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Published in Print: October 1, 2004, as The Unsinkable Stu Starky

The Unsinkable Stu Starky

The Arizona Teacher Running for John McCain's Senate Seat is Used to Fighting Losing Battles—and Sometimes Even Winning.

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It’s afternoon, a few days before the Fourth of July, and a tall man in an aquamarine button-down shirt is shimmering like a mirage in the heat of a sun-stunned Phoenix parking lot. It’s 106 degrees in the shade, but that’s not where he is. He’s standing on a frying-pan-hot patch of concrete near a large campaign sign bearing his name and the slogan "Education Counts," trying to hand leaflets to people in a hurry to get from the air conditioning of their cars to the air conditioning of the supermarket behind him.

Arizona educator Stu Starky.
The depth of his school's needs prompted Starky to think big. "Health coverage for my kids ... isn't going to happen with me on the school board. It's going to happen with me in the Senate.
—Geoff Reed

"Hello, ma’am, how’re you?" the man says with a smile. He has more gray hair than a 47-year-old should and tiny corners of stubble where he’s rushed through a shave. "I’m Stu Starky, running for United States Senate." His words tumble out, the heavy thumb of his native Long Island accent pressing down on the vowels. The gray-haired woman heading for the glass doors stops and listens to Starky’s rapid-fire pitch for about 20 seconds until he mentions he’s a Democrat. Startled, she squints up into his suntanned, smile-creased visage, makes a face like she’s just bitten into a lemon, and stalks off.

"Hi, sir, I’m Stu Starky," he says with the same smile to a portly man with a beard. "I’m a teacher running for United States Senate." The man pauses. "Who’re you running against?" he asks curiously. When he hears the name "John McCain," he laughs and walks away, shaking his head. It takes about 15 minutes for Starky, who teaches 8th grade math, to finally corral someone who might actually vote for him—a stubby man in shorts and a T-shirt who, it turns out, is a retired 8th grade science teacher. But the man says, "Democrats don’t represent me. Democrats represent the lesbians, the politically correct liberals." Still, Starky’s smiling as if he’s just won the man’s vote. Asking conversationally where he worked, Starky segues into a lament about how poorly funded Arizona’s schools are and how much they need an advocate in Washington. Dozens of more-likely converts stream in and out of the store behind him. But Starky’s big eyes are focused on the one man who’s never going to vote for him—this obviously stalwart conservative who’s by now groping for some other way to tell the candidate that he’s wasting his time.

Starky spends five more minutes detailing the rest of his education-heavy platform—smaller classes, more tutoring, incentive pay, and more training for teachers—before asking with a smile, "I still don’t have your vote?"

"Not as a Democrat. I’m a Republican," the man says emphatically, folding his arms. "It’s like...a black guy joining the Ku Klux Klan."

If ever there were a lost cause, this surely would be it. But still Starky persists. "Vote for me anyway," he says easily. The man pauses, blinking behind his glasses and looking into Starky’s sweating face for a long moment, and something happens. "I might," he says finally, sounding surprised to be saying these words. "I just might." Never mind that he spindles Starky’s flier on his way into the store and drops it into a trash can—Starky is nearly ecstatic. He turns to the shady spot from where I’ve been watching the exchange, his face glowing. "We went from an absolute no to a definite maybe," he says without irony. "That’s progress!"

Progress of the inchmeal sort is what Stuart Starky is accustomed to making in his campaign to upset Senator John McCain, a nationally beloved political juggernaut with near-deity status in his home state. To be blunt, there’s just no way an unknown schoolteacher could beat the famous Vietnam War POW who in 2000 almost scooped the Republican presidential nomination from George W. Bush. McCain has international name recognition, more than $1 million in his campaign war chest, and consistently high voter-approval numbers. Starky had to campaign flat-out just to collect enough signatures to get on the ballot, winning the Democratic nomination because no one else was willing to run. Unless you’ve taken 8th grade math within the past four years at his school in Phoenix, you’ve probably never even heard his name.

But in a way, he’s also the ideal candidate. To even be in this race, you have to have the optimism of a schoolteacher trying to teach a kaleidoscope of highly transient, desperately poor immigrant kids, some of whom can’t read a word of English or tell an odd number from an even one. Still, running for Senate is no vanity project for Starky, and he’s not looking to martyr himself for his issues. Despite the enormous odds against him, Starky is in this race for the same reason he walks confidently into his classroom every day: to win.


C.O. Greenfield School is a low-slung, windowless complex backed up to a range of rocky hills. As you approach the school, located in the dusty southern extremity of the city’s street grid, billboards advertise discount bankruptcy filings and bail bondsmen. On an already broiling morning, the only signs of life in the area are a couple of junk sellers squatting in weedy, vacant lots.Indeed, as Starky walks througha steel double gate to meet me in front of the bunkerlike building, he makes no bones about the school’s deficiencies—they’re a big part of why he’s running.

The school has received an "underperforming" rating—the state’s lowest—two years in a row now. Greenfield has also failed to make adequate yearly progress according to the mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act for three years, as long as the law has existed. Violence at the school has been alarmingly common. Teachers’ cars have been shot up and set on fire in the parking lot. The school next door was torched and partially burned down this past fall, and gangs operate freely in the area. "We have drive-bys every once in a while," Starky says, gesturing at the school’s front wall, where aside from the school’s name, there’s nothing to shoot at—just steel doors and concrete painted sky blue. Unlocking a door, Starky ushers us inside the building where he’s taught full time for the past three years. The school’s mostly deserted cinder-block-and-linoleum halls give his voice an eerie echo. It’s cool in here—that’s the most you can say for it.

If ever there were a lost cause, this surely would be it. But still Starky persists.

Starting with the library—a large but empty-feeling room that Starky says had only one 8th grade book until this year—he gives me a short tour. Still wondering why he’d want to run for Senate? Step right this way. There are computers, but only because Starky, who also volunteers as the school’s technology coordinator (there’s no money for an IT staff) managed to persuade local businesses to give him their older PCs as a tax write-off. For years, there was no money in the school’s budget for whiteboards, so the school scrounged some white modular-shower walls of the kind found in cheap motels and mounted them in classrooms instead. Until recently, there wasn’t even a clock in Starky’s room—just a clock-size hole in the wall. All of which may explain Greenfield’s extraordinarily high staff attrition rate. Seventy-four percent of the school’s teachers left in one recent year, and since spring 2002, the school has had four different assistant principals and four principals.

Ticking off a host of other plagues besieging the school, Starky’s thick, dark eyebrows shoot up and his pale blue eyes glow. Looking around at Greenfield’s prisonlike appearance, its armor-plated soda machine, and its decapitated ornamental fountain, he says, "I wouldn’t trade this for a million bucks." But in the same breath he adds, "Except my feeling is, think what I could do, doing it as a senator." The way he talks about the job, he almost makes being a senator sound like the ultimate teaching post: You get to decide what school supplies to buy—a gym, say, for Greenfield’s students to play in instead of the cafeteria. Or enough tutors to make sure non-English-speaking students understand word problems in math class. In this superteacher job Starky seems to be describing, you could help make sure that kids are assessed on what they learn rather than the other way around, or that every child is given shots and sees a doctor if he or she gets sick.

To be sure, Arizona has big education problems. It ranks second to last in education spending per student according to this year’s Education Week/Pew Charitable Trusts annual report card. Class sizes are large, and the Grand Canyon State’s teacher pay scale is well below the national average—31st among the 50 states and the District of Columbia in July’s annual report by the American Federation of Teachers. Indeed, teacher incentive pay, smaller classes, and more school law enforcement officers are key to Starky’s education platform. "My first goal in this campaign is to bring out the broken state of education in America," he says. "NCLB is not about helping kids; it is about destroying the public school system." Not that he’s against high standards—"you’ve got to focus on your academics and not say ‘22 percent on a test is fine,’" he explains—but he wants them across the board. "I want to make certain that when a kid goes to school," he says, "it’s as good no matter whether he lives in a rural community or Scottsdale, Arizona," an affluent community where he’ll campaign later this week.

But why run for the U.S. Senate? Why not a local office—say, a seat on the school board—where he’d have a better chance of winning and a more direct hand in school funding? "Health coverage for my kids in the classroom isn’t going to happen with me on the school board," he says. "It’s going to happen with me in the Senate." The answer echoes his reasons for staying at Greenfield: The longer the odds, the bigger the payoff.

Even if he wins, though, it’s hard to see how being a hundredth of half the nation’s legislative branch of government could help Starky help Greenfield directly. But as we continue our tour outside, he interrupts himself to wave at a blue pickup pulling up to the school. "That’s our juvenile probation officer," Starky says. "His job’s being cut next year." Officer Scotty Rister greets Starky warmly, but with a note of sadness. As he chats with Rister, the connection between federal and local schoolpolicy that Starky’s been talking about comes into focus. Starky gives Rister, who’s been assigned to the school for five years, much of the credit for bringing down Greenfield’s high rate of assaults. But the federal grant that enabled the court system to send him here has run out, and so far, the school hasn’t been able to find other funds to cover his $43,000-a-year salary. "The cost of one kid a year incarcerated," Starky comments, rolling his eyes before answering his trilling cell phone and walking a few paces away, deep inconversation.

Juan Gallardo, one of the school’s assistant principals, walks up, and he and Rister get to talking about whether Starky has a ghost of a chance in the Senate race. "Not realistically," Gallardo says. "But it would be great. He has so much passion and energy. He cares." Rister makes it clear Starky has his vote, too, but he shakes his head slowly as he watches the teacher talk on the phone. "It’s all about the money. Guys like this can’t win."


"Chances of Stuart Starky winning for Senate? Zero," agrees Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes U.S. Senate races for the Cook Political Report, an authoritatively exhaustive, nonpartisan publication in Washington, D.C., that lists Arizona in the "solid Republican" category. She compares Starky’s uphill battle to "climbing Kilimanjaro without oxygen." Roll Call, a widely read newspaper covering Capitol Hill, calls Starky the "Democratic sacrificial lamb." Not even his own party gives him much of a shot. "Stuart is running against an incredibly popular incumbent," says Sarah Rosen, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Democratic Party. "We don’t expect [McCain] to win any less than 60 to 70 percent of the vote." When Kerry made a campaign swing through Arizona in August, Starky wasn’t invited to speak or stand on the stage with him. "On the record, we are supporting him as much as we can," Rosen says, sighing. "We appreciate Stuart Starky running. ... That’s the best I can say."

It’s late morning, and the mercury is well on its way to scaling today’s forecast high of 108 degrees. We’re en route to the day’s first campaign stop, but first we have to pick up Starky’s daughters—8-year-old Jaclyn and 11-year-old Alexa—and get fruit smoothies. "Balance, balance, balance," Starky says, apropos of juggling his equally frenetic school, political, and family lives. His wife, Cheryl, works full time as a supervisor of probation officers, so after school, it’s his responsibility to keep an eye on the girls. We pull up in front of Starky’s house, a modest but comfortable ranch-style dwelling north of downtown and right across from his kids’ public school. As we wait for them to get ready, he clears some space on the dining table amid stacks of campaign fliers and sifts through the day’s mail. He picks up an envelope and opens it.

"These guys want me to go to their thing," he says. "John McCain’ll turn it down....McCain’s turning down every forum for debate....I say, ‘Let’s go out to every county seat, every courthouse.’

"He hates that—it’s driving him nuts," he adds, grinning. "He keeps saying, ‘We have no comment on the Starky campaign.’"

In fact, McCain wouldn’t even say that much. Although he will later agree to debate Starky in October, he avoids mentioning his opponent’s name in the press, and he has not replied to Teacher Magazine’s request for an interview for this story.

Stu Starky
Despite attending parades and other community events almost daily, Starky has yet to miss a single class.
—Geoff Reed

An hour later, Starky is driving toward a gigantic mushroom cloud of smoke on the horizon. It’s coming from the Willow wildfire, at this time a 65,000-acre blaze only four miles from the little town of Payson in rural Gila County—today’s campaign destination. He’s talking nonstop about politics and education and belief in one’s self, switching back and forth with an ease that bespeaks a conviction that they’re three indivisible parts of a whole. Pausing only to sip from his huge strawberry smoothie, he scoffs at the negativism that he says fences people into easy assumptions. Take the assumption, for example, that McCain is unbeatable. "Look at the Lakers. Look at Smarty Jones," he says, referring to this year’s heavily favored NBA championship losers and the Triple Crown contender who lost the Belmont Stakes to a 36-to-1 unknown long shot. "Look at Winston Churchill. At the end of World War II, [he] was incredibly popular. [Two] months later, he was voted out of office." The uphill grade steepens, and Starky sets his smoothie down, downshifting as his subcompact struggles to climb. A large black pickup with a "Bush-Cheney 2004" bumper sticker blows by in the fast lane.

As we approach Payson, the air darkens. Live embers touch down on Starky’s cracked windshield. "This is an easy one," he says, referring to the 170 miles that today’s campaigning will put on his year-and-a-half-old Kia, which already has 43,000 miles on it. Even by the standards of full-tilt campaigning, it seems a little extreme, but that’s the way to do it if you have $1,500 in your coffers and you’re running a statewide campaign from your den. There are no paid staff, no billboards, no radio ads, no TV. "We don’t owe anyone anything," he says.

But even Starky knows that irrepressible optimism will only take his efforts so far. He’s promised his wife he won’t dip into his own salary to fund any publicity—not that his meager teacher’s paycheck would be much more than a drop in his nearly empty bucket. "I need a quarter of a million [dollars] to campaign even semi-effectively," he admits. He’s pulled in just twoendorsements so far—a small union of railwayworkers and a political action committee thatendorsed Carol Moseley Braun’s aborted presidential campaign this year. But he’s hopinghis up-close-and-personal approach will sway other groups to champion his cause. "I am one of the better retail politicians," he says. "The problem is, you can’t see enough people."

As if to illustrate, he pulls into a Circle K gas station just outside town and, as the tank’s filling up, introduces himself to the startled clerk behind the counter inside. "Has John McCain ever been in your gas station here? Well, his challenger has." Ten minutes later, he leaves her with a smile, a handshake, and one of the 16-page campaign booklets he hopes to give to 250,000 Arizonans—if he can find the money to get them printed. "I think I’m ahead one-nothing in Payson," he says, grinning as he gets back into the car.

He’s joking, of course. Like most of Arizona, Gila County is overwhelmingly Republican—McCain outpolled his nearest competitor nearly2-to-1 here the last time he was up for reelection. But Starky’s brief stop was probably the first time any Democrat running for any statewide office has stopped in Payson, a town of fewer than 10,000 souls. "Democrats have never really gone out and really campaigned this extensively against this guy because they don’t want to lose by 40 points," Starky says. "But it’s like I tell my students—it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: If you come to school thinking you’re dumb, you leave that day dumb. You have to break this mentality."


"Hey, ’djou do your math?"

"Hey, is your homework done?"

"Hey, you’re gonna be ready for high school next year, right?"

"You know better than that—c’mon, you’re the smartest one in the class."

Notwithstanding his 17-hour day yesterday, Starky’s back at school early this morning,buttonholing kids at summer school, quizzing one about whether he has the grades to make thebasketball team this year, another whether her sister’s feeling any better. Despite the frenetic pace of his campaign—at least one event perday for each of the past 60 days—he says he has yet to miss a day of school. "My rule going into this is that I won’t miss a class," he says. "I’m a teacher first—and if I win, I’m a senator first."He smiles. "They’re going to have to get a sub for six years."

From a distance, his one-on-ones with the kids are a near-replica of last night’s retail-level campaigning. It’s hard to keep track of where the teacher ends and the candidate picks up; both seem nearly indistinguishable from Starky in his previous incarnation as a salesman. And maybe that’s the point: It’s all teaching, it’s all politicking, it’s all selling, it’s all good.

It’s also no stretch to picture him selling ladies’ shoes at Dillard’s, a national department store, which Starky did for a couple of years after he moved to Arizona a decade ago from California, where he sold sports merchandise. Before that, he did business in Chicago and worked in textilesin Philadelphia. After his Dillard’s days, he co-founded a minor-league women’s soccer team, which he sold in the late 1990s.

"Suppose Kerry wins Arizona by 1 percent. You don’t think I had a play in that? There’s a lot of great reasons to go out and do things besides the final score."
Stu Starky
Arizona educator and Senate hopeful.

Around the same time, he made his first stab at statewide politics, taking on Congressman Bob Stump, a World War II veteran and powerful Arizona icon. Despite the incumbent’s unbeaten record and seniority—Stump spent 40 years in elected office before his death in 2003—Starky came away with a respectable third of the popular vote. He was less successful in his write-in campaign to win Arizona’s other U.S. Senate seat in 2000, losing handily to Republican Jon Kyl. Starky also lost his bid for a state Senate seat in 2002 and, earlier, for a spot on Phoenix’s Osborn School District governing board in 1996.

Watching him walk into the cafeteria, you have to wonder whether all of Starky’s experience running for office has locked him into permanent campaign mode or whether he was always this way. After joking with the food-service staff about the idea of a burger without meat, he puts a tofu patty and bun on his tray and steers toward a table where a smattering of kids sit scarfing their food. "I always eat lunch in the cafeteria," he says, preferring the company of his current constituents to the privacy of the teachers’ lounge. "That way, you’re building a relationship with a whole lot of kids," he says.

As in his political campaign, Starky focuses on the small gains his students have won. In 8th grade math, the level he teaches, Greenfield students have performed abysmally in Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards testing—only 2 percent met or exceeded state standards in 2003-04. On the other hand, that’s 200 percent better than zero—the number Starky started with when he began teaching full time in 2000-01. Likewise, Greenfield’s 8th grade math scores on the Stanford 9 test this past year were in the 44th percentile—still below the national average, but well above the 25th percentile level reported in 2001. "Kids are being told they’re dumb every day," he says. "Tell a kid he’s smart and challenge him, and he’ll do it. He’ll believe it can be done."


About 9:30 that night, I pull up to the address where Starky is supposed to speak at a Kerry house party, but it seems highly unlikely this is the right place. For starters, it’s in Scottsdale—a wealthy, more-conservative-than-thou city northeast of Phoenix. The hushed neighborhood is chockablock with generously sized ranch-style affairs tastefully landscaped with carefully groomed cactuses. Any one of them could easily accommodate two or three of the stucco homes where Greenfield’s students live. But there are a lot more economy cars parked on the street than you’d expect in such an enclave. The door is open, and from the sound of things—a guitar tuning and the pitched babble of voices—the party’s in the backyard.

Amid the 50-odd bodies in short sleeves, there are the usual accouterments of young peoplepartying—amplified feedback, bummed cigarettes, and beer in plastic cups. What I don’t immediately see is anything to indicate it’s a Democratic event. Then I spot the recycling bin for beer cups, and I know I’m in the right place.

The band is still tuning. Young women in halter tops share cigarettes, dangling their legs over the edge of the drained pool. As I drift through the crowd of 20-somethings, I half-expect Starky not to show. After all, he’s been teaching all morning, then campaigning all day out in the scorching heat. But then I see his gray head. He’s listening to a college-age-looking guy with a red polo shirt, a John Kerry button, and a yellow plastic cup of beer introduce him to a cluster of three young men in shorts and sandals. "Stu Starky is known as the true-blue Democrat," he’s saying. "He’s the guy with the balls to do it." The band—a gang of four post-adolescents in black—finally crashes into motion, ripping into a rock song at top volume so that only fragments of the conversation between Starky and the polo-shirted kid—Mike Moffo, the field director for Kerry’s Arizona coordinated campaign—can be heard.

The mystery of how a screamingly loud backyard get-out-the-vote party for Kerry found itself in this Republican redoubt is solved after I’m introduced to Paul Wade, a shaggy-haired 23-year-old Mexican American in shorts, who lives here. It turns out that Wade sings and plays guitar in the band up next and that his dad is a Democrat. Wade is also an educational assistant at Pan-American Elementary Charter School in Phoenix. He takes a slug of the Bud Light in his cup. "He has balls," he says of Starky. It seems to be the theme of the evening.

When the band takes a break, Moffo gets on a raised platform to tell the crowd about the topof the Democratic ticket. But the young man’s moderate earnestness doesn’t seem to reach the partygoers at the periphery of the expansiveyard, where minglers are still talking. From the corner by the fence, you can hear the metallic thunk-thunk-thunk of someone trying to pump one last swig from a beer keg that’s already tapped out. The only line that gets a real rise from the crowd is when Moffo says "Fuck Bush!"

As Moffo introduces Starky, I hear what sound like boos. Except they’re not—a few of the attendees are shouting "STU! STU!" like he’s still the star basketball player he was in high school. When Starky takes the mike off the stand, he grins and points at Moffo. "I liked what that guy just said," he remarks. "What was it again?" A scattering of kids repeat the imprecation. "What? Hey, you’ve got a Republican next door—I don’t think he heard you!" The crowd shouts the line this time, liking the sound of the words in their mouths. Though Starky never speaks the line—"I’m a Senate guy, so I can’t say that," he tells them with a smile—he cues it several times during his five-minute speech as a way to rearouse their attention when it might be flagging. Butit never really does. These kids may be olderthan his classroom audiences, but Starky’s aim and approach are the same: Do what it takes to get people to pay attention.

By the end of his short speech, he has the crowd on its feet whooping, cheering, clapping, and loudly pledging to go out and sign up their peers to register as Democrats and vote for Kerry. Starky mentions Kerry’s candidacy many more times than his own, but somehow, in the space of five minutes, the party has become a Stu Starky rally. The yells of "STU! STU!" are even louder as he winds up his speech. "Now go get a beer," he says, to wild applause. As he steps down from the platform, he’s mobbed by young men and women hurrying to shake his hand, slap his back, or give him a hug. In the crowd is Aaron Stratton, a young-looking 27-year-old Arizona State University student wearing a shirt silk-screened with a picture of outer space. "God, he might win," he says, sounding shocked at the idea. Then he snaps out of it. "I mean, he’s not going to win," he said. "Stu’s a hell of a guy, but John McCain—I mean, he’s fucking John McCain."


What kind of parade starts at 9 a.m.? Never mind that—what kind of Fourth of July parade takes place on the third of July? About 100 miles north of Phoenix, tucked into the shrub-studded brown hills, Prescott likes to get its parade, which draws thousands of potential voters from all over the region, out of the way early. Starky’s already been here for hours, though, pouring coffee, flipping flapjacks, and pressing the flesh at the annual pre-parade pancake feed. Smokey Bear is here, sweltering in his fur. So are the usual contingents of Shriners and kids with streamers in their bike spokes dodging fresh piles of horse manure. But there’s no doubt which way the political wind blows. There’s the platoon of Civil War reenactors in full Confederate uniforms, for example, and the giant bus with “Stop Abortion” in giant letters on the side.

Well ahead of the Democrats, the GOP is represented by a hay-bale flatbed, pulled by a tractor with a large color blowup of George W. Bush’s face on its grille. But there are no McCain signs anywhere. This county has gone for McCain by big margins in past elections, so why bother? Starky concedes this isn’t exactly Kerry Country, but, high on iced tea and a seemingly infinite series of Diet Cokes, he’s hobnobbing at high revs with fellow travelers—men and women with the names of local Democratic candidates bumper-stickered to their hats and wearing Kerry buttons—as they wait for the parade to start.

Stu Starky.
It took Starky 10 minutes to win over this retired teacher, who's also a lifelong Republican. "That's progress!" the candidate says.
—Geoff Reed

Still, Starky hasn’t come all this way to preach to the converted, and even in this small enclaveof Democratic souls, Starky doesn’t have a lockon all the votes. Take Meg Hendrick, a 50-ish woman wearing a blue T-shirt reading "liberal" and carrying a "Kerry for President" sign. She retired from teaching after 35 years but found she couldn’t afford health insurance, so she’s back in the classroom. If anyone would seem a natural Starky voter, it would be her. "I’m a McCain supporter," she says. This is the weight and measure of Starky’s challenge. If he can’t get a proudly Democratic, disadvantaged veteran teacher to vote for him, what chance does he have?

It’s 10:05 when organizers finally give Starky and his Kerry for President neighbors the green light to march. The spectators in beach and camp chairs lining the curbs treat them with a mix of mild derision and confusion. The big Kerry signs draw scattered boos, thumbs-down gestures, and the occasional "Kerry sucks!" As Starky parades past after the Kerry crowd, his signs generate mostly befuddled silence: Stu who? For what office? The placards don’t say.

After crossing the finish line, Starky concedes that his two medium-size signs were probably overlooked amid the giant floats, blaring bands, and flashing cheerleaders’ legs. Not even the candy he handed out seemed to buy much goodwill. "I think we made real headway with the 6-year-old swingvoters," he says dryly. But it was still worthwhile as Starky reckons it, and as long as you’re in the hunt, you might as well hunt up a silver lining. "I shook maybe 30 hands," he says. "That’s progress."


But small-change progress and optimism alone won’t buy his ticket to Washington, D.C., and in whatever part of himself Starky sequesters that reality, he knows it. "I tell people when I’m out campaigning that if the worst thing that happens is that the day after the election, I’m back at school, how bad is my life?" he says. "I enjoy the politics, but I love the kids."

Which again raises the original question: Why run at all? Starky says that right after he made the ballot, his wife wondered the same thing. "She said, ‘You know, you’re going to get creamed,’" Starky recalls. "I said, ‘It all depends on how you keep score, hon. Why did I become a teacher? You don’t save every kid, but when you save one, isn’t that a great thing?’ I said, ‘Suppose Kerry wins Arizona by 1 percent. You don’t think I had a play in that? There’s a lot of great reasons to go out and do things besides the final score.’"

One percent. One kid. One vote. Starky recalls the hot afternoon he spent handing out campaign pamphlets in the supermarket parking lot two days ago—and what happened with the staunchly Republican retired teacher whom he’d spent 10 minutes converting from an absolute no to a definite maybe. At the time, it seemed like he’d squandered precious campaign time cajoling and arguing with someone who would never vote for him.

But five minutes after he’d thrown away Starky’s campaign pamphlet, the man came out of the store pushing a shopping cart loaded with tonic water and headed right for the candidate. "You know what? I’ve been thinking," the man said. "I’m going to vote for you." That kind of turnaround makes you think Starky might just pull it off, that just this once, the law of averages might hold itself in abeyance. Though you know it isn’t true—that it can’t possibly be true—you find yourself thinking, Hey, maybe this guy can win. However the math comes out on election day, Starky says with a smile, "You can’t come up to me on November 2 and tell me that I lost. You just have to measure it the right way."

Vol. 16, Issue 2, Pages 26-31

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