December 17, 2018
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I miss the newsroom on election night

Renee Ordway

The very best thing about not being a political reporter for a newspaper is getting the chance to cover politics.

Because during a big election year, general assignment reporters, crime reporters and the like often are tapped for involvement in the big game.

For nonpolitical reporters, that’s the only time of the year when politics are fun.

It’s sort of like being on the second string of the football team and not having to spend all that time sitting on the sidelines during the regular season, but getting to run out on the field and play in the championship game.

Once races and referendums and bond issues settled on the ballot, reporters who normally cover other things are assigned by editors to take an issue or a candidate and absorb themselves in the coverage of it right through election night.

Newsrooms are electrified on election night and reporters passed over often feel left out, perhaps even neglected, as their routine daily stories are sidelined for the anticipated election results.

Those reporters are going home for the day as food is being brought in to nourish those with the job of tracking results and writing stories and updates throughout the night.

In the past, they would go home as local TV news stations were filling the newsroom with cameras and lights and anchor people who would interview newspaper reporters throughout the evening.

In a newsroom, election night is our prom and graduation all rolled into one exciting, stress-filled and caffeine-fueled marathon session.

I loved it and miss it still.

As ready as I am, like so many of you, for this nasty and tiresome election season to come to a close, I will sit at home on Tuesday night wishing I was in the middle of the chaos, biting my nails, eating cold pizza, drinking cold coffee and shouting out the latest results to my editor.

My first foray into the fever pitch that is election night was somewhere in southern Maine covering David Emery, who was once again running for something.

I wasn’t writing the story. My job was simply to be present at his campaign headquarters and call in reports and “color” to the more seasoned reporter back in the Bangor newsroom.

In 1990 I was the on-site reporter at John McKernan’s Portland headquarters during his re-election bid for governor.

He was running against former Gov. Joseph Brennan and, well, McKernan’s first term had been a tough one. Polls showed Brennan in the lead in the months and weeks leading up to the election.

But alas, again I was not the one writing the story. I simply hung around schmoozing with all of McKernan’s staff and supporters in some Portland hotel ballroom and called in my reports to the actual writer of the story.

I willingly took on that assignment mostly because it involved a free night in a nice Portland hotel.

The race was so tight that McKernan was not declared the winner until noon the next day. By 1:30 a.m., when most papers were “put to bed” for the night, I was draped wearily in a nearly empty ballroom with just a handful of McKernan’s staff.

I never got a chance to sleep in that nice hotel room.

In 1989 I finally got my own big issue, a $35 million prison bond issue that would have allowed for the replacement of the Maine State Prison in Thomaston.

I got to know Department of Corrections Commissioner Donald Allen very well in the months leading up to the election and had an unforgettable tour of the old prison.

The bond, however, was rejected solidly by voters and I got to enjoy the excitement of election night while still being able to call the result and tuck my story in early.

It was the best of both worlds.

Then, in 1995, I was lead reporter on the state’s mandatory seat belt referendum. It was a big deal. Supporters had fought for 12 years for the passage of a seat belt law. In 1993, the Maine House and Senate passed the bill, but Gov. McKernan vetoed it.

Supporters took it to a referendum vote that was extremely controversial. If it passed, Maine would become the 49th state to adopt such a law. The only holdout was New Hampshire.

It was neck and neck throughout the night and in the wee hours of the morning it was still too close to call. I was refreshing numbers every couple of minutes and updating my story throughout the night.

Finally, it came down to waiting for the results of one city. If we had the results of that one city, we could call it and post the headline. That city was Bangor and tallying had stalled at City Hall.

There was jockeying and decision making and interns running to City Hall and, if I recall, a bit of begging to hold the presses for just a few more minutes. In the middle of the madness, my editor, a laid-back sort, decided to go home.

“OK, I’m headed out,” he said as I sat with my head in my hands and my heart furiously pumping caffeine through my veins.

I reminded him of that last spring when we met up.

“I did that?” he said skeptically. Then he chuckled and said, “Yeah, I probably did.”

I’m as anxious as you are to have it all over, but I’ll sure be envious of those in the newsrooms who will be part of the grand finale.

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