Someday, Mark Riffenburg might be looking back at a long career in politics, recalling the inspiration that led him to seek his first public office.
Election night 2012: Riffenburg, a volunteer organizer for the Obama campaign, had been working the phones all day calling voters in the swing states of New Hampshire, Iowa and Ohio. It was late. Volunteers were tired. Polls were closing, action winding down. Then, a call came in: the election was close.
With renewed energy, Riffenburg and the other volunteers resumed making calls at a furious pace. At the end of the long night, they felt their work had made a difference. Riffenburg was proud.
"I think it was just that moment when I saw all these people working together and I thought, this city is something special," he recalls. "I'd known it all along but that was the moment. It was electric."
Riffenburg, 19, a Holyoke native and Holyoke Community College student, had long been interested in politics, but now he wanted to serve those people he had worked so closely with on the campaign. He took out election papers and obtained the required signatures. His name will appear on the November ballot as a Democratic candidate for an at-large seat on the Holyoke City Council.
"I think I have a lot of fresh ideas that will help move the city forward, and I'd like to see those become reality," says Riffenburg.
He cut his political teeth at 13, as a volunteer for Obama's first presidential campaign, printing and hanging up flyers. Next, he volunteered for Alan Khazei's failed bid in the Democratic primary for Ted Kennedy's former seat in the U.S. Senate. In 2010, he served Gov. Deval Patrick's reelection campaign as the volunteer coordinator for Holyoke. "Basically, if you were a volunteer and you wanted to get involved in Holyoke, you came to me and I helped set you up," Riffenburg says.
In 2011, he took a year off to concentrate on school and in 2012 applied for an internship with the Obama reelection campaign and received what's called an "organizing fellowship."
"They put me more or less in charge of the volunteer effort here in Holyoke," he says. "We coordinated trips up to New Hampshire every weekend to knock on doors. We had phone banks every Tuesday. We hosted debate watch parties. It was a really great experience."
That experience is serving him well now on his own campaign.
He graduated from Holyoke High School in 2012 and is majoring in American Studies at HCC, where he will begin his second year in September.
The young, dark-haired candidate is easy to recognize. His face is plastered on campaign posters all over campus, and he almost always wears a suit and tie to school. "I do wind up running into a lot of people on campus who are voters," he says. "If I'm going to be running into voters I feel I should be representing myself in the best possible way."
It also prepares him for the rest of the day, when, after classes, he knocks on doors around the city to introduce himself to voters and talk about the issues that are most important to him, chiefly downtown revitalization.
He recalls a moment at the Holyoke Mall, where he works as a security guard. A shopper walked up to him and couldn't remember the name of the city in the area with the bustling and vibrant downtown, the one with all the nice shops, restaurants and art galleries. The answer, Riffenburg knew and to his dismay, was Northampton.
"How much I would love for the day to come when I could say, 'Oh, that's Holyoke. You go down the road, and it's right there.'"
To read more about Mark Riffenburg's campaign for City Council, go to this website at: www.markriffenburg.us
Photos: (Left) Mark Riffenburg, left, shakes hands with a student at HCC. (Right) The candidate, in the hallway at HCC.