THE BLOG
10/14/2008 01:17 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Journal: The Audacity Of A Nationwide "Chicago Machine"

Martha Miller is an OffTheBus grassroots correspondent. Each week she contributes a campaign journal documenting her life out on the trail.

Laura and I decided to canvas in Pennsylvania.

Laura has an airy charm perfected while she was an unwilling debutante in Atlanta. She is 68 and has had two knee replacements. For a living, she manages some of great jazz musicians in the world.

I am the product of Midwestern Calvinists, happily two generations back, but I remain more sober than airy. I come from a suburb of Chicago, Park Ridge, Illinois, which is also the home town of Hillary Clinton, who lived three blocks from us. My younger sister Sarah was on the birthday party circuit with Hillary and they were briefly Girl Scouts together. I am 65 and several months past chemotherapy. I am a tax lawyer.

On Friday afternoon, we loaded up my Volvo wagon with our stuff and a cooler packed with organic food and a special diet for Raj, Laura's 19 pound cock-a-poo. We drove the three hours to Scranton PA and checked into the Dunmore Days Inn. Laura is definitely the five-star hotel type and I sometimes am, so we found the Days Inn wanting. However the motel was a big success with Raj who thought it was cool to jump back and forth between the beds.

Laura brought an expensive cashmere shawl for Raj to sleep on. I brought peanut butter for myself.

The next morning at ten AM we were in the Scranton Obama headquarters for our canvas training. The HQ was in a former restaurant and storefronts on the main drag of Scranton. There were about fifty people there for our training session. At first I thought the place wasn't well-organized but then people just sort of wafted out with laptops and things started to move. We each got manila envelopes with materials and then we were herded into the training room, which was in a store front. Laura and I got chairs because of our years, and Raj settled down under Laura's and went to sleep. Many others were standing around the walls or sitting on the floor. Training was reasonably thorough, but still left room for the intelligence of the canvasser. People were there from Pennsylvania, New York and Connecticut. The questions and comments were largely about health care and its importance (we were there in September). I brought up that I was concerned about the Constitution and damage to the Constitution because of the Bush years. People were interested in this and the trainer stressed that we should use our own viewpoints when we canvassed. Then we were herded out again into the broad hall so that the next fifty canvassers could come in for training. I saw that another room toward the back also had a canvassing training going on with about thirty attendees in that room.

We were paired up to canvas, and Laura and I would go together. I waited in line for our canvassing materials. One of the laptop girls took a look at my white hair and reached into the back of the box for my envelope. They were sending us to Moosic, a middle class burb to the south of Scranton. The envelope had a MapQuest map to Moosic, a detailed map of the precinct we were to canvas and a list of each specific house we were to visit along with a task connected with the visit, such as ID (identify the candidate the person will likely vote for), Reg Dem (Registered Democrat, encourage them to vote), or Undec (Undecided). The list had already been culled once and we were culling again, as part of a get-out-the-vote effort.

On the way to Moosic, we drove past the McCain headquarters. Two elderly people were coming out and we could see three heads inside, huddled in the dark. We drove out to Moosic and had lunch at the Moosic Diner. Then we started to canvas. At the first house I spoke to a young woman just back from college. She had been in the Students for Obama at San Diego State and she was excited to volunteer. Laura at the other side of the row house drew a female ex-convict stoned to the gills. This difference in experience was an example of what would follow each of us the rest of the afternoon.

Next we had a bunch of people not at home so we left a two-fold brochure at each house, and then we drove into the heart of our precinct and parked on a tree-shaded street. An elderly man was coming out of a tidy brick house. Laura went over to talk to him, as I ID'd my side of the street. I came back about fifteen minutes later to find Laura and the elderly man still in his driveway, but now they were both crying. The 82 year-old man had his pension funds with AIG and he had been told to not expect any more checks. He also had seen a heart specialist and the VA would not pay the $440 bill. He said that he was voting for Obama, as were all this children, their spouses and his grandchildren.

We passed along, I doing my side of the street and Laura doing hers. I found a neighbor of the elderly man and told her what had happened. She said she would keep an eye on him. When I found Laura, she would be in another front porch rocking chair, in deep conversation. She found only six people at home. I had dozens. One particular man and his wife had lost their house and they and the two small children had moved back in with her mother. They were all voting for Obama. I registered him to vote.

Around the corner, a man was parking his car in his driveway. I came up to him, "Mr. Kelly, I'm with the Obama campaign..."

"Now you wait right there. You for Obama?" "Yes, sir." "I can't take it any more. I'm voting for Obama. My wife is. I got five kids and they're all married, and them and all their spouses voting for Obama. I'm not taking this s%*t any more."

"You know where to vote, Mr. Kelly?"

We were about done, and Laura went up a hill to get the last house. Raj and I waited in the car. She didn't come and didn't come. I was wondering how to call the police, when she wafted down the hill.

"I do not know how these people survive. Those people I was talking to in that house up there, that man needs a liver transplant, he's been laid off and he has no insurance. They think they will lose their house. And they can't decide to vote for Obama. I do not understand it. "

We were both spent. Laura was deeply sad, and I was bone tired, still wiped from the chemo. We returned to the headquarters, where we tallied. I had contacted 24 people in about eight households and 16 were voting for Obama. Laura had contacted six and three were definitely in the Obama column. I think we counted differently, because if an adult told me that their parents or children registered at that house were voting Dem I counted them too, whereas Laura did not ask that question. I registered one person to vote, found one local volunteer, and helped another get absentee ballots for her two kids at college. As we were leaving another group was coming back from canvassing. There were about 80 people in the Obama HQ. On the way back to Dunmore, we drove past the McCain HQ once more. It was closed

On that Saturday 10,000 households in Scranton were canvassed for Obama, and another 5,000 were canvassed on Sunday.

Driving back to Connecticut on Sunday, Laura and I agreed our canvassing had been fun, in spite of the heartaches. What I liked about it was that canvassing was individual to individual. It had heart.

But canvassing was more than just heart. As I look back on my day in Pennsylvania, I realized that we did just what the "Chicago Machine" would do. I had seen it often enough in my youth: the Ward Boss, the Precinct Captains, and the Block Captains. The block captain knows everybody on his block, who's sick, who has a disabled child, where the pot holes are, who votes how. He or she knows how to work the system for the people on the block, and in exchange the people on the block listen to what the block captain has to say. And of course, if you need a ride on election day... Caring and knowledge of the individual affairs of each citizen goes with the system.

The audacity of it: to build a nationwide machine based on the Chicago Machine. Now nobody groan - the Chicago Machine WORKS. And it cares about people and stuff gets accomplished in neighborhoods. There is patronage, yes, but graft rarely.

We have seen the birth of a huge, wonderful Machine, the new Dem Machine, which will carry us all forward into an Age of Mutuality. Hundreds of thousands of us have done this. There will be a time, well off in the future, when this machine will become corrupt as the Republican engine has now become. There will be a time when we fall away from the machine, but for now we have a new, human way to reach up and down the political strata, and to have our will be done.

(The Chicago Machine is more formally known as the Cook County Democratic Organization.)

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