On Wednesday I attended Bethlehem’s Mayor John Callahan’s congressional campaign kickoff. All attendees signed one of the Mayors nominating petitions. Democratic candidates for US Senate and Governor sent representatives to gather signatures for their ballot petitions. The Callahan campaign very wisely has chosen to remain neutral for other offices. Why take the chance of alienating anyone, they are going to need 100% out of all Democratic activists after the primary. The campaign expected a crowd of about 150 people to attend so John’s mother in law made enough spaghetti and meatballs accordingly. After about 45 minutes campaign workers came streaming through the doors with pizzas because there was not enough food for the over 350 people who showed up. I have been to many of these events over the years and I have to say this was not only the best attended but there was a buzz of excitement in the air rarely seen at a petition distribution event.
The Lehigh County Executive and Allentown Mayor made unimaginative and routine remarks. I almost left at this point but then the candidate’s wife Mafalda began to speak. She told the story of her and her husband’s lives. The room sat riveted by this compelling story. A few people wiped tears from their eyes.
Mrs. Callahan first spoke of her life. A first generation American whose parents left Italy with little more than a dream of a better life, they worked hard became successful, raised their children to believe in the American dream. She talked about how her father would come home dirty and covered with cement and then her mother would leave for work, assuring that there was always a parent around to help and guide her and her siblings. She always knew she was loved, she always knew that she was supported and she always knew her family would be there for her. Mafalda grew up believing that all things were possible in this great country and by graduating from Lehigh and NYU law school she is living proof of it.
Mafalda met John Callahan one day at Liberty High School she was 15 he was 14, she heard him laugh and immediately wanted to get to know him. She finally had a chance to meet him and that was it. She brought him to meet her big Italian family, they took to him right away and welcomed in.
John was not as lucky as his wife; his childhood was one of grief, pain and uncertainties. His parent’s marriage was dysfunctional and after many separations and reconciliations it eventually ended in divorce. His father never held a steady long term job and when he finally found one a medical emergency took it all away.
Young John Callahan and his siblings were pretty much on their own and often had to fend for themselves. John had to find it own way in the world. He had to depend on his coaches, teachers and friends parents as his role models and guides through his young life. He could have been lost, he could have given up on life before he even had a chance to live it but he chose not to. He chose to rise above it up and to be a success. He was a top wrestler in high school and graduated at the top of his high school class. He received an academic scholarship to Moravian College where he again graduated at the top of his class.
He became the youngest person ever elected to Bethlehem City Council and to be Elected Mayor his city. John Callahan is another example of the American dream but different from his wife. He did not have the loving, supportive and nurturing family to help him along the way. He had to do it himself; he had to develop his own support network. John Callahan had to create a “Family of Choice”, as it is called in the LBGT community. And, what a family he has chosen, the movers and shakers, the best and the brightest this area has to offer as well as the 60 members of his wife’s family.
When Mafalda Villani Callahan introduced her husband as her best friend and our next Congressman the crowd was ready to carry him on their shoulders and he hadn’t even spoken yet. I fear I have not accurately portrayed the poignancy of her remarks and the impact they had on all in attendance. Her words were enlightening about the character of the candidate and their emotional impact if properly communicated could have a profound impact on the voters.
My advice to the campaign is to boil this speech down into a very succinct message. It will draw great comparison to the more patrician and privileged upbringing of his likely opponent in the fall. If the campaign is smart they use Mafalda early and often she is likely to be the candidate’s most effective surrogate.