Life and politics from the Sunshine State's best city

Without job, but workin’ the campaign trail

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The New York Times has a story I’m surprised Alex Pickett hasn’t picked up on: Candidates for city office usually scrape by with traditional sorts of volunteers: college students, retirees, the occasional neighborhood activist.

But this year, a different crowd is landing on their doorsteps: bankers, lawyers, accountants, real estate brokers and other highly credentialed professionals, all of whom have been laid off. They are flooding the offices of even the most obscure campaigns, looking for purpose and fighting off the despondency and isolation that come with being unemployed.

“I was getting into kind of a depression, so to be a volunteer for Eduardo is like a medicine for me,” said Maria Guillen of Queens, who lost her $100,000-a-year job as a loan officer in December and is volunteering for the City Council candidate Eduardo Giraldo.

“The contact with other people, the chance to do something different, the learning experience — it can all help you out with your emotions,” she said.

Candidates and campaign managers are amazed at the talented new arrivals — and the intensity and hours they are willing to put in. And while they are cheering for their unemployed helpers to find jobs, they say they would feel a bit bereft without them.

“I’ve been working on campaigns in the city since the ’80s, and the number of full-time volunteers who have the ability to help because they are unemployed — I’ve never seen it at this level before,” said the City Council speaker, Christine C. Quinn, who is running for a third term against two challengers.

“These are folks who come from all walks of life and are all different ages and are incredibly well educated, well trained, successful,” she said. “These are folks who are there from the first thing in the morning until late at night, as opposed to before, when you’d get these folks after work.”

The work is often mundane: Investment research analysts are now making cold calls to voters, and headhunters are handing out leaflets at subway stations and supermarkets.

But the experience, coming at a time of crisis in their lives, has been surprisingly powerful for many of them. Volunteering, they say, restores some of what they lost along with their jobs: a place to go every day, a reason to put on a clean suit, people to work beside, a sense of purpose.

And for some of the jobless, the experience has triggered a profound reassessment.

Yukyong Choi, 36, a former litigator who has not worked in a year, is now an unpaid volunteer for P.J. Kim, a City Council candidate in Lower Manhattan.

“One thing that I’ve discovered through this process is I don’t really want to go back to that life,” Mr. Choi said. “That was a life filled with 18-hour days, and having to work with people you may not enjoy. It’s not the money anymore; I want to do things that will have a real effect on people’s lives, as opposed to just trying to get a company out of a situation.”

Charles Costanzo used to be a commercial litigator in Manhattan. But after his firm merged with another one late last year, he found himself out of a job — with a newborn daughter.

He was intrigued by Brad Lander, a community organizer in Brooklyn who is running for City Council. So he volunteered. He has offered legal advice, called supporters, canvassed neighborhoods, trained volunteers. He now hopes to work in the nonprofit field.

“There was a time of being kind of ashamed and humiliated,” he said. “There was a time of, ‘I’m never getting a job, what next?’ And I would look at the crib, and saying, ‘Oh my God,’ and going through our savings as opposed to putting money away for college.

“But it’s an odd blessing. I love the campaign. My wife says that when I come home from canvassing, from volunteering, I’m always in a good mood.”

Employment counselors say it is easy for the newly jobless to get sucked into a cycle of denial, anger and depression, their days consumed by television and unproductive Internet searches. National surveys indicate that volunteerism during this recession has declined over all. But political campaigns, with their intensity, energy and obvious short-term goals, may be going against that trend.

“If you’re working to get someone elected, it’s always good to be around people who are positive and think the way you think,” said Michael C. Lazarchick, a past president of the National Employment Counseling Association, who runs a counseling center in Pleasantville, N.J.

Ms. Guillen said that she has bonded with other unemployed professionals who are regular volunteers for Mr. Giraldo’s Council bid. In Ms. Quinn’s headquarters, everyone seems to be living vicariously through the job struggles of Alexander Meadows, a 32-year-old pharmaceutical salesman.

“It’s almost like I’ve been accepted as part of the family,” Mr. Meadows said. “It’s very inspiring, especially when you find out that the interviews don’t go your way.”

He is so energized by the campaign that his grooming has improved. “You shave, you wear the slacks and the shoes, no sandals, and it makes you feel like you’re part of something, and that keeps you inspired,” he said. “It makes it that much easier to want to get out of bed.”

Sometimes, there are echoes of another life.

On Thursday night, Mr. Kim, a 30-year-old Princeton and Harvard graduate who has worked as both a management consultant and an executive for a nonprofit group, and several unemployed volunteers fanned out across Wall Street, handing out literature about his campaign.

One of the volunteers was Kwadwo Acheampong, a 25-year-old native of the South Bronx who graduated from Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., and Duke University before landing a job as an equities analyst at Goldman Sachs. He lost his job this summer and moved back in with his family.

While handing out the literature, he approached some clean-cut young men to tell them why they should vote for Mr. Kim. Then both he and they did double takes: They were former colleagues from Goldman Sachs.

“After you get past the split second of, ‘Hey, the last time I saw you, you were in corporate America, and now you’re doing politics?’ it’s O.K., because at least I’m doing something valuable,” he said. “But I never thought I’d be here.”

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including,,, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.

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