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Personal Voices: Canvassing in Florida

In this crazy election year, I found myself in Orlando, Florida – THE swing city in THE swing state – at the end of May. I had spent the past year unemployed, or as I like to put it, being overqualified and underpaid for my life. So in a fit of frustrated spontaneity I moved out of boring blue California, and down to the ever contested state of Florida.

By trade I am a professional organizer, having worked on electoral politics in Washington D.C. for the past few years, and in typical Beltway mentality had little actual field experience. By spending the summer in Florida I was planning on getting an organizing job, and making a real difference in this year's presidential election. A canvass office for a 527 organization had just opened up and though I was looking for an organizing position, I decided that canvassing for $8 an hour would pay the bills until that job came along.

Usually when people hear the word “canvassers” they think of those annoying people who knock on doors and ask for money to “Save the Whales.” This was a little different – we were strategically knocking on doors of low-propensity undecided voters – basically the swing voters. We took surveys, distributed educational materials, and if they seemed interested, we would have a conversation with them to swing them to our side. I really felt like I was making a difference by doing this job and I wouldn’t have canvassed for anything I didn’t feel passionate about.

The canvassing job itself wasn’t so bad once I got used to it. We would be paired up with a partner and dropped off in neighborhoods with maps and palm pilots downloaded with info on who we were talking to. Sure, it was really hot and muggy and no one in Orlando ever kept their dogs on leashes. Once my partner even had someone open the door with a gun casually in his hand while answering the questions.  People rarely opened the doors for me (I blamed it on being brown), and when they did, you never knew if they would chase you out or if they were capable of having a conversation.

But in the end, I had a lot of face time with people I never would have talked to in my life, and the experience of talking to swing voters in a swing city in a swing state of an important election year made it totally worth it. It was kind of a crazy feeling knowing that by having a conversation I could turn this person into an enlightened voter, and turn Florida into a blue state.

What really made it worthwhile, however, wasn't the people that I met behind the doors I canvassed, but the people I met doing the canvassing with me.

There was Don, the 50-something activist, a big guy in a wide straw hat, fresh from working on the Dean campaign, and a hardcore Democrat. He knocked on more doors than anyone, talked to more people and could convince everyone that Bush was a bad, bad man. He called us his troops, and would always give us a ride to the office. He had a crazy addictive laugh, and a magnetic personality that inspired you to keep doing the work.

One of our drivers was Frank, a 40-something high school teacher, also involved in local politics. He had taken the year off of teaching to work on the elections, and was absolutely bitter that Gore didn’t win the elections in 2000. He was so in love with Gore that he named his beagle Tipper.

These two men were amazing in their commitment to the cause, but also in their knowledge of local history. I learned why the houses were cinder blocks, how to spot a Florida thundercloud and when it would rain, why houses shouldn’t be built next to cypress groves, the history of gentrification and sprawl for Orlando, and why trees kept falling over after every storm. More importantly, their commitment to Orlando politics was impressive. “I’m embarrassed by what happened here,“ Frank said in reference to the Florida election fiasco. “We missed it by only 536 votes – I could have found 536 people to talk to!”

There were younger canvassers, too. There was Tina, the 19-year-old white girl with a strong southern accent, a truck, and a love for country music. She was the mother of a three-month-old baby with a deadbeat dad. She has a new boyfriend now, who just went overseas to fight in the war in Iraq. She wanted to get Bush out of office because she didn’t understand what he was fighting for over there.

Dave was the 23-year-old college grad back from Costa Rica after a backpacking trip. Embarrassed by the world perception of what it meant to be an American internationally, he was working full time, and even brought his brother to work with him as well.

My favorite was Amelia, who I met when flyering in front of a "Fahrenheit 9/11" screening. She approached me with much praise about my anti-Bush gear, I told her she could get paid to talk to people about how much Bush sucks, and she was sold. She was barely 18 and just entering a local community college. She was the girl who was always text messaging while canvassing, and would use slang terms like, “What’s popping?”  She would drop her life stories casually, followed by an uneasy silence as she discovered that her stories were not so normal. “Doesn’t everyone know the fifth step to recovery is X?” She’d been to juvie, was living on her own by 16, had been banned from some of the clubs, and partied with the rock stars that rolled through town. She was a smart kid who had made some dumb choices in her life.  She was passionate about the canvass, and didn’t think the issues important to her were being taken care of.

Sandra was the woman who worked as admin at a law firm. She got out of work early on Tuesdays to canvass and gave up her weekend days as well. It was fascinating to me that a person with a regular source of income would feel so strongly for the issues that she would want to take time off from work to canvass for $8 an hour.

There was the also the Korean-American guy, Steve, back from living in Germany for the past few years, and back in Florida to help his family out. Last I heard Steve was running for a local precinct captain position in the August ballot.

I talked to all my partners with who I canvassed, probably more than I should have. I only mentioned a few, but they were all interesting. They all had a reason as to why they were canvassing for a regime change, and they all had personal stories to tell. You kind of have to have a personal story and a personal passion to be able to spend six hours a day knocking on doors talking to complete strangers. It’s a labor of love.

My fellow canvassers were just everyday people, not activists, leftists, or professional organizers, but normal people who said, “This is the first political thing I’ve ever done.” And they were doing it because something in the current administration fired them up enough to make them want to work to have the current president gone. That to me is true grassroots organizing: normal everyday folks organizing to make a difference in their lives. It was truly inspiring to me to hear the stories of all these people, and what brought them to work here. Nowadays I watch TV like a hawk, jealous of all the excitement going on in Florida, and I hope that all the work my fellow canvassers and I did this summer will make a difference when November 2nd rolls around.

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