For Local Writer, Literature Leads to Politics

“A sense of humor is fatal in politics,” David R. Slavitt says dryly, in his usual cynical tone. This November, he’d like to prove that maxim wrong.

It’s a dreary day, and Slavitt is en route to Somerville to collect signatures. Poet, author, critic, and translator, Slavitt hopes to tack yet another title onto his resume: politician. After collecting his 150th signature last week, he is now the only Republican challenger to Democratic State Representative Timothy J. Toomey, who represents parts of Cambridge and Somerville.

But shoe-leather campaigning hasn’t been easy for the 69-year-old member of the Leverett Senior Common Room.

“It’s a humiliating experience,” Slavitt says of the signature-gathering. “I see myself doing stuff that the entire purpose of a Harvard degree is to defend against.”

On a chilly spring day, Slavitt stands in front of the Star Market at Somerville’s Twin Cities Plaza, a slowly sinking strip mall. A closed Mars Music store sits entombed at one end of the lot, its windows revealing a dark and empty interior. Drab storefronts advertise a Fleet Bank, Dunkin’ Donuts and SuperCuts. Shoppers carry grocery bags to their cars.

The writer-cum-candidate, sporting white sneakers, a black leather jacket and a baseball cap, accosts customers. “Excuse me sir, are you registered to vote in Somerville or Cambridge?”

He receives a near-endless parade of nasty looks and blank stares in response. The apathy of the U.S. voter is present in the Plaza this afternoon, and Slavitt is bearing the brunt of it.

Nevertheless, he pursues the passersby, limping after those who ignore his initial pleas. Slavitt is insistent, but not pushy. Many of the women he speaks to seem charmed by his one-liners and flattery. By the end of the afternoon, he has amassed his signature quota for the day.

Slavitt has chutzpah, and he surely needs it. The political task at hand is not a simple one—Slavitt is looking to uproot a six-term incumbent who is also a Cambridge city councillor. It doesn’t help that he’s running as a Republican, in a town that leans so far to the left some have dubbed it “The People’s Republic.”

“The idea of a Republican primary in Cambridge sounds Dadaist,” Slavitt admits. But, he says, in politics one never knows.

“[Toomey] could be hit by a bus,” he says. “An enormous bird could pick him up and take him to a...cliff in the Arabian nights. You don’t know. As God said to the guy who prayed for the lottery, be fair—buy a ticket.”

PORTRAIT OF THE POET

Slavitt is a combination of pomposity and sardonicism, a man who is smart, talented, funny—and knows it. He was raised in the affluent suburbs of Westchester, N.Y., the son of a prominent Manhattan lawyer. In his teens he shipped off to Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., matriculating at Yale College in 1952.

As a Jewish student who attended elite Northeastern schools in the heyday of the Protestant Establishment, Slavitt faced prejudice growing up. When he applied for admission to Choate, a school representative calmly informed his parents that the year’s “Hebrew quota” had already been reached. Slavitt, a middle-schooler at the time, was in the room.

He remembers being angry, but now laughs at the irony he has lived to see.

“Are there any Ivies with non-Jewish presidents?” Slavitt jokes.