A Nir-perfect campaign

How Barkat pushed for every vote, all the way to City Hall.

Barkat speaks to supporters 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
Barkat speaks to supporters 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Early on Tuesday morning, before casting his vote, Nir Barkat went to the Western Wall, prayed and left a note in one of the crevices. He refused to divulge its contents, saying "That's between me and someone else." The results at the end of the day proved that the "someone else" was in Barkat's corner. By the time that Barkat showed up to vote soon after 9 a.m. at the Marcus Sieff School in Beit Hakerem, there were more media people present than there had been earlier in the year to record the visits to Jerusalem of George W. Bush or Barack Obama. Friends, neighbors and other Beit Hakerem residents eager to ensure that Barkat would score a victory this time around, turned up in large numbers well before 9. Many were elderly, arriving in wheelchairs or supported by canes as they painfully but determinedly made their way to the entrance of the school. Although Barkat did his best to stick to a schedule throughout the day as he visited various district campaign headquarters throughout the city, it was impossible. People stopped him wherever he went, offering wishes for success, asking more about his policy, complaining about how ugly the city had become and how dirty it was and beseeching him to restore it to its former glory. He was polite and attentive to all of them and, to his credit, did not ask any of them to vote for him - but simply to vote. While Jerusalemites crowded around him everywhere, it was understandable that there were more on his home turf. Little girls who will not have voting rights for at least another decade pushed forward to shake his hand. A mentally challenged young man, who had temporarily managed to attach himself to the media and thus sneak into the converted classroom in which Barkat would vote, extolled his virtues, telling anyone who would listen that Barkat was the man who would save Jerusalem. Once inside the polling station, Barkat shook hands with everyone on duty, presented his ID card, was given a yellow envelope and a white envelope and disappeared into the polling booth. As he emerged with envelopes in hand, someone jokingly asked whether he had voted for Porush. It was a very long day for Barkat. He covered a tremendous amount of ground in a single day: Beit Hakerem, the Old City, Kiryat Menahem, Katamon, Pat, Bayit Vagan, the German Colony, Talpiot, Gilo, the Malha mall, Rehov Agrippas, French Hill, Pisgat Ze'ev, Har Hotzvim and the Hadar Mall. Some of the places were visited twice. He was frequently on the phone to check out what was happening where. In campaign headquarters, the situation changed radically throughout the day, especially after 6 p.m. when people were home from work and had time to vote. In each of the campaign headquarters there were sheets on the walls with grids marked in numbered green, yellow and white squares signifying voters. The green squares applied to people who had indicated their support for Barkat, the yellow ones were either undecided or in support of his rivals, and the white ones were people who had not yet been contacted. Volunteers acting as election monitors periodically marked off squares to keep track of voting progress. The campaign was run with the precision of a military exercise. Each group of volunteers had specific tasks. One was to notify people with mobility problems of those polling stations that were specifically geared to the disabled. Another was to telephone people and to persuade them to vote. Another was to keep track of what was happening in the street as volunteers stopped passersby and asked them whether they had voted. Still another was to organize transportation for people who were otherwise unable to get to a polling station. In the German Colony, where there are numerous English speakers, Tracy Amar, speaking in English and American-accented Hebrew, was in charge of an information booth next door to a minimarket. No one passed her without being asked whether he or she had voted. Upstairs in the campaign headquarters in what is usually a dance studio, most of the volunteers were Anglos. In each of the campaign headquarters, Barkat made a point of thanking everyone on both a group and an individual basis. He asked if they had any problems, and when they agonized over low voter turn-out, he assuaged their feelings by telling them that the situation would change in the evening. And, of course, he was right. One volunteer who had approached an Arab potential voter reported that he had complained that while there was literature in Hebrew, English, French and Russian, there was nothing in Arabic, and he found this to be discriminatory. Barkat apologized, conceding that the man was "absolutely correct." Although he kept his cool in the face of some worrisome reports, there were occasional signs of stress and tension on his face, especially when he received reports about efforts to sabotage his campaign. Hackers had penetrated his Web site so that it crashed for about an hour. Hate pamphlets had been distributed in mailboxes, and vicious anti-Barkat posters had been plastered in various neighborhoods. Someone posing as Tzipi Livni had telephoned an enormous number of residents saying that she would gladly welcome Barkat back to Kadima because he was ready to divide Jerusalem - which runs contrary to his policy. Many of the volunteers in the various campaign headquarters had also been subjected to harassment by people affiliated with rival candidates. If he was angry, Barkat didn't show it. His reaction was consistent. "This is not clean politics, this is bad culture." At the Hadar Mall, which was one of Barkat's last stops in the evening, he walked through the coffee shops shaking hands, while shoppers rushed forward to wish him luck. "We can't wait for you to become mayor," said one woman. "We pray that you'll succeed," said another. "Good luck from the bottom of my heart," said a third, while yet another woman said, "I've already voted and my husband is working on your behalf in Har Homa." Several people, men and women alike, while expressing support, also wanted to know if he would lower rates and taxes, which they said were exorbitant considering all the inconveniences to which they had been subjected. A young man asked him whether he would increase the arts and culture budget and was pleased to hear that not only would Barkat do that but he would also seek ways to help young artists to establish businesses through which to sell their art. When he was asked by a reporter how many times he'd said "Thank you," the reply was, "As many as necessary." Flocking late at night from all over the city to campaign headquarters in the Chen Hotel in Bayit Vagan, Barkat's supporters were delirious with joy, bursting into song when the pre-dawn count made it clear that Barkat was Jerusalem's new mayor. They became ecstatic when, at almost 4 a.m., Barkat showed up to make his victory speech and almost smothered him with their embraces. The hall was packed with campaigners, supporters, Barkat's family members and, on the small stage, the members of his party, Beverley - his wife "and best friend" as he introduced her - and his team: spokesman Evyatar Elad and chief of staff Michal Shalem. Barkat didn't even try to hide his overwhelming emotions, and his words flowed easily to express his profound relief and joy at winning his second mayoral bid and ending five years in the opposition. "We did it," he repeated to his supporters who surrounded and embraced him. "We did it, thanks to all of you," he said, terming his win "a triumph for Jerusalem, Israel and the Jewish people." "He's not Obama, but he is definitely on the right track," concluded a woman beside me, who added that she'd supported him since the previous elections. Perhaps as an answer to his haredi rivals, Barkat closed the night by inviting all the audience to join him in singing "Hatikva." With contributions by Peggy Cidor.