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My Dad the Politician
Alice Markham-Cantor

I grew up with a common enough household rule: no cell phones at the dinner table, not even parents’ cell phones. However, at my father’s pleas, my mother eventually amended the law—Dad could answer his cell, but only if the person on the other end was a governor, senator, or city council member.

More often than not, it was.

My dad is Dan Cantor, founder and executive director of the Working Families Party. WFP is a political party that is much smaller than the Democratic or Republican party. Some of its main interests are fighting for affordable housing and health care, more investment in public services, and good pay and benefits for all working people.

My dad’s high-profile job has had its upsides; as a 7-year-old, I thought it was beyond awesome that I got to see him on TV, even if it was just New York 1. I always loved the story of how he went to Junior’s restaurant with Hilary Clinton—he’d gotten dessert while she’d declined, and then she proceeded to eat all of his cheesecake. It also has downsides, such as the fact that he is always on the phone and often on the road. I preferred it when he was home, not in Albany stuck in meetings.

I don’t usually think of my father as a politician, but the truth is that his work has deeply affected my way of looking at the world and my values. I’ve grown up knowing and caring a lot about government. Few of my friends’ families talk minimum wage fights at dinner, but we did—and my parents made a point of informing my brother and me about the issues they were discussing.

For fun, we’d watch The West Wing, a TV show about the behind-the-scenes workings of the White House. It wasn’t so different from listening to my dad talking statistics, policies, and changing alliances on the phone. When he’d hang up, I’d ask him to fill in the blanks of the one-sided conversation I’d just heard. I got to see how negotiations really happen, as well as technical stuff, like how exactly the Green Jobs bill might affect the rest of the economy.

Knowing My Stuff

Sometimes it paid to be informed. In my 7th and 8th grade art classes we were given the freedom to talk as we drew, painted, or sculpted. It was a presidential election year and we’d discuss the vice presidential debate we’d seen the night before, declare that we didn’t like this or that thing that a candidate had said, or make fun of Sarah Palin. Everyone who participated in those conversations sided with the Democrats.

One boy didn’t go with the current. He might have been a Republican, or perhaps he just liked arguing, but one day he asked us, “Do you actually know Republican policies? Or do you just dislike them because your parents do?”

“Or course we know their policies,” my classmates replied, some hotly and some bored.

“All right,” he said. “Which don’t you like?”

No one answered. The people who’d just been arguing suddenly seemed focused on their artwork.

“Their environmental policies, for one,” I volunteered. “Many of them don’t believe in global warming, but they’re disbelieving blindly. If they keep thinking it’s make-believe, we won’t ever fix it. Saying that wouldn’t be good for the world is an understatement.”

“OK,” he said, seemingly satisfied. I went back to sculpting my ceramic clock, and various conversations resumed. Thank you, parents, I thought.

Secrets Kept

But there have been other times when I’ve wished I didn’t know so much. Occasionally, I’d know things that I wasn’t supposed to tell my friends: spats between important figures, or who that anonymous quote in the New York Times was from.

For kids—and probably for most adults—secrets have one purpose: to be kept…and then to be told. But these secrets had to be kept for good. I’d never been fantastic at keeping my mouth shut, and it was even worse when I knew something that would back up an argument I was trying to make but couldn’t say it.

It certainly taught me self-restraint. Once I was riding the subway with an old friend, and we ended up talking about Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

“He’d served two terms, and that’s the maximum,” I said. “But he got people to change the law for him so he could run a third time. And he got elected again.”

“Exactly,” my friend said. “He got elected again. Which means that people still liked him and thought he’d done a good job. So he deserved to be elected.”

“That doesn’t mean it’s right that he can just change the law whenever he feels like it,” I said, frustrated. “There should be a law against the richest person in New York also being the mayor.”

image by YC-Art Dept

There were two other reasons why I didn’t like Bloomberg. One of them was—you guessed it—confidential. For someone who likes to argue as much as I do, it was infuriating not to be able to back up my position like I wanted to.

Watch It—That’s My Dad

The other reason was personal: I didn’t like Bloomberg because he’d made it abundantly clear that he didn’t like my dad’s organization. In fact, the mayor had said that the two biggest problems in New York City were the rising crime rate and the WFP. It was sort of a warped compliment, but it pissed me off. Look, Mr. Mayor, the WFP led a successful campaign to raise the minimum wage—something that helped people across the city—while you were changing the term-limit law to suit yourself.

By that age I knew that having a dad in politics meant that people would have opinions about him and his work, sometimes negative ones. I’m a pretty private person, and at times it was a little uncomfortable dealing with the fact that my dad was a public figure.

But I think that my dad’s position helped me develop a thick skin. People deserve to have their own opinions, even if I don’t agree, and they are free to say what they believe.


Their opinions about my dad can even be amusing, as I found out on the day of the midterm elections in 2010. A friend and I spent part of that day canvassing for WFP—we stood about a block from the polls, handing out leaflets. On the same corner was a guy canvassing for the Green Party, a political party that often prioritizes environmental issues, and we got into a friendly argument with him.

“I can’t believe you guys endorsed [Governor Andrew] Cuomo,” he said, and proceeded to complain about the positions that Cuomo, a Democrat, had taken on several issues.

“Look,” I said, “I don’t like Cuomo any more than you do. But he’s much better than Carl Paladino.” (Paladino was the Republican in the race, who had many extreme positions—for one thing, he’d called homosexuality an abomination.) I added that if too many Democrats voted for Howie Hawkins, the Green Party’s candidate, it would take votes from Cuomo, and Paladino could win.

Then he told us that there had been a great candidate who many in the WFP and the Green Party had liked, but Dan Cantor (he said the name fiercely) and some other WFP leaders had decided they didn’t like the candidate and ruined everything. I guess he noticed the surprised looks on our faces, because he asked, “Dan Cantor?” as if checking to make sure we knew who he was.

My friend and I nodded, exchanging glances. The canvasser explained that Dan Cantor had said he didn’t want there to be any more political parties.

“That doesn’t sound like him,” I said carefully (and honestly). My friend was suppressing a smile. The Green Party guy shrugged, and the conversation went on to other topics. Later, as my friend and I packed up our remaining flyers, I grinned at the guy.

“By the way,” I said, “Dan Cantor is my dad.”

“Oh,” he said, blinking, as my friend and I waved and headed to dinner.

It was a simple political disagreement, so I wasn’t really annoyed that he didn’t like my dad—I just thought it was funny that he’d ended up complaining to me of all people. Most people I’ve talked to seem to like WFP, which helps. I enjoy poking fun at my dad about how some of his most negative press has come from the mayor and the governor, which means the two political figures with the most power in New York City dislike him.

Flawed, But Awesome

Nor did having strangers talk about my dad outweigh the inspiration of getting to see the political process up close. On the night of those same mid-term elections my mother and I, along with a friend, went to poll-watch—meaning we checked over all of the data gathered from the voting machines to make sure that it was being copied down correctly. (Candidates and political parties are allowed to send a certain number of poll watchers to each voting precinct.)

At first, I was shocked. An error with the machines led to scribbled-out numbers and people having to go back and re-record votes. Besides this, the people who run the polls and record votes had been sitting there for over 12 hours and were understandably exhausted. That caused more than a few errors, too. Checking over some numbers, my mom stopped. “That doesn’t look right,” she said, pointing to a count of 27 votes recorded for the Conservative Party. “Can we check that?”

The woman gave us the original sheet to check, looking extremely tired. Sure enough, the 27 belonged to the row below it, while the actual number of votes for the Conservatives was five. We found another mistake at a different station, this time in favor of the Republicans. It was scary—enough mistakes like that could change the outcome of an election.

By 11 p.m., everyone was yawning. I stared at my mom as we continued to check. “This is how we choose our president?” I asked, incredulous. “This is how we elect the most powerful person in the world?”

But at the same time, I was awed. We actually did it—right before my eyes, political power had been decided by a system that really was of the people, by the people, for the people. This is how we change the world, and I was happy to be a part of it.

I decided then and there that I want to follow in my dad’s footsteps for at least part of my life, and through political efforts, help fix the problems in America as best I can. I’m not sure what kind of role I’d like to have, but showing me the value of the political sphere is one of the most important ways in which my dad has influenced me. He told me that he went into politics because he believes that if you want to make nonviolent change and improve people’s lives, politics is the way to go—and I’m proud to say that I think he’s succeeded.

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