Monday, February 9, 2009

Local Vocals

The same tool that proved effective during the president's campaign continues to keep supporters politically engaged during his crucial first 100 days. This weekend, citizens gathered in living rooms across America to do "the work of remaking America," as the man himself would put it.
Here in Seattle, citizens came to dozens of meetings with eager voices. At the home of Himanee Gupta-Carlson, a Tacoma Community College teacher who held two similar meetings during the campaign, attendees gathered on couches, around food, and the outpouring of concerns began with the introductions. The consensus? We must act now. Locally.
That’s precisely the approach the president has been advocating, seeing as how the federal government's power to change local situations is limited. The second bailout package won’t have much affect for anyone, save construction workers, until a year from now.
Nonetheless, the tone in Gupta-Carlson’s living room on Saturday was hopeful. It was as though everyone was relieved to finally have a place to talk about the societal problems that have been ignored for so long.
Citizens talked of the need to support local efforts for green energy, to support local businesses, and to support one another. A physician raised the need for health care reform and many nodded in agreement, reflecting a testament to the pervasiveness of the problem. According to a 2005 Harvard study, medical bills are the leading cause of bankruptcy.
But discussions of complicated national issues soon gave way to personal stories.
A teacher wondered aloud if her contract would continue into the next school year.
A businesswoman reported that although her business took in over $200,000 per year, she was unable to get the loan she normally depends upon.
A community organizer reminded the group of the importance of staying connected.
In the end, attendees agreed to share their skills, such as resume editing and career advising, with whoever needed help.
Gupta-Carlson said that she is anxious to see progress, but having studied political science, is accepting of the nature of the political process. If nothing else, the meeting could inspire others to engage more, as her first meeting did back in July. She had never been politically active before. Since then, she has hosted and attended several political events and written a letter to a congressperson.
“I know that dialogue is really really important. So the fact that we’re just talking is really really a huge step forward,” she said.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

How Democrats took over this year: a grassroots account

It was cold, and so were the people. They quickened their step when they saw us and evaded our persistent attempts at eye contact.
“Do you have a minute for the Democratic Party?” I called out to a man passing. He was heading into the QFC on Capital Hill as I began my five-hour shift.
“I’d rather gouge my eyes out,” he said.
It didn’t faze me too much. People had hurled a lot of insults my way during my three months working as a street and door-to-door fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee, and I had learned to let them slide. But learning when to keep my mouth shut was a long, difficult process. And I wasn’t so good at it in the beginning.
“I’m not voting for him,” said one man outside QFC.
“Oh really?” I said in the unabashedly confrontational tone I’d come to use with opponents. “Why’s that?”
“I’ve been meditating on it, and I just don’t have a good feeling about him. I just don’t know what it is, but I’m going to go with McCain.”
“You choose your political candidates by meditating?”
“Yes,” he said. “There’s so much information flying around out there. I think it’s best to look inward.”
“Don’t you think it’s better to look inward after you have read the news?”
“It’s biased,” he said, turning and heading inside.
“It’s all we have!” I called.
This distrust of information really concerned me, but dwelling on people’s ignorance was not productive. In our office, we role-played scenarios each day. If someone said they had given online, I learned to immediately remind them that the grassroots movement was a better way to give since it gives power to face-to-face interactions, encouraging people to talk about politics and engage more directly with the Democratic Party.
At first, it all seemed so dirty to me, trying to grow and strengthen the party for the long term. I do like the Democratic Party, and, in fact, think it offers the only wise direction for the nation at this point in history, but sometimes parties go sour. Just look at the Republicans.
Due to my own inner conflict about sustained political loyalty, I often couldn’t resist trying to set the ill-informed ones straight. But it was the thoughtful opponents who really tripped me up.
At one house, an old, seasoned thinker came to the door in a nice suit, standing in his clean, meticulously decorated entryway. After I had introduced myself and the cause, he told me that he was not on my team.
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” I said. “Just out of curiosity, why’s that?”
“Obama’s tax plan is unsound.”
I tried to interject, but he went on.
“Raising taxes takes away the incentive to work. If people know more of their money is going to the government, and they don’t get to keep what they earn, they’re not going to be as motivated to work hard.” He explained on and on, referencing books and articles, his droopy cheeks full of knowledge puffing in and out. I found myself, somehow, nodding, before I snapped out of my trance.
“But Obama’s not raising taxes for most people,” I said.
“He is for the rich.”
“Someone’s gotta sustain us.”
“The rich won’t grow their businesses. They won’t create the jobs that we need if they know a larger percentage of their income is going to go to the government.”
“I just don’t buy that,” I said. “A few percentage points more for taxes is not going to take away the entire way people operate.”
He chuckled, as though to say, oh you young thing, just wait until you get old and jaded and understand the workings of the world.
During this time, the economy crashed, and the Republican party responded by shying away from the issue. The McCain campaign attempted to hide from clear discussion of the issue by suspending the campaign.
I was appalled. In our office, we laughed about the ridiculousness of such a proposal. It’s politicians’ tendency to skirt clear public debates on issues that keeps government from getting anything done.
But, out on turf, some people didn’t seem to care.
At a small wooden home in Wedgewood one night, a middle-aged man in a flannel shirt came to the door. It was dark out. I was standing on his small porch, under a dim porch light, dripping with rain.
“I’m here today because the nation needs a change,” I said. “We’ve waited too long to see a president address health care reform, education, ending the war in Iraq, and the energy crisis. Barack Obama has specific plans to do so.” I handed over my clipboard, but he didn’t take it. He stared down his nose at me, refusing to respond.
“Are you with us on the campaign?” I asked.
“I wouldn’t vote Obama to be dog catcher,” he said to me, leaning up against his door jam.
“Why?” I asked.
No response.
I asked again, a bit more confrontationally, “Why?” I waited for the real issue to arise, and it did.
“It’s not because he’s black,” he said.
“Oh yeah?”
“No. It’s because he doesn’t have the experience.”
“That’s not true,” I said. “He was a professor of Constitutional Law, a lawyer, and an Illinois state senator all at the same time.”
I watched his eyes for a look of recognition, but there was none, so I continued to hammer home my point.
“He juggled three serious careers.”
Still the blank stare.
“Plus he has the grassroots experience of a community organizer... He has done the work most U.S. Senators skip over… and that’s not good enough for you?”
The pause that followed felt like a serious confrontation. If it had been a staring contest, I don’t know who would have won. At that point, I don’t think either one of us had taken our suspicious eyes off the other, and we hadn’t blinked either. I could see him thinking, conjuring something. Finally he spoke.
“It’s not the same. And besides, he’s a socialist.”
Back in August, when I started, I would have continued the argument, but I’d learned that wasting time arguing meant less money for Democrats at the end of the night.
“I don’t have time for this,” I told him, and headed back out into the rain.
“Have a shitty night,” he said, “I’m glad it’s raining on you.”
“Thanks,” I called back.
This man’s knee jerk, rumor-trusting opposition, was the epitome of what I was fighting against, and I left with a heightened sense of fire for the cause.
Strangely enough, supporters were the ones that got me down out there. Not all supporters of course. Supporters made my night when they wrote out $100 checks, and particularly when they agreed to my suggestion to bump that $100 up to $120.09, symbolic of Bush’s last day in office. And the ones that made a point of thanking me were the glue that held the movement together.
But then, not all supporters made me feel very, well, supported. So often, they came to the door with painfully fake smiles. These people did not hear a word I said because they were too busy metering out the amount of time they had for the conversation in seconds.
They often tried to shut me up before I could get past the first sentence.
“We support the cause, but we can’t give you any money,” they would say.
I would respond by thanking them for their support, but sometimes no matter what came out of my mouth, people tried to paint me as a pushy intruder. I would hardly open my mouth to tell them why we were out there before they would erupt.
"Don't push it,” one man said. “We're Democrats here. Strong Democrats.” He raised his hands up in a "nothing fishy going on here" way before slamming the door.
Sometimes, when I felt unsupported by door after door of supposed supporter, the only thing that kept me out there was knowing I was part of something big. Fundraisers across the nation had taken to the streets too, and we’d been a part of one of the most successful presidential fundraising campaign in history. Barack Obama’s ability to write and deliver meaningful speeches was drawing crowds out in rain and wind. Each dollar I raised felt full of historic meaning. As of October 27, Obama had out-fundraised McCain by three times, according to Katie Couric. But it was no time to get comfortable, I told everyone I met. It was a chance to build the Democratic Party.
At another house, a woman in a brightly lit front room greeted me with seeming warmth and friendliness when I told her I was with the Democratic Party.
“It’s so wonderful that you are out there. We’re on your team, we’re volunteering, and we’ve given money before.”
“Great, well thanks so much for supporting us.”
“But we can’t give tonight,” she said.
“Okay,” I said. Then, before I could say anything more, there came that warning.
“Don’t push it.”
I’d only been there for thirty seconds, the same amount of time it would take her to read an email from the Obama campaign, but it was a second too long. She shooed me off the stoop with a push and a door slam.
But like a politician, I couldn’t afford to let unexpected slights get to me. I came to really empathize with the struggles of Obama, Biden, and even McCain and Palin, to remain simultaneously likeable and true to themselves. Once, I caught myself adopting some of Sarah Palin’s talking-point-soup style of rhetoric at someone’s door. Luckily the woman I was speaking with laughed understandingly, and I laughed back. In politics, it’s the unexpected human moments that can forge the necessary human bonds.
And an ability to react to people’s differing circumstances with the right emphasis is also important. To connect with elderly people, I emphasized the need for health care reform. That didn’t always work since they tended to be skeptical of Obama’s new ideas. If they were younger, I mentioned the need to get out of the war in Iraq. Sometimes, when people said they had given before, I mentioned the many hours I was putting in for the campaign.
Forging connections in a few seconds is tough, and sometimes the most real ones don’t result in big contributions. During the last week of the campaign, I asked a woman who had put on a kayaking fundraiser for Barack Obama to give $500. She said no, she had already done her part.
I looked out at the blue expanse of ocean behind her house and imagined a big group of people helping each other in and out of kayaks. I commended her on her initiative, told her how inspiring it was that so many people felt personally moved to engage in politics this time around. I wondered how many independent efforts had been waged in various corners of the country to get the right people in office.
I suggested she donate a symbolic contribution, simply to show that she was sustaining her support, and she agreed. As she wrote out a five-dollar check, I watched the TV screen behind her. It was the night of Obama’s infomercial, and he was wrapping up his speech with one of his most inspiring lines yet.
“I’m reminded every single day that I am not a perfect man. I will not be a perfect president,” he said. “But I can promise you this: I will always tell you what I think and where I stand. I will always be honest with you about the challenges we face.”
After eight years of hazy facts and an arrogant presidential style, Obama’s words were so refreshingly humble.
And that doorstep was the perfect place to hear them. There’s something about working on something in tandem with other people, each one independently, that put my restless mind at ease.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Now's the time

I’m so inspired this morning. Barack Obama, the man, not the politician, is inspiring me. On a little video clip emailed to me by his ever-persistent campaign, I'm struck by his air of sincerity backstage, where he reminisced with his wife and daughters before taking the stage for his convention speech.

And then there are my experiences out on the street last night, when my campaign work proved a humbling experience once again. I stood outside of QFC, on Seattle's punk-drag of Broadway, flagging people down with high, friendly waves and shouts of “Hi there, do you have a few minutes to help elect Barack Obama?”

Most of the time, people replied with “what?” I think my frozen lips were having some trouble forming the words clearly. I’d repeat my question, and—most of the time—say, oh, no, and walk on.

But street canvassing, generally, is a gold mine waiting to happen. We don’t talk to as many people as we do at the door, seeing as it’s tougher to get someone to respond to a hello on the street than a knock at the door. But those who do stop are rather friendly. We’re coached to thank them for stopping, shake hands warmly, then launch into our shpeel about there being only 26 days left to wage our fight for the White House, and how we need funding to ensure that we get organizers on the ground in the swing states to register voters.

Unluckily enough for me, I only got twenty people to stop in five hours. I wasn’t using the comic line “We’re working to send Sarah Palin back to Alaska” that proved so successful with one of our canvassers. Maybe I’ll try that next time. But I do have to raise the question: what is up with Capitol Hill?

Maybe the problem was that people are well versed in the word “no” outside that QFC, where panhandlers often gather. Last night, they held up a sign that read “Barack Obama has $25,000. We have none.”

Man, in my dreams of my future jobs when I was young, I never did anticipate that I’d be competing with homeless people. It was, most definitely, a humbling experience, being out there alongside them, doing essentially the same thing. But we did not shout out the same lines.

“You don’t have to be a Rockafella to help a fella” they said.
“There’s no nation like donation,” they chanted.
“There’s no city like generocity.” Quite clever.
Then the nonsequitor, “get down with the kick down.” Which always left me scratching my head.

It rained. I froze. But I got ten contributions. And I decided, no matter what the means, when it comes to working for change, there’s no night like tonight.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Oh, politics

You know grassroots campaigning is in your bones when you begin to see life in chunks of doors, not days. Last night, those doors were an endless year of no’s. I coaxed myself from house to house singing, "Every door's a new door..." It was a beautiful, cold, fall night atop one of Seattle’s hills. I could see the black lake below, the cityscape ahead, and the cotton-like whisps of grey clouds, edged in pink, above. But I didn't care. Democrats weren't giving me any money, and I was furious.

With 41 days left until the election, I'm feeling the urgency all Democrats should. You can hear it in the vigorous, persistent way I pound my knuckles against the doors. I can feel it in my temperament. This is not just a job anymore. I'm fighting a war for the White House. As the circus of this election season plays out, and the candidates’ positions and pasts become clearer, I'm getting more passionate. If you've been reading the paper, you understand. Embroiled in the fight, it's becoming harder and harder to let signs of voter apathy roll off my back.

Last night was particularly tough. Oh, the battle for five precious minutes of weekday thoughtfulness time. First there's getting through the initial introduction, which is a challenge all its own. Then there's the jarring beginning, when they see my unfamiliar face at the door. When one woman opened the door the other night, the first words out of her bewildered mouth were: "I don't even know who you are."

I responded, "Yes, ma'am, that's because we've never met. I'm going door to door tonight, and no one out here knows who I am." She lightened up a bit after that, laughing. It's funny how responding with a harsh tone can snap people out of their grumpiness and into a lighter mood.

But quite a few people are determined to keep the tone hostile. These people treat our interaction the same way you would treat a necessary but loathsome interaction with mildewed socks--deal with them delicately enough to throw them away without allowing them to get too close to you.

Some see me through the window and shake their finger at me, narrowing their eyes like I am up to no good, and they're on to me. Others open the door and say you know, we're just so busy right now. It's Monday night, you know? A school night. Their eyebrows are raised in high, concerned arches, like the very situation of being entrenched in the throws of Monday is excuse enough to stop me from finishing my first three sentences. Woah, Monday, I think. Your kids must have homework to do. Maybe they're worried they won't pass the unfair tests imposed by the No Child Left Behind Act, which Obama would significantly reform while McCain would give it few token tweaks. Yeah, I can see why you don't have time. Or maybe you are stressed because the economy is unstable, and you need to prepare for a busy week of struggling to save your business. I get it now. You're too stressed out by the broken system to be bothered to participate in the solution. That makes total sense.

But getting angry at these people isn't too effective, so lately I've given some thought to how I might play up the fact that I am a human person. I could arrive on a horse, showing how down-home and in touch with animals I am. Or I could wear pigtails and carry a sign that says "Car Wash" or "Lemonade." That seemed to work for me in previous entrepreneurial endeavors...but I'm not eight years old anymore. Ooh, I know, I could come with a Bible. Then they would know that I am a good person, not some political junkie tied up in all this corruption. I could start off talking about God and the end times, and how I am concerned for their soul. But awe, damnit, I think some other group already has that covered.

I guess I'll just stick to my guns about things and stop trying to change for everyone. I'll keep driving home my boring message about the stressful issues that make people think, gasp, when they are not at work. I'll keep talking about healthcare and education, and putting an end to the secretive Republican politics and the Iraq war. These talking points are not making me too popular, but they're all I've got.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Listening to the Opponent

WARNING: This is a ranting blog. Amidst the appalling things going on in politics right now, I think cyberspace needs all the rants it can get.

After the Democrats' inspiring words last week, I'm taking this week to hear out the other side. It's not easy. I tend to leave the Youtube videos of the convention in an anxious, angry state. Take Sarah Palin's talk last night, for instance, which she used to attack attack attack, rather than address the multitude of problems in health care, education, and energy that the Republicans have been ignoring for the past eight years.

There is so much illogical rhetoric swimming around right now. First off, using the word "integrity" is not proof that someone actually has integrity. Wouldn't someone with integrity address the responsibilities that political leaders are called to address? Issues like our need to develop alternative fuel sources, balance the budget, end the war in Iraq, and improve education? I'm going to have to go with yes on that one.

At this point, my desires have shifted. I don't just want a political conversation. These days, all I want is to convince Republicans that they're wrong. We are at war right now, and the enemies lurk behind a scary amount of doors.

It's pretty easy to tell when I am on enemy territory. First, there are the visual cues, which I won't go into for fear of perpetuating possibly unfounded stereotypes. Then there are the face to face cues. Once they open the door and I begin talking, the dead giveaway is the smug or laughing smile that spreads across their faces.

"Wrong house," they'll say, and I'll say "Ah," and turn and leave.

"We're Republicans," they'll announce, and I'll say "Oh really?" like it's a sickness. I can't help it.

Some aren't so nice. I had one lady yesterday throw her arms up and look at me with a threatening face as her dogs jumped up behind her in a frenzy. "Not right now," she said. Then, eyes wide and threatening, "NOT right now." I stood there wondering how to remind her I was simply a human person concerned about the state of our country. That's when she slammed the door in my face. I yelled "Wow," through the door. As I headed down the steps, she opened the door and called after me...something like "I hate you." Well, it wasn't that, but I think that's what she meant.

But what killed me was a later conversation I had with a Republican who prided himself on the amount of thought he'd given to his support of McCain, and seemed to see all my ideas as the misguided wanderings of a young mind. He said Barack Obama does not have the experience needed (at which point I always have to wonder why people don't put more weight in his experience working as a community organizer, professor of constitutional law, and Illinois state senator all at the same time, not to mention his immediate success in the U.S. Senate, where he drafted important legislation to curb energy dependence). But the man was not impressed when I mentioned these things.

"The president needs to have more experience in the U.S. Senate than Obama has. He just doesn't have enough. You know, I've watched McCain for a long time, I've seen him do great things, things that showed his integrity, like the Boeing issue he uncovered. That was not a politically popular move, but he did it because he knew it was right," the man said.

He had an air of security about him when he spoke. He hadn't just bought into this idea of McCain as a man with integrity, he'd read about it. But had he thought about what he'd read? I would like to tell him he hadn't. But I missed my chance.

It was an unfortunate conversation for both of us. Unfortunately for him, he was wrong on McCain on this point. Unfortunately for me, I was in Mexico when the Boeing thing hit newsstands, so I couldn't shoot down his argument. But I can now.

McCain's Boeing story is lauded originally as his fight against corruption between business and politics, but as it turns out, it wasn't really. According to Newsweek's June 30 issue, McCain blocked a deal between Boeing and the United States Air Force where Boeing was going to supply the Air Force with a fleet of midair refueling tankers. McCain said that it was a tax payer rip-off, and also uncovered that some of Boeing's top officials had "cozy relations" between Air Force officials and Boeing Executives. This part seems noble on the surface, but in the end, the deal wound up going through anyway, just with a different company called the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Co. (EADS). And it was discovered that some of McCain's top advisors and fundraisers were registered lobbyists for EADS. In other words, the very thing that he was criticizing Boeing for--cozy relations--he had with EADS. And now it looks like EADS is getting the bid.

Unfortunately, I did not know all this at the man's door. But in the end, his loyalty to the idea of conservatism would have trumped all arguments. He put a close to the conversation by giving me painful insight into how shallow his thinking was, when it came down to it.

"Change is going to happen no matter what," he said. "I'd just rather see it come from the right than from the left, so that it's not so radical."

Instead of screaming THAT IS NOT A REASON TO ELECT SOMEONE LEADER OF THE FREE WORLD, I raised my eyebrows in concern and said "But there's so much that needs to change. Don't we want someone who's talking about how? Someone who has plans to create 'green-collar' jobs to curb our energy dependence and to address the abismal state of No Child Left Behind?"

Somehow, all these points were easy for him too dismiss. Was it too many words? Or too many specific issues? Too many ideas for a guy who's used to listening to Republican speeches about nothing?

"We need someone who can reach across the aisle. McCain's been around. He has the connection he'll need to get things done," the man said with a wiser-than-you smile that made me throw up a little in my mouth. I swallowed.

"Oooooh," I said, shaking my head in dismay. At a loss for an appropriate retort, I simply recognized our political divide. "That's a very conservative view," I said and left.

Integrity integrity experience experience. They're just words, but they don't mean much without factual backing. Consider who has more integrity, Barack or McCain. Barack has issued no untrue attack ads on McCain, yet McCain recenlty ran an attack ad which made untrue claims about Obama's tax plan. But when it comes to attacks on McCain, Obama keeps his not only true but classy. When asked what he thought about Palin's pregnant daughter, he said people's families should not be a part of politics, and even added, in a true effort to snuff out the story's fire, that his mom had him when she was 18.

Worn from battle, all the crazy logic flying around has me disoriented. I will not venture at any conclusions today, only questions. How are we to talk about these issues across party lines anymore? Is there any way to get beyond the rhetoric to what's behind it?

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Talk to me!

All I'm asking for is a political discussion. I should wear a shirt that says this as I knock on Seattlites' doors, inviting people to contribute to the Democratic National Committee. It's the truth. But I don't think too many people would believe those words, even if I did wear them.

I've now been on the Democrats' grassroots campaign trail for two weeks. Some nights, I run into excited people who can't wait to see change happen in the country and believe the Democrats are capable of bringing it about. They donate money, and I end the night feeling useful, like I've helped the country move towards a better education system, more responsible energy choices, and an end to the war in Iraq. Other nights are pretty discouraging, and tonight was one of those nights. I knocked on 86 doors, talked to 49 people, and made a measly $15 for the cause. Ouch.

Don't get me wrong, I never expected anyone to be psyched to see a stranger at their doorstep asking for money. But I did hope to find a higher percentage of people willing to talk to me about the cause. My past few nights out, my attempts to make conversation at the door keep coming to a halt at the sound of various types of no. There's the guilty, hiding behind a nervous smile no. The absolutely clueless about the importance of the cause no. The conspiracy theorist, "the corruption is beyond help" no. And the busy, sometimes legitimately but more often not, no.

Admittedly, I'm probably the tenth thing asking for "a few minutes of (their) time." I understand. These external cries for attention can get overwhelming, so a no is not offensive. But there is one type of response that has left me particular unsettled--the offended no. Some people seem to think that politics is personal, like a religion, and should not be discussed openly with strangers.

"Don't push it," one guy said to me tonight. "We're Democrats here. Strong Democrats," he said, raising his hands up in a "nothing fishy going on here" sort of way before shutting the door.

Worse was last week, when one woman said to me, behind a screen door and from the top of the carpeted stairs inside, "My vote is my private business."

That same day, a few doors down, I asked another woman if she was a supporter of the Democratic party. Before shutting the door in my face, she answered, shortly and not so sweetly, "That's private."

Woah. Since when did politics become such a closed, personal matter? Since when did the idea of admitting which politician you support become like admitting to a crime? With the looks I've been getting--dismay, fear, anger--you would think I was asking people if they'd ever killed someone.

It should not be this difficult to discuss politics with strangers. I understand that politics is one of those things you "aren't supposed to talk about," but that rule should be limited to happy occasions like weddings and parties. In the day to day goings on of life, we need to be checking in with each other about how our nation's system is working for all of us. We can't afford to stay silent on these issues, to stop the free exchange of ideas before it starts. Is this why we can't seem to improve our struggling educational system? Because we're too afraid to talk about how? Is this why we, as a nation, did not realize that Bush had gotten us into a war for different reasons than he'd originally said? I'm going to venture a yes on both these questions. And it's got to stop.

If what we want is change, we're all going to have to start talking to each other about how. Ideas are not to be feared, they are to be shared, Seattle.