Last night was a night spent in the custodian closet of democracy. The inner workings. The sort of ugly, really monotonous, and fairly dingy area behind the political curtain. Yet, it is the vital nerve center of electoral politics and no campaign can win without it.
The night started out with a near miss with the healthcare system. I was doing my duty, walking Belle the Dog so that she could do her doodie. (He said “doodie.”) We walk her in the morning and evening.
It gives us some exercise and is the price we pay for not having a nice, fenced-in backyard for her to explore. As we crossed an empty side street, a car whizzed around the corner. Now, it had plenty of time to stop before hitting us but the squeal of the tires as it took the turn at too high a rate of speed made me panic in the middle of the road. Part of me went into retreat mode. Another part of me hit the gas to get to the other side of the street. Belle just stood there. (She thinks cars are made of marshmallows and doesn’t have the fear of them that she should.) Unfortunately, my right knee was the joint caught in the middle. Let’s just say it was not my most graceful moment. I felt a little “pop” in the back of my knee, a sharp stab of pain, but, very Kerri Strug-like, I nailed the landing. Rather embarrassed by my spastic ballet in the middle of the street, I limped to the other side. I’ll admit that I was not thinking the most generous thoughts about that driver.
All in all, I think it’ll be fine in a couple of days. It’s probably just a sprain. It’s not on the side of the knee or around the kneecap. It’s that hamstring muscle that goes behind the knee. It’s swollen like a loaf of bread has been crammed behind my knee. And what I thought was a “pop” was more likely a “twang,” like on a loose guitar string. Ever the trooper, I gimped Belle home, fed her, and then went down to the Strip District to support Mrs. Bagger’s latest venture.
Mrs. Bagger (Jean) is now the captain of Lawrenceville volunteers for the Obama campaign. This is both like her and unlike her on so many levels. Jean has never been involved in politics ever before. She is an introvert who doesn’t like crowds, is not one for confrontation, and won’t watch football because she doesn’t like watching people be mean to each other. That makes her a shoe-in for politics, am I right?
On the other hand, she has followed the issues. She internalizes things. She is sickened by fracking. She has been activated by Republican efforts to suppress the vote and cut vital programs for the poor, all while giving handouts and tax breaks to banks, corporations, and the wealthy. She very much resonated with the community-building sentiment inherent in the Occupy movement. Watching Rachel Maddow the other night made her so mad that it brought her to tears. I can watch politics and keep things at mostly an intellectual level. But this stuff goes to Jean’s heart and soul. And I think the only way she can deal with it all and still sleep at night is to do something. Anything. It doesn’t have to be ground-breaking. But it has to be something. So, she wandered down to the Obama campaign offices, next to the Heinz History Center in the Strip District.
One of the Obama campaign staff members is a young man named Will. He’s like 25 going on 15. He’s sooooooo young. But his job requires someone with a lot of energy who can survive on a tiny salary. Welcome to politics. It didn’t take young Will very long to identify Jean as someone who could whip up the Larwenceville volunteers. So, for the past two weeks, Jean calls people on Wednesday nights to beg them to work the phones at the campaign office on Thursday night. Then, on Thursday, she goes down and works the phones with them. Last night, I went.
It’s a thankless job. You call people from our Pittsburgh neighborhood of Lawrenceville who have voted recently. If you reach them, you ask them who they are voting for. If they say Obama, you ask them if they would like to volunteer. (They never say yes.) Then you thank them for their time, you check the appropriate boxes next to their name and move to the next number. If they say they are undecided or for Romney, you give them a couple of talking points supporting Obama, determine whether or not they are open to changing their minds, and then check off the appropriate boxes next to their name. All the info you collect, including disconnected lines, wrong numbers, and such, gets entered back into their huge database.
It didn’t take me very long to realize that at some point in the last ten years, America stopped answering their phones. Probably around the time caller ID became available. Will said that out of 100 names, you will probably talk to 15 people. I didn’t even do that well. I called 75 people in an hour-and-a-half and talked to 6 people. Well, two people lifted the receiver, never said anything, and then hung up again, so I guess I reached 8. It’s not fun to call people between 7pm and 8:30pm. They treat you like a bill collector or phone solicitor, which I guess you are. You are intruding into their home, into their evening. We could knock on doors but that is a lot of shoe leather and you can’t reach nearly as many people nearly as fast as you can on the phones.
As mind-numbing as it all sounds, this is the life blood of politics. You’ve heard the idiom about how sausage tastes good but you don’t want to see how it’s made? Well, this is how the democracy sausage gets made. Only around 8 percent of the electorate is undecided. (And I don’t believe most of them are really undecided.) The other 92 percent of voters is split very near the middle. Thus, the key to winning an election is to “get out the vote.” You have to make sure that your people get to the polls. No apathy. No excuses. No staying home because it’s raining. No getting turned away because they don’t have the proper ID. You have to work this now. And the way to do it is to contact every voter personally. It’s not fun, but it’s not excruciating, either.
This will be going on every single day and evening until the election in some 75 days. Yes, we are the people you curse at whenever the phone rings at your house. Here’s the thing, though. For a candidate, if you don’t do it, you lose. The party that does it better wins. It’s that simple. They know this. It is proven every November, from the office of coroner to the presidency.
Believe me, this is not about patting myself on the back. I went one evening, for 90 minutes. There are people down there who have been doing this for weeks. They come multiple nights or days each week. They are in it for the long haul. To say that campaign offices run on a shoestring budget would be an insult to shoestrings. This weekend, they will be out there canvassing, which does involve knocking on doors. They will be registering voters at events. Registering people is so important now that Republicans have discovered that they can win Pennsylvania by keeping people from the polls. They’ve admitted as such. It’s a bigger issue than you think. Many seniors haven’t driven a car in years. Women who have gotten married now will have issues with their last name, ID, and voter registration all matching. People who have moved, even within the city, may have issues with a change of address. All this and the state has admitted that it has no evidence of voter fraud in the past or the future. What does that say about the ideas of your party that your best chance is if fewer people vote? It’s shameful, but we now have to work within the limits we’ve been given. There’s no time to whine about it. If you know someone who is not sure if they are registered properly. or unsure where they vote, send them to www.canivote.org, where they can view their registration and polling place.
I have tremendous respect for those campaign workers. They are doing the volunteer grunt work for something they believe in. They are doing the dirty work of democracy. And this is not partisan. I truly have equal respect for those who are doing the same thing on the other side. I just don’t agree with their message or ideas, and I just wish they’d let everyone vote.
Above all, I have tremendous respect for my wife, who is sacrificing her introvert spirit to go out and do something that she believes in. I am now calling her Donnatella Moss, which is an old West Wing reference that fewer and fewer people will get. But that is her. She’s a pro at this already. She showed me how to call one number on the campaign phones while loading the next number on your cellphone as the first number is ringing. When you hang up the first number, you hit send on the second. It’s much faster that way, but it also confused me. Politix iz hard.
There she is, my little political activist. While I’m icing my knee, she’ll be fighting the good fight, one dial tone at a time.