House Calls

Mindy, a ruddy-faced mother in her early 40s, opened the door just after Johanna knocked on it. Something in the way Mindy occupied the doorway indicated that she would tolerate no BS. After a brief introduction, in which Johanna explained that she was canvassing for voter information, Mindy jumped in to comment that her issues were both taxes and education. "They are," she believes, "the pillars of this country and the politicians are destroying them... they have to learn." Though she refused to reveal whom she'd be voting for, she closed with, "We're not free if we can't get a good education."

Mindy took a pamphlet and quickly shut the door. Johanna, descending the porch steps, filled out the voter form for Mindy's address, circling the numbers that corresponded to "taxes and education" in the issues section, leaving the voter preference blank.

At the next house, Johanna met a middle-aged man, Charlie, who smiled when he opened the door. Charlie's issue was "undoubtedly Iraq." He was retired and concerned about healthcare as well, although he would only comment on Iraq: "Bush is doing a good job," he said, "sure they're dying, but he's not forcing the issue, which is good, right?" Johanna was stunned and could only summon a bureaucratic, "Umm, yeah, so, uh, you're pretty sure you're voting for Bush then?" In a fluster she told him he looked like Howard Dean (which he in fact did). He recoiled, goodnaturedly, "No way, c'mon!"

"No," she cried, "he's good-looking, I wouldn't say if I didn't think he was good-looking!" He smiled warmly, took the pamphlet and wished her well. Johanna circled the little "B" for voter preference, and moved on.

Johanna was one of 150 volunteer canvassers who joined Citizen Action of New York, a part of the voter mobilization efforts last weekend departing from the Democratic stronghold of New York for the nearby battleground state of Pennsylvania. This was a canvassing trip that required personal sacrifice. The buses left in the early morning on a soaking wet Saturday – the affiliated storms of Hurricane Ivan were still busy battering the East Coast. There was financial sacrifice as well – volunteers were asked to pay $25 to help cover the cost of the trip.

Andy Koch, one of the affable young bus captains, delivered the big picture. There were nine other buses from New York and New Jersey heading for key districts in nearby battleground states. In all, this fourth national day of action would involve over 200 separate events in 16 battleground states organized by a coalition of 32 all-star progressive groups called America Votes – including the Voter Fund, Emily's List, AFL-CIO, NAACP National Voter Fund, NARAL Pro-Choice America, and Music For America. In the past, Koch told the canvassers on his bus, all these organizations would concentrate their resources on key voter areas without coordinating their efforts, sending volunteers to the same doors, leaving reams of literature on everything from clean water to gun control to reproductive rights. This created overlap and a lot of wasted energy – and it had the effect of turning off potential voters.

The approach of the America Votes coalition is truly remarkable. And the fact that every American – let alone your liberal and progressive friend; you know, the one who thinks all is lost – hasn't heard about it should make your jaw drop.

In America Votes' first coordinated wave of bus trips to crucial battleground states, information was collected on the issues of greatest concern to voters in a particular area. For example, in the first wave, a few busloads of volunteers went to places like Montgomery County, the suburbs of Philadelphia, to catalog individual voters’ concerns which were stored in a database and evaluated. While the majority of voters in this county are registered Republicans, they voted overwhelmingly for Al Gore in 2000. Montgomery County has an issue-based electorate. Based on the data collected on the first wave, the organizers concluded that the main concern of voters in Montgomery County is the environment – or, to be more specific, clean water and air.

Once that determination was made from the collected information, a second wave, last Saturday's group, was sponsored by the organization whose expertise best matches the concerns of the area – in the case of Montgomery County it was the League of Conservation Voters (LCV). Johanna and the others were sent out to distribute appropriate literature and to gauge which issues were paramount and which candidate voters favored – if any. So, armed with data that showed a majority of Montgomery residents are concerned about a clean environment in the context of other election topics like national security and special interests, the LCV tailored the pamphlets to these concerns.

The LCV pamphlet explained that Bush was in the pocket of Big Oil, and that a Kerry presidency would lead America to a healthier environmental future – Kerry would push for alternative energy sources, which would in turn make America safer as it would reduce our reliance on petroleum from Middle-East countries with dicatorships.

The next voter mobilization wave will consist of phone calls to voters based on the information Johanna’s group and previous “waves” collected – calls to those who are leaning toward or are strongly for Kerry to assist them in the registration process and to let them know where they can vote. The final push from the America Votes coalition takes place November 2, when these voters will be offered locally-organized rides to and from the voting booths.

This way, as Koch put it, "We employ our resources better. We leave each voter with one piece of literature instead of six like before." The result is a major success in addressing America's ongoing voter apathy problem. According to Alan Charney, the National Political Director of U.S. Action, a member of the America Votes coalition who would address Johanna's group later on, "What's going on under the radar, what you don't see if you just watch TV or read the papers, is that 3.5 million new voters will be registered and in contact by October 4. That's the largest expansion in U.S. voter rolls since 18-year-olds got the vote and maybe since the 19th Amendment gave women the vote." At the end of his speech Andy told the canvassers that they would be met by a special surprise guest at the union hall.

There was a positive response to Koch’s explanation from the volunteers on the bus. Despite the early hour and heavy rains, they chatted with excitement about restoring civic activism in America, Kerry’s prospects of winning, and who the surprise guest might be. Sixty-four-year-old Julia Foote, bright-eyed and bouncy, sat sideways in her seat like a schoolgirl, engrossed in conversation with 69 year-old Nancy Dwyer, who was planted serenely in the seat behind her. When asked why they signed up for this trip Dwyer, a mother of five and grandmother of eight, replied that "Bush is on the wrong, wrong track. He's antagonizing our friends.... He keeps talking about making us safer but really, our jobs are not safer, our future's not safer, medicare, social security, all of it. And we're sitting ducks for terrorists – everybody hates us."

Foote, watching with a finger over her lips added, "The opposite of love is fear, not hate. What's occurring now is engendering fear.... This war is quixotic and arbitrary and like most wars it's made by old men to be fought by young people. I'm here to stop the lies and fear."

Though the two had just met on the bus, they agreed that "we came because Pennsylvania really is so close, we can make a difference and it really feels good working together."

When the buses arrived in the drenched Philly suburbs of Montgomery County, the canvassers were ushered into a local union hall where weak coffee and assorted pastries awaited. Workers from LCV criss-crossed the room setting up tables with clipboards, packets, door flyers and ponchos.

After a largely technical presentation by the LCV's warm and frenetic state director, Susan Gobreski, the day's "secret guest speaker," was introduced. Cheers, whistles, and a lengthy standing ovation followed the entrance of the grassroots hero and former Democratic presidential contender, Howard Dean. The applause took more than a minute to subside, as Dean, a bit embarassed, but clearly lifted by the gesture, addressed the audience of approximately 200: "This election is not about swing voters, it's about getting out the vote," he said, pointing out that if we "raise voting by single women 10%, Kerry goes to the White House."

Dean followed up with some red-meat crowd pleasers, bringing the audience to a roar: "George W. Bush is the most incompetent president since Warren Harding," he went on, "but he's even more dangerous because he's an activist incompetent." The crowd went wild, Dean was clearly hitting his stride. "There's not much I don't like about not being the nominee, but saying what I damn well please is one of 'em!"

Dean spoke briefly about his organization, Democracy for America (another member of the America Votes coalition), which supports progressive candidates in regional, as well as national elections. Dean has even endorsed a library commissioner, "because it took the right wing 20 years to gain control of the Supreme Court, the Presidency, and both houses of Congress." Dean believes much of that control began with local elections. And no matter what happens in November, that's where much of the work, according to Dean, is needed.

After Dean's speech Gobreski explained the process to canvassers. Each would be given a route with approximately 40 addresses. They were to knock on doors and ask the residents two questions: "What do you feel is the most important issue in the upcoming election?" and, "Who do you think you'll vote for?" Next to each address were numbers (each representing an issue) for canvassers to circle and letters (corresponding to voter preference) – "B" for Bush, "K" for Kerry, etc. Canvassers were also asked to hand out the LCV pamphlets as they left or to leave them on the doorknob if nobody was home.

Inspired and starstruck from the Dean speech, volunteers poured into the surrounding neighborhoods with their maps and pamplets in hand. It didn't hurt that the rain stopped for the first time since the early morning. The terrain was your typical American middle-class suburb; block after dizzying block of brick and shingle rowhomes, nearly all sporting welcome mats inscribed with sentiments like "Proud grandparents live here."

As they headed out, Santiago, a first generation Argentine-American man with silver flecks in his close-cropped black hair, looked up at the rows of identical houses and offered apologetically, to no one in particular: "I'm a little nervous."

The tradition of the American flag is so deeply engrained in the local culture that the few houses that didn't fly Old Glory still had the fitting below the front window in which to place one. One of Santiago's first houses had a flag waving by the door and a pot full of nearly perfect purple daisies on the steps leading up to it. The older gentleman who answered Santiago's knock did so with a suspicious "Yeah?"

Iraq was the most important issue to "James," 72 – he'd been a Marine. Santiago responded immediately by thanking him for his service. James thought nothing of either candidate: "get rid of both of 'em," he suggested with a grim smile. Santiago then thanked him again for his service and moved on, recording James' issue, and his lack of voting preference.

The door to the very next house, on which hung an old Raggedy Anne and Andy wreath, opened to a woman in a Metallica T-shirt. Samantha, roughly 35, wasted no time in telling us that honesty was tops on her list. "I haven't voted for anyone in years," she challenged. Santiago caught her off guard by offering "We deserve more, don't we?" Anticipating a more coercive approach, she reluctantly agreed, "Yeah, we do." She told Santiago she'd probably vote for Kerry.

Next, Santiago caught Jeanne, a young woman wearing a Target name tag on her shirt, as she pulled into her driveway. She described herself as pro-choice and worried about health care. She said she was tired, but perked right up when asked whom she planned to vote for: "I'm voting for Kerry," she said defiantly. The conversation ended abruptly as she had to run inside and prepare for her second job. Santiago recorded Jeanne’s information as well.

Interactions like these played out again and again for Santiago and the other canvassers. Few invitations to come in and sit down were extended but everyone was able to record their data and put the LCV pamphlets in the hands of the people who answered their doors.

When the canvassers finished their assigned routes, they hopped on the buses and headed back to the union hall. Santiago and the others reported on their return that a lot of people didn't answer their doors – but even those who didn't would return home to a pamphlet. There were also many accounts from the canvassers that environmental issues didn't appear to top the list of many residents.

While America Votes clearly has a well-coordinated plan to select organizations according to the issues that reflected a given district's concerns, there wasn't a clean fit in this Philly suburb. But who could really expect the numbers, the pamphlets and the messages to mix perfectly for each voter? As the canvassers saw on Saturday, there were different people in every house and each with their own issues and candidates.

In general, the responses from the residents were varied and could probably be used to corroborate just about any preconceived idea about the electorate. The consensus among the canvassers was that while many of the suburban residents had their minds made up, the majority had yet to be truly inspired about the election – or voting for that matter. But that didn't stop the optimism of the volunteers from New York.

Maybe it was that only enthusiasts for the election would have signed up for a Saturday morning trip, or that Dean's pep talk really did energize the canvassers. The steady rain, the wet socks, the monotony of the work, none of it really seemed to faze the accounts of their experiences as they headed for home. Some had knocked on more Bush doors than Kerry, but although there was skepticism and weariness, there was very little of the despair so often found in liberal and progressive circles.

As the buses crossed into northern New Jersey, Andy Koch and the other trip organizers reminded the group that they had conservatively knocked on 40 doors each, resulting in over 8,000 doors. With over 1,200 volunteers in Pennsylvania as part of the America Votes campaign, that comes out to roughly 50,000 doors – to say nothing of the other 200 events around the rest of the country.

But the numbers don’t paint the whole picture of what events like the one in Montgomery County accomplish. Strong personal bonds were built between these people who engaged in a day of civic activism. The optimistic feelings and the sense of comraderie among the canvassers came from a day’s work to restore the American Community.

Julia and Nancy, the two older ladies who'd chatted together earlier that day, had become inseparable friends by the time of the bus ride home. Nancy recounted one of Julia's stories before Julia could do it herself – about a woman she'd met and planned to keep in touch with. When asked what they got out of the day, Julia turned to Nancy and said, "I was tired, wet, and hungry but I could walk through the rain with you for hours." Nancy looked pained, "You didn't tell me you were hungry."

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