That's my four year old friend, his dad and our friend Lea at the door of a home in Virginia. We spent Sunday afternoon canvassing for Obama and the down ticket races in this housing development whose residents had names from Gomez to Kim to Ilbibi to Hussein to Brady.* These were town homes with small back gardens, beautifully kept and facing out onto mini-wooded areas that made it feel peaceful and apart. Not fancy, just well-designed and executed. Plastic bikes and push toys sat out in the open; we even saw some skateboards left leaning against a tree. Not too much worry about theft, apparently.
As we walked, I realized that this - these homes occupied by families of so many backgrounds, were part of what we were campaigning for: the opportunity of all Americans building their lives to find a place - a home -- a life. And that the battle, underneath the craziness, is about the best way to guarantee those rights -- and possiblities - to more of us.
The past week or two have been painful for Obama supporters. Polls are down, Sarah Palin seems to have hijacked much of the campaign, the McCainies are attacking and the attacks, however vicious or frivolous they may be, (and the are) seem to be sticking. That's what drove me to Virginia Sunday. In all my years around politics I've never done field work; for most campaigns I've been a reporter and during those years I was scrupulously careful to remain neutral and apart. Now though, I'm out of the news business and I can campaign. And so Sunday I was walking around Virginia with three friends, a water bottle and a clipboard. Our assignment: talk to the folks on our list, find out if they've decided for whom they will vote and check the right boxes. We check Strong, Lean, Undecided. If they support our guy, we make sure they're registered and ask if they want to volunteer.
We didn't really meet anyone we could try to convert and in our 57 stops we hit lots of "not home" -- it was Sunday afternoon after all, and the rest were either for Obama or "We're for the other guy -- you've come to the wrong house." The lack of conversion candidates didn't matter though because we were mostly building a registration and GOTV (Get Out the Vote) list that will be accurate and useful on election day. The coolest moment: meeting an 18-year-old first-time voter-- I suspect a first-generation American and clearly excited to be voting for Barack Obama.
*I'm using names of the same ethnicity but not the real ones; that feels too intrusive.
Organizing this kind of undertaking isn't easy. This one office in Bethesda, MD, run, as far as I could tell, almost entirely by very capable volunteers, sent out 85 canvas teams this one Sunday alone. It happens every Saturday and Sunday - sending Maryland volunteers to Virginia since Maryland is pretty secure and Virginia could be within reach, if there's enough effort there. It was exciting, and gratifying, to be part of that effort. Between now and November 4, I'm going to keep at it as much as I can. And make calls, too.
The first, and only other, time I worked in a campaign it was the Eugene McCarthy anti-war campaign in 1968. I was a college kid and organized carloads to go to New Hampshire to canvas. When we got there though, somebody put me in charge of the press room and that's where I stayed for the entire campaign. Never knocked on a door. From there I became a reporter and producer so, as I said, this was all new to me.
I have, however, spent a bit more than 30 years as a producer and I know a good operation when I see one. This was remarkable - orderly, calm, loose and friendly, flexible with no grandiosity or drama. We didn't just get sent out someplace, we received pre-built packets that had been pre-sized for groups of 2, 4 or more. They contained voter lists for our assigned neighborhoods (bar-coded.) You can see a photo of one above (though I've omitted the bar code/name column for obvious reasons.) They contained not only a Mapquest page on how to get to the very corner where we were to begin, but also a close-up map of our cul-de-sacs with dots at every home we were to visit. And a "script" to work from -- just basics -- along with the instructions for "the person who's not driving" to read them aloud. And there were voter registration forms and absentee ballot request forms and day-summary forms. The orientation itself was simple, respectful and clear. We left within minutes, armed with our packets, bottles of water and a couple of home-made cookies, Obama stickers on our shirts, and got to work.
I got home in early evening, feeling better than I had in some time, but also far more clear about the need -- and the power -- of what I could do. I just signed up to make phone calls to my home state of Pennsylvania. A little bit every day. I just hope that, all of us together, it will be enough.