11/03/2008 10:50 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Campaign Journal: Two Homos And A Single Mom

Last weekend, my friends Eric and Jason and I set out from the Bay Area for Reno, Nevada as part of Barack Obama's Drive-for-Change campaign. Our mission: canvassing door-to-door for Obama. Or as we proclaimed it, somewhere around Sacramento, "Two homos and a single mom road tripping for Obama." There are only 5 electoral votes up for grabs in Nevada, but this traditionally right leaning state has been targeted as a toss-up; it was well worth our while to go there.

I'd been working as a daily print journalist for two decades, which has meant I haven't been able to so much as put a bumper sticker on my car. The basic ethics of journalism have required me to stay under the radar politically, even though I'd been a movie critic since 2000, which is hardly like covering the state house. But having left my newspaper job in March freed me from those shackles. My inspiration to do the Drive-for-Change came from a friend who had taken a leave from her Silicon Valley job to go work for Obama in Virginia. This meant leaving behind her 10-month-old son and her little girl, who is almost three. I figured if she could make that kind of sacrifice, I ought to be able to at least get myself to Nevada.


There were rumors that Obama might be showing up in Reno for a rally early Saturday on his way back from visiting his ailing grandmother in Hawaii. The last email we'd gotten from the campaign mentioned only "special activities" during the weekend. On the car ride up, this provided us with plenty of conversational fodder (as did Sarah Palin's poor fashion judgment and the loathsome nature of California's Prop. 8, which opposes gay marriage). If Obama was in town, I was in favor of ditching any morning responsibilities for the rally.

"We'll just say it took us awhile to find the neighborhood," I said, revealing the shoddy nature of my work ethic. Jason said it wouldn't come to that; of course they'd have go us go to any rally. Meanwhile the always conscientious Eric was determined we fulfill all obligations to the campaign before any personal indulgences.

A blast of stale, nicotine-filled air wafted from the casino into the concierge area at the Sienna Hotel & Spa. Jason's face performed some sort of gymnastics intended to close his nostrils. He's like the Church Lady crossed with Stephen Colbert. "Phaw," said Eric. I had a sense memory of going to hockey games as a kid. We Californians tend to forget that indoor smoking is allowed in other states, even in the nicer joints like this one. The campaign had suggested several cheaper options, including the infamous Circus Circus. But a commitment to canvassing hadn't robbed my gentlemen companions of their swishiness, or me of my appreciation for a high thread count. As for the smoke-filled lobby, well, we considered that our welcome to "Real America."


We followed a long line of cars with California plates, most of them Priuses or Subaru, most plastered with Obama/Biden paraphernalia, into the parking lot of the downtown headquarters. A greeter passed a map through our window. "Good morning," she said. "Senator Obama is in town this morning and you're invited to a rally. Report back here at noon and have fun."

We whooped in unison. Or rather, Eric and I whooped. "I told you so," Jason said, turning the car around.

On the way over to the University of Nevada-Reno's athletic complex, I considered whether I deserved this. I'd given a little money, put a sign on my front lawn, passed on two enticing social engagements back in the Bay Area and purchased a tank of gas. This was like signing up to sell Bruce Springsteen albums door-to-door, and then being handed tickets to an actual Springsteen concert before you'd touched a single door.

With that kind of luck, you expect some suffering. Maybe a strip search at the door, or a long, dehydrating wait in a hot sun. Instead we were offered bottled water at the gate and hustled efficiently through security. I've had more trouble getting into press screenings of Harry Potter movies.

We'd had just enough time to get ourselves as far up in the pack jammed onto Peccole Park, the university's baseball field, as possible, and make a few gloating cell phone calls before the motorcade appeared and cries of "he's here" went up in the crowd of 11,000.

Obama began by thanking everyone who had sent his grandmother cards and flowers. She's likely dying, but he'd had to leave her. No wonder he seemed tired. His stump speech hardly differed from what we'd heard on television, but in person, his somewhat halting delivery is less ponderous and his eloquence and honesty more obvious. I was a Hillary Clinton supporter right up until she conceded the primary. I valued her as a candidate because she's so damn bright, and because, quite honestly, I was sick of seeing nothing but men in the Oval Office. But the tide started to turn for me after Obama gave his speech on race. I've never seen that kind of sincerity, straight talk, awareness and rationality from a politician.

When the electricity went out, briefly, Obama climbed down from the podium to shake hands, and then restarted his speech with a joke. "I told you folks were having trouble paying their electric bills," he said. "Either that or somebody from the McCain campaign kicked our plug out of the socket." In a sign of how carefully a candidate has to watch his words in these last days before the election, Obama hastened to add "That was a joke."

Michelle Obama was widely criticized for her comment to a Wisconsin audience in February that she felt proud of her country for the first time, but standing in that diverse crowd, I really understand what she meant. We were both born in 1964, which means that we've experienced most of those big pride moments - by that I mean the "I have a dream" speech or "Ask not what your country can do for you" or Rosa Parks declining the back of the bus - either happened before we were born or when we were too little to experience them in any real sense. What we lived through in terms of our first real consciousness were Vietnam and Richard Nixon. I'm sure Michelle Obama turned the same well-worn pages of Life magazine that I did, looked at the same images of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, experiencing loss without ever having had. It's hard to feel pride when those are your introductions to what it really means to live in America. But to stand in that crowd in Reno, believing that we may be just days away from making history sweeter, the impossible possible, was to feel true pride.

Leaving the rally, Jason had to steer me away from the entrepreneurial t-shirt sellers. I was particularly captivated by a shirt that said "Black Man Running and It Ain't From the Police" and almost bought myself a tote bag with Michelle Obama's face on it, before I remembered that I'm unemployed and have a child to feed.

Back at the downtown headquarters we were redirected to an office park in Washoe County, along with 150 other members of the Drive-for-Change group from California (DFC's cup overflowed; 225 people showed up). We took our place at the back of the long line, turning away from the still hot October sun. The parking lot was jammed with Priuses with California plates. As a group, cruising in hybrids and armed with iPhones and Starbucks cups, we'd be easy to mock.

Obama campaign worker Dennis Roy, who has been on the ground in Nevada since August, ran us through the basics, which mostly rested on figuring out the intricacies of the coding system we'd be using. Is the voter at home, are they voting for Obama, willing to do so early - Nevada has early polling - do they need help getting to the polls, and finally, are they familiar with Jill Derby, the Democrat running for the congressional seat against longtime Republican incumbent Dan Heller?

Roy didn't want us to announce where we're from, although we were never told to fudge the truth. (Fibbing would be foolish, since the natives will certainly notice our license plates.) The most important rule is, don't get in any fights. Be pleasant, dignified. Throw no mud. In short, be like Obama. "You want to act like Barack Obama is standing right behind you," Roy said in his thick Massachusetts accent. "And he's wicked tall."

Our designated neighborhood was ultra-posh, up in the hills, where almost every house seems to have a million-dollar view, a four-car garage and landscaping that made Jason swoon. We had a tacit agreement that Eric and Jason would not march up to any doors arm-in-arm; we don't want to scare anyone.

Over half the people weren't home. But we were surprised by how many voters opened the door and told us that they've either already voted for Obama or plan to. "I've just got to wait for him to leave town," one woman told us, lifting a rueful shoulder in the direction of her boyfriend. Both Eric and I were transfixed by a handsome blue-eyed former cop who appears on the rolls as a registered Democrat. "I'm actually an independent," he said. "But I wanted to vote in the primary. I wanted to vote for Obama," he continued. "He's something special." He declined our offer of a yard sign, peering up the driveway at his neighbor's house, where a McCain-Palin sign loomed large. "I don't like to wear my politics on my sleeve."

And signs aren't always the best indication of what's going on inside a household. After spotting an Obama-Biden card in the window of a car parked in his driveway, I greeted a 72-year-old registered Democrat like an old pal, only to receive a tepid hello in response. "That's not my car," he said taciturnly. "And I voted for the other guy. You want my wife. She's not home." The front door slammed.

I'm on my tenth house before I blow it, betraying my outsider status by saying Nevaa-da, despite the fact that the campaign had given me a helpful pronunciation guide ("The Silver State is pronounced "NevAda" as in, "pad, glad, sad or dad"). Fortunately, I couldn't have picked a better guy to blow it with. This 50something voter gave me a little punch in the arm, said "You're not from here," and continued right on with his soliloquy to Obama: "We haven't seen anything like him since Abraham Lincoln."

Our last house of the day was a French chateau style mega-mansion that sat on a cul-de-sac. We peered through the gate at the actual doorway, which was far far away, across a courtyard filled with statuary. No one was home. Just then, a man in a big truck pulled up. He was about 40 and had got three kids in the backseat. He'd come to take a peek at the chateau, which it turns out, is on the market. For $1.8 million. "Things are looking good for your guy," he said without any obvious resentment. He claimed he hasn't quite decided who he is going to vote for yet. "You're in the over $250,000 a year income bracket, aren't you?" I asked. "That's right," he said, laughing. Then, unprompted, he began musing about leadership. McCain hasn't showed it lately. "Your guy has though," he said.

He didn't give us his vote, but he did have some good ideas about where to eat dinner. At 4th St. Bistro we found fellow carpetbaggers: poultry from Sonoma County, Sharffen berger chocolate and an owner who came from California ten years ago. We had just started in on dessert when the table of six next to us launched into a birthday toast to a newly minted senior citizen with them. The toast concluded with "And here's to Obama!" It turned out they were from the Bay Area too, and soon we were cackling and gabbing away with each other like a bunch of Sonoma hens. "This is like Sundance," I said, thinking about the good will and pleasure of befriending strangers. "Without snow or movies."

After dinner, Eric and I left Jason in bed and wandered off down the street to do some gambling, novice-style, the kind where you find a blackjack dealer with an empty table and an extremely tolerant attitude. Having lost my $20 pretty quickly, I left Eric and his winnings at the table and set off around the casino looking for someone with a pack of Marlboro Lights. There is no easier place in the world to bum a cigarette than a casino. I opted not to ask either of the smokers with oxygen tanks seated in front of slots machines and moved on until I spotted the tell-tale white and beige pack on a table being shared by two men. One of them was young and had a hint of Todd Palin about his features, while the other was about 50 and scrawny, with the air of man who may have spent some time in a meth lab in his day. The younger man generously offered me one of his two remaining cigarettes. I bent down to light it and their eyes lit upon my Obama pin. "Oh geez, she's voting for the anti-Christ," the young one said. "He's a terrorist," the other said cheerfully. "And a Muslim."

One thing a journalist learns on the first few months of the job is how to talk to assholes. Also, I remembered Dennis Roy's reminder that morning: Barack Obama is standing right behind you. So I smiled big. "So I take it you guys are voting for McCain/Palin?"

"You betcha," the young guy said. "I wouldn't vote for that Arab. He didn't love his own mother. He admitted it in his own damn book."

"You read 'Dreams of My Father?'" I said, trying not to sound too surprised. And wishing I had read it, so that I could argue the finer points of mother-hating as interpreted by the giver of Marlboro Lights.

"Yep," he said. "I read everything."

I refrained from saying, Sure, just like Sarah Palin. But what about Sarah Palin anyway? These guys had stationed themselves about two feet away from the pair of gyrating, skimpily clad women currently on stage duty. Maybe the whole woman a heartbeat one-heartbeat-away-from the-Oval-Office thing was the chink in their armor. "So what about Sarah Palin," I asked. "You like her as much as McCain?"

"Hottest woman in politics," Marlboro Light Man said. "She's hotter than any damn Democrat woman alive, that's for sure."

I stood in front of him, feeling mildly insulted on the behalf of my sex.

"Really," I said.

"I've got the Internet pictures to prove it," he said. His friend nodded sagely beside him.

There is no good response to anyone who introduces the topic of female images he's collected from the Internet. I resisted the urge to call him a pussy for smoking girly cigarettes and steered the conversation to Nevada's Yucca Mountain, the proposed under-ground storage facility for the nation's nuclear waste. Obama opposes it. McCain is all for it. This line of argument went nowhere. Neither of them had any problem with have nuclear waste dumped in their state.

"There he is," the Light-man said, pointing to the TV hanging above the bar behind me. Obama literally was right at my shoulder. "He's not even black."

I considered the image. I looked back at the dude. "He's black," I said with certainty.

"He's not black," the guy crowed, shaking the last cigarette out of the pack. "He's an Arab."

"Muslim," the other guy agreed. "And the Anti-Christ."

"He was in Nevada today," I said. "Campaigning hard. The vote is supposed to be pretty close here you know."

They both laughed. "Oh yeah, he was here," the Light-man said.

"And he didn't get shot," the older guy said.

"Not yet," the Light-man said. They sniggered companionably.

I reflected, as I have so many times before, on how many fist fights I'd have gotten in if I'd been born a man. But in this chilling, Real America moment, there was nothing more to do or say. Lee Harvey Oswald walked across my brain. I replaced him with an image of the Secret Service men I'd seen at the rally that morning, with their super high powered binoculars. Please protect him, I thought. "I'll be thinking of you guys on Election Day," I said, waving as I walked away, back to the relative safety of the blackjack table, where another free drink was waiting for me. I told Eric and our dealer, a bikini-clad African-American woman in her 30s, about my encounter. "So don't forget to vote," I said to her. "I already did," she said. She dealt another hand, her smile confident and serene.


A man dressed in a pirate costume stood at the corner, waving a sword and a sign for the apartment complex we were bound for. This neighborhood was distinctly less fancy than Saturday's. We had a list of 60 voters to track down, 60 doors to knock on, in a complex with a layout so complicated it would have sorely tested Magellan. This time, we separated, eager to get in and get out.

I was trotting along in search of Apartment 147 when I noticed a tortoiseshell cat sunning itself and stopped to talk to it. A greasy-haired man wearing an odd looking hat materialized as if from nowhere. "She's a bitch," he hissed. "And so was her mother. Mother-bitch, daughter-bitch." He leaned forward, getting his head down at tit level, and examined my pin. "That doesn't say McCain-Palin," he said. "No it doesn't," I said, starting to move away. "Tsk, tsk," he said. "It's a free country." "Yes it is, I said, picking up the pace. The imaginary Obama patted me on the shoulder, It's okay to skip the creepy ones." I'm going to write you up," the greasy-man yelled after me.

I'd only found three voters home by the time I arrived at the 230 block. All of them were voting for Obama. Then I came around a corner, disturbing two teenaged boys who were lurking in the shadows. I said hello and walked briskly up the stairs. One of the cement slabs moved under my foot and I thought, as I leapt to the safety of the step above it, that Real America needs some maintenance work.

When I came back down, the boys had moved across the lawn and were talking to a third boy who was leaning on the wall of his apartment's tiny patio. All three of them were harassing a pair of cats in the next building over. They called to them in high voices, as if they were pretending to be, perhaps, the owner of the cats, who clearly had the misfortune of being a neighbor. "Come home sweetie, before you get raped," they said. I realized I was going to have to walk right past the boys again and up another flight of stairs to get to my next door. They switched focus. "Oh watch out up there, you might get raped," one of them said. "Maybe we'll rape you." They all giggled. Further discussion of rape continued. Little shits.

Enough of the solo routine. I found Eric over in the 400 block, feeling triumphant over the head-way he'd just made with an undecided older woman. Health care seemed to have tipped her over into the Obama camp. Together we hit his last door. An absolute ghoul appeared, sharp-nosed, long lank hair, a goth complexion. He looked like a bad Muppet. "This is the fourth time you people have been here," he barked. "We already voted. Don't come back here ever again."

That slammed door happened to be our last of the weekend. Did the Drive-for-Change make a difference? It's tough to say. There were an estimated 1,500 people from Northern California knocking on doors in Reno and its suburbs that weekend. We had the potential to reach thousands of voters. Carpetbaggers have a habit of turning people off, although our neighbors to the East were plenty friendly to our little group, even the pair I met in the casino. On Monday, a new poll did show Obama pulling into a 10-point lead in Nevada. I'm sure Obama's appearances in both Reno and Las Vegas have a lot more to do with that than any doors I pounded on.

But for me, what the Drive-for-Change was really about was finding unity, sometimes in unexpected places. On Saturday, we stopped to buy bottled water at a supermarket. The checkout clerk spotted our Obama pins. She was white, middle-aged, obviously working class, just exactly the group he's supposed to be struggling to woo. "Did you get to see him?" she asked. On hearing we did, she held out her forearm to us. "I'm getting goose bumps," she said. We gave her a pin and she put it in her pocket. "I can't wear it here," she explained. "But I really wanted one." I wanted, very badly, to hug her. "I already voted," she continued, handing us our change. "I think he's incredible." Then she held out her arm again. "More goose bumps," she said. And I felt my skin prickle as well.