obama speak in New York with a few friends last year, studied his positions and decided that he could unite the country better than Clinton, whom Craig describes as a "good senator." On a whim, Craig called Obama's New York office late in October to see if it could use help.
Three months later, she leads an active team of more than 200 Westchester volunteers and sometimes stays up until 1 a.m. to answer hundreds of e-mails. "I've had to give up all the little things because everything is Obama now," Craig said. "Tennis, sleep, friends -- all that had to go for the cause."
On this night, Craig had arranged to meet a handful of other volunteers at a train station in Hastings-on-Hudson. She had already canvassed a dozen other train stations, targeting commuters, and repetition had made these outings routine. Craig grabbed a box of Obama informational brochures and bumper stickers from her trunk and walked to the center of the platform to join five other volunteers. They fanned out across the station each time a train arrived, one volunteer positioned in front of each possible exit, and handed Obama packets to any outstretched hand.
Between trains, the volunteers huddled together and traded tips on grass-roots campaigning. Marty Cohen, from Chappaqua, had asked his daughter to teach him about posting messages on Facebook. Craig had organized a 75-person rally the previous weekend. Beth Gersh-Nesic, an art history teacher from nearby Ardsley, sometimes sat at a local Starbucks with a stack of Obama brochures on the table in front of her.
"You pretend like you're waiting for a friend," Gersh-Nesic said. "Then every once in a while, somebody comes over and asks about Obama."
"Sounds warm, too," Cohen said. "That's one thing about what we're doing. You don't see any Clinton supporters out campaigning, going door to door in the cold. No one really cares that much. They think this state's wrapped up for her."
Running against a little-known Republican in her 2006 reelection campaign, Clinton won 67 percent of the vote -- 77 percent around Chappaqua -- and her staff has built an unrivaled infrastructure in the state. Volunteers make calls from 35 offices, and 1,700 designated female "ambassadors" host debate parties and run e-mail lists.
"We are gratified by the outpouring of support for Senator Clinton across New York," said Blake Zeff, a Clinton spokesman, "but we're taking nothing for granted and working hard for every vote."
There is work left to do in Clinton's home town, where some residents have held steadfast to their resentment since the Clintons paid $1.7 million for an 11-room house on a dead-end road nearly 8 1/2 years ago. At the very least, the couple's Secret Service caravan has interrupted the rhythms of a place already straddling a delicate balance: near enough to Manhattan but still, technically, a "hamlet" guarded by rolling hills and thick woods, with Quaker roots and an outdoor ice rink in front of the church downtown.
Some locals have criticized the Clintons, saying they selected Chappaqua not for its charms but for its political convenience in the heart of a wealthy county loaded with potential donors.
Bill Clinton eventually won over many of the couple's neighbors during his long, doctor-mandated walks through town after a 2004 heart surgery. He stopped in local restaurants and ordered takeout, or he idled on the two-block main drag, in front of the mom-and-pop pizza parlor or the spinning pole at the barber shop, and shook hands. He became one of them.
"Bill has been very much in evidence here," said Gray Williams, the town historian. "Everybody can tell you a story about Bill."
Those who have met Hillary Clinton also share fond memories: the afternoon in 2000 when she conducted six children in an impromptu backyard kazoo concert; the emotional speech she delivered in 2006 at the funeral for Maureen Tsuchiya, a beloved local activist for disabled rights. Residents cheer Clinton's appearance each year at the Memorial Day parade, and she often stays in town to swear in the local officials. But more often than not, she's working in Washington or campaigning elsewhere.
Even signs bearing her name sometimes disappear. Last week, on the same day that town officials gave permission for a small Obama rally in early February, someone removed a handful of "Clinton for President" signs posted near the center of town. Such signs are frowned upon on public property, an official explained, because Chappaqua refuses to designate a favorite.