Saturday - Day 1
It starts. I am aloft, on my way to Santa Fe, New Mexico as an out-of-state volunteer on the Barack Obama campaign. Me--a middle-aged political virgin. Oh, I've always educated myself on the issues, and taken voting seriously. But I've never worked on a campaign. This year is different.
And it is not strictly correct to say, "It starts." It really started six weeks ago, when circumstances conspired to leave me with a week of paid vacation to use or lose, and no plans or disposable income to travel. When the Obama campaign called for volunteers in battleground states, it seemed like a meaningful use of my time.
And so far, it has been the right decision. To a person, those that I have met volunteering in my home state of Arizona have been the salt of the earth--welcoming, committed, enthusiastic. And all infused with a "can do" spirit. I know- corny. No, we are not going to hold hands and sing "Kumbaya."
So now, I take the next step--and tomorrow morning, I find the Santa Fe office and get to work.
Sunday - Day 2
I am canvassing a neighborhood with a more experienced volunteer- she has done this once before. She also knows the neighborhood--she lives there. The morning clouds have broken, and the sun is high and hot. Many of the homes on these blocks have Obama signs in their windows and bumper stickers on their cars. Our list includes only historic Democrats, so we are not being sent into the lion's den. Nonetheless, these people are weary--they have repeatedly been approached by various Democratic groups--Obama for Change, MoveOn.org, Udall for Us All. But today or our mission is to educate these voters on the various ways to vote early and avoid the election day crowds. Choices include voting by mail, early voting at various locations, and the confusing "absentee voting in person" (I am not making this up). We have very helpful information sheets to leave if no one answers.
This is foreign territory for me. I never sold Girl Scout cookies, and I don't let my children go door to door for their school fundraisers. And I don't particularly like it when strangers knock on my door to sell me something or share their beliefs. In fact, I do what most of these people do- I don't answer the door.
After nearly three hours of traipsing through hilly neighborhoods, we have talked to exactly three people on our list, knocked on countless doors, and left no fliers (I don't know about my partner, but I forgot about them). My teammate is a seasoned political activist--she says, "I was raised in Berkeley--my parents took me out as a baby protesting the Viet Nam War." She is undaunted. I have worn the wrong shoes and am coming off of a leg injury- I finally have to pull the plug.
I will hit it hard in the morning. In sneakers.
Monday - Day 3
I decided to take another whack at canvassing today. I tell the canvassing coordinator of my experiences yesterday, and of my concern that people are feeling pestered. It is clearly not news to him, but he says the only reliable means of getting people out to vote is to talk to them- ideally face to face, not on the phone.
It is a cool sunny day in Santa Fe, and I have a hand-picked assignment of easy to find addresses in a concentrated area. I am well armed--clipboard, flyers with information on voting options, and an 18 page list of canvassees. But as I ease my rental car into a parking space at my first apartment complex, I am flooded with a sense of dread. OK, I tell myself- isn't this why I am here? Before long, I am trotting up and down stairs and winding around buildings with a sense of triumph as I check names off my list. As with yesterday, many people aren't home (or are hiding it pretty well), but those who come to the door are generally friendly and receptive- a number of them thank me for my work. Two foreign born residents who are ineligible to vote exhort me to "Get Obama elected," for the sake of the world. I have only one contact with a McCain supporter--when she opens the door and sees my Obama shirt, she wrinkles her nose as if smelling something foul and says, "Oh, no," closing the door in my face. Soon it is time for me to return to the office, where I train someone new (wow-newer than me) and return to canvassing, with her. This time, she tires first.
Buoyed with this newfound confidence, I return to the office for an evening strategy meeting, where volunteers are reminded that the race is far from over. As this strategy has little to do with me (I will soon be gone), I have an opportunity to observe those around me. I am struck by the dedication, energy and enthusiasm of the field organizers, mostly unpaid and many young enough to be my children. If the future of this country lies in hands such as these, maybe we are not in such bad shape after all.
Tuesday - Day 4
The kitchen area is a smorgasbord. Those who cannot bring themselves to canvass or phone bank make themselves useful by feeding the troops, and people fuel up as if preparing for the Bataan death march. There are even people who volunteer to clean up after the hordes--as far as I am concerned, they deserve seats at the inauguration. And there is one man who (I swear) is feeding an endless mountain of paper through an industrial strength shredder every time I come in (isn't there a circle of hell for that?). When I ask if they let him go home at night, he laughs and tells me that they recently upgraded his equipment and the job is much easier. I tell him he can come to my house when he is done.
This morning is cold and rainy--not a good day to be out, but some diehards hit the streets anyway. I keep busy phone calling from a list of potential volunteers who have expressed interest in participating in the campaign. After an hour, I have made 50 calls, and reached just two people- one is already volunteering, and the other won't be available for two weeks. Another volunteer is working from a similar list, just as long. He struggles a bit with the phone script, asking me, "How do you get to say all this before they hang up?" This calling process will be repeated at least three more times today. And each evening, numerous data entry volunteers update all lists with activity from the day. And that is no small task; detailed information, all that is available through public record, is painstakingly recorded and constantly updated. This is a well oiled machine.
My afternoon of canvassing is rather lackluster. I return to the office to find a man in an apron out front with a gas grill cooking up buffalo burgers and bratwurst, and inside a table so laden with goodies that it could make Emeril weep- fingerling potatoes, field green salad, desserts, casseroles and more. The masses have descended on the feast (apparently phone banking builds a fierce appetite) and in an hour, it will all be devoured. But long after the food is gone, the work will continue into the night.
The office is packed, and at least 75% of the volunteers still here (at about 8 p.m.) appear to be under 21. Many are not old enough to vote, but they are here investing in their future. I hope they are getting extra credit.
Wednesday - Day 5
An octopus of cords with at least 20 cell phones charging on a counter is ground zero for the primary volunteer activity. If we are not phoning people to ask them to canvass, we are phoning them to ask them to come in and phone other people to canvass, or to ask them to come in and phone other people to phone other people to....well, you get the idea. After three hours, I feel like I have a second degree cell phone burn of the ear, and I am more than ready to get out and canvass.
Today is the final presidential debate and the debate party, held jointly at two locations starts at 6 p.m., an hour before the debate. Preparations have been under way all day, and a number of volunteers are to be on hand by 5:30. The party is being held at the Zia Diner, a popular downtown restaurant, and when I arrive the volunteer coordinator seems to have everything well in hand--projector, screen, sound system. There are four other volunteers with me. We will man the door, making sure that all attendees sign in and trying, as always, to recruit future volunteers. We will also circulate in the room before and after the debate-surprise!- recruiting volunteers. There are stacks of Obama swag to hand out--buttons, stickers, posters. The other volunteers are apparently under 21, most not old enough to vote; one has to leave early because she is required to watch at her high school with her class. They do an excellent job of decorating with posters. As the crowd builds, we take turns at the tables outside greeting new arrivals and working the room. We try to enlist anyone that enters--I actually try to sign up a man to phone bank who, I find out later, turns out to be a regional field director for the Obama campaign. Max Kennedy, son of the late Robert Kennedy, addresses the group just before the debate starts. He says that years from now, when our children study this election (as they surely will), we will be able to say that we helped get Barack Obama elected. He has clearly inherited the family gene for oratory, and I am moved. I am also inexplicably proud--my contribution here has been small. But it is amazing to feel like a participant in history.
Except for a few video glitches, the evening goes well. In my fragmented viewing of the debate, it is hard to gauge what people thought. For my part, both McCain and Obama seem to be doing a lot of talking about or to Joe the Plumber every time I return from door duty. I am going to have to watch the whole thing later on CNN.
Thursday - Day 6
Today, despite my best intentions, I am stuck in the office all day. Every time I stand up and put on my coat to go canvass, someone hands me a list of people to call; more training sessions are being scheduled, and we need to beat the bushes. There are no less than six of us on the job at any given time throughout the day. I expect that as the election nears, it will be harder and harder to enlist new people; of those that I reach, many have already volunteered a lot or are currently volunteering. Really, I am calling some people who aren't there to answer the phone because they are out canvassing in the neighborhood. A very few people are genuinely angry at the frequent phone calls from various campaign groups, but usually those who can't help are quite apologetic about not doing more. Excuses run the gamut- out of town guests, overtime at work, family commitments--two people tell me they were just diagnosed with cancer. Most tell me they have voted or are voting this week, and thank me for my commitment. Some have questions about early voting or completing their absentee ballots. There is a real sense of community here. If New Mexico doesn't go blue in 2008, it won't be because Santa Fe didn't try hard enough.
Friday - Day 7
Today is my final day in the Santa Fe office--tomorrow I fly home to Phoenix. Even the tasks that I have not enjoyed are infused with meaning now. I spend the morning with numerous other phone bankers, calling long lists of likely Obama voters, urging them to cast their ballots early. Most people I reach indicate that they will vote soon, and appreciate the information on locations and hours. I feel the pace quickening, with just 20 days left until the election. The office is full most of the day, a constant stream of volunteers, young and old--training, canvassing, phoning, entering data, doing office work. The food keeps coming. I ask the Nick, the volunteer coordinator and Charlie, the canvassing coordinator for recommendations for nightlife in Santa Fe; they look up from their work, and Nick says gently, "I think you are asking the wrong people"; they have barely had an evening off since July.
I am out in the neighborhoods in the afternoon with another volunteer--again encouraging early voting. Most of those we reach are willing to share their plans for when they will vote, and for whom they will cast their ballots. Some are still undecided. All are respectful and many thank us for our work.
By evening things are winding down and I have a moment to reflect on my week here. I realize that I had become very cynical about my fellow Americans, especially based on the last two national elections- I wondered if most people just didn't care about this country any more. This week has given me back my idealism. Yes, Santa Fe is a great town with a real community spirit. But the campaign here is clearly a national effort- the volunteer organizer is from Chicago, the canvassing coordinator from Phoenix, another field organizer from New York. I did door knocking with volunteers from San Francisco and Washington D.C., as well as New Mexico natives. I shared space at the phone banks with workers from Austin, Texas. There were teachers and students, business owners and office workers, attorneys, artists, health care workers, retirees- all working together for a common cause.
No, we still are not going to be holding hands and singing "Kumbaya". But for the first time in a long time I truly believe what my bumper sticker says- "Yes, We Can".