Although Steven Gaines, an author who is navigating his first campaign for political office, has spent a large portion of his adult life in the public eye and describes himself as “outgoing and warm,” he said this week that the public scrutiny in the political realm is decidedly different than what he has experienced as an author. In that gap lies the daunting demand of being a candidate.
“I love talking to people and strangers about ideas and thoughts, so that was not foreign to me,” said Mr. Gaines, who is running on the Republican ticket and on his own Opportunity Party line. “Although I was trying to sell my books, I never walked up to people and said, ‘Will you buy my book please?’ ” As a candidate, he said, “I’m really out there selling myself in a different kind of way. If you’re insecure, you can’t do this.”
On the cusp his 65th birthday, Mr. Gaines is also on the edge of a different world, trying to juggle the challenges and criticism with grace, humor, and open-mindedness.
Mr. Gaines, who has written 12 books including the best-selling “Philistines at the Hedgerow: Passion and Property in the Hamptons,” explained that while he was used to having people criticize his work as a writer, sometimes being lambasted by as many as 150 newspapers across the county, he never felt his personal self was in question.
“In politics people criticize you as a person, not necessarily your merit as a candidate,” he said. While Mr. Gaines says that by and large people are “lovely,” he has had a few unfortunate run-ins while campaigning. Laughing and shaking his head, Mr. Gaines recalled one instance while going door to door in which a man threatened to run him over if he didn’t get out of his way. Another time, more comically, a woman he was talking to yelled to her son “Run! It’s a politician!”
In East Hampton, he said, people are intensely loyal to their particular political parties.
“I’ve been disappointed in people. I’m still the same guy even though I’m running for office,” he said. “Nothing has changed. I find that for some people, politics is a religion and an obsession. They feel that they’ve chosen a team and they have to support them with the same fervor. But it’s totally inappropriate in this small town where we all know each other.”
He realized that his seeming renouncement of his lifelong Democratic stance to run as a Republican was forcing people to make a choice they didn’t want to. That led him to create the Opportunity Party, which will be a new line on the East Hampton ballot next month.
Mr. Gaines believes the Opportunity Party will not only woo back a Democratic contingency of supporters who couldn’t bear to vote Republican, but also offers independent voters an attractive option, bringing something “new and different and fresh” to local politics.
People don’t seem to realize, he said, that the local Republican Party is very different from the national one, particularly in its liberal leanings. The East Hampton Town Democratic Committee wouldn’t even interview him for a spot on the ticket, explaining, he said, that they just didn’t believe a gay man could win the race in East Hampton.
“But I don’t think that’s bigotry, I believe it’s cynicism. People say, ‘You’re Democratic, you’re gay, you’re Jewish, you’re pro-environment, how can you run with the Republicans?’ But I ask, ‘How come the Republicans gave me this nomination?’ That’s the greater question. None of that mattered to them. It was how capable I was.”
A combination of his own careful observation of politics and his passion for East Hampton spurred his decision to run for office, he said. It also has a bit to do with his birthday.
“I’m going to be 65 in November; it’s a milestone in anyone’s life,” he said. “East Hampton has been my life, my career, what I write and think and talk about. It didn’t seem like a stretch to want to do this for the next four years.”
His decision to run on the Republican ticket was reinforced by the fact that his running mate, incumbent Supervisor Bill Wilkinson, has been a human resources director for Disney. While working as a Hollywood industry reporter for Buzz magazine, Mr. Gaines wrote a cover story on the most progressive and diverse movie studios. What did he discover? Disney was at the top of the list.
“It turned out they had the largest gay and lesbian employees union of any movie studio. When I asked why, Bill Wilkinson explained that Disney has a policy to simply hire the best person for the job. Bill Wilkinson was head of human resources and that was his philosophy.”
While Mr. Gaines is the first to admit that he is a novice politician — he hasn’t sat on any town boards and doesn’t have intimate understanding of the intricacies of town code (like the lighting farmers can use in hoop houses) — he believes this gives him a level of lucidity. He has no preconceived notions of how things should be, rather it’s an evolving dialogue.
“My positions in this town are not written in concrete like some of my competitors whose ideas are implacable,” he said. “I don’t have ideas that are rigid. When I asked Bill Wilkinson, ‘Why me in particular,’ he told me, ‘Your brain.’ ”
Mr. Gaines, a Brooklyn native and New York University Film School alumni who first came to East Hampton around 1971 to write his first book, “Marjoe,” moved to the South Fork full-time in 1980. If he is elected, Mr. Gaines has set his sights on bolstering local businesses as well as attracting new business to the town; he believes there is a danger in becoming only a resort community.
“I’d love to bring some sort of low-density businesses to East Hampton,” he said. “Not factories and smokestacks, but maybe a software company that doesn’t have a lot of trucks delivering materials. That means maybe 50 people could be hired and that would bring money into the community. Otherwise we’ll have to depend on second homeowners for 60 percent of our tax dollars and it’s not sustainable.”
Mr. Gaines went on to say that East Hampton is losing a generation because local kids graduating from high school and college are unable to find a job, and he is determined to meet those needs in the coming years.
“Win or lose the election, it will be a celebration,” he said. “It’s an honor to participate in the democratic process in America.”