Election 2004

Personal Voices: Pounding Pavement for Progress

A canvasser for America Coming Together in Tampa Bay, Florida explains why spending six hours a day in the heat to speak with voters is worth every minute.
I live in Tampa Bay, Florida: a quick 45-minute drive from spring break beaches and and sea-side condominiums. Yes, you’re thinking, a true mecca for grassroots political activism.

As my first job out of college, I’ve chosen to walk around in the world’s largest sauna for six hours a day, six days a week, knocking on thousands of doors and talk to hundreds of strangers about the issues that affect their lives. Is it because I think I can make a difference, or is it because this is the only job I, or any of my fellow graduates could find? Maybe a little of each.

With the country polarized over the war in Iraq and by attack ads that have avoided crucial issues, I knew the presidential election could have huge consequences. The country has lost millions of jobs in the last four years because of tax breaks that have given corporations incentives to move abroad, and billion-dollar gifts to America’s wealthiest covered in GOP gift wrap. Those tax cuts were supposed to jump start the economy, but have instead stayed in the pockets of the rich. Even those jobs that are finally coming back are paying 25% less than the jobs that have disappeared and are less likely to provide benefits. All of these events are the results of wrong choices in our nation’s politics. I hadn’t put much thought into doing anything about trying to change the country’s wrong course until a friend approached me with the opportunity to work for America Coming Together in Florida (ACT). With few other options, I took the job – I had a bundle of college loans under my arm that I needed to start paying off.

My first day with ACT was a crash course in progressive politics at the national, state, and local levels. I felt bombarded with facts and statistics that were supposed to teach me the extent of our health care crisis and our economic woes. But reading that there are 46 million Americans without any health insurance whatsoever seems daunting, but distant. So do statistics about insurance premiums that have risen 49% and stories about senior citizens who have to choose between their medications and their meals. Knocking on doors in Tampa makes the situations we hear about every day on the news vivid and real.

I spoke with a mother last week who had just been dropped from her employer’s health care benefits suddenly and without explanation. She had always paid her bills on time, even as prices skyrocketed, and now she could only wait and hope that her 10-year-old son's coverage would not vanish in a similar fashion. She, like so many others, can only hold her breath that nothing catastrophic will happen so she can continue to work and keep her head above water.

One man whose door I knocked on began to tell me how angry he was about what was going on with the nation. He had a job, he had health insurance, he was doing fine. He had voted for Bush in 2000 and had been a staunch Republican voter. But his frustration had been building, and I had caught him in the middle of a news show about Iraq and its cost to the nation. “It’s just not right,” he told me, “that so much could be overlooked while so much is spent on what seems like a personal vendetta with Saddam. We’ve endured one blunder after another.” We talked for a long time about how little attention is being paid to the home front, and how money spent in Iraq disappears into the sand. We agreed that it seems strange to say that we are protecting American values like freedom and equality when we can’t even truly say those things exist within our own borders. The life-long Republican told me that after our conversation, he was going to change his vote.

Contact with people like these has been as much about personal growth for me as it has been about voter education. At the end of each day, there is a real sense of accomplishment as our team talks about the interesting stories of the day; it’s a chance to reflect on the conversations that we had and the progress we’ve made in our local area. I’ve had the opportunity to gather hundreds of first-hand accounts about what the real state of the union is. And it’s surprising how gripping it can be to listen to the story of a perfect stranger and find out what concerns them regarding our nation’s politics. Most people just want to be able to live a secure, peaceful life and provide for their families. Just letting someone tell you their story makes a difference in our democracy and our society at large. This is the election for all of us all to realize that we can make a difference. I know I have.
Jiva Manske is a canvasser for America Coming Together in Tampa Bay, Florida.
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