The Third Third

Lessons from the Campaign Trail

I am feeling somewhat personally responsible for Hillary Clinton\'s 10 percentage point victory in PA! I am particularly proud of the votes in several of my now favorite boroughs and townships of Bucks County, where voters came out, as they told us they would, very strongly (70+ percent) for Hillary. I am also overwhelmed by my embarrassingly recent understanding of how so many people in this country live – in a kind of relentless and to me, oppressive, stalemate with fate, stubbornly resisting the failure of true statistical poverty, but failing, nevertheless, to secure any capacity to improve their lot, as if it were preordained that they would live next door to or around the corner and down the street from the parents who worked in the factory or shipyard that’s now shut down. I was assigned to canvass in working class neighborhoods, northern Philadelphia suburbs, that ranged from poor to really poor, to *really, really, really* poor -- from the wrong side of the tracks to practically *on* the tracks. From each a slightly different, but definitely distinct character emanated, some more civic, some more defiantly middle class, some just barely hanging on. These were stable neighborhoods, unscarred to date by foreclosures, and these were stable populations, seemingly content to have achieved the American dream of home ownership, whatever the shape of the home or neighborhood. They were not moving anywhere. More, (and this surprised me), they seemed very patriotic. But the Republicans, they said, had brought about hard times. They hoped they could continue to pay the mortgage (or, in some cases, the rent), that even though they had been laid off, and their neighbor had lost his job, someone in the household would be able to keep working, and that things would get better when the Democrats got back into office, like it was when Bill was President. Interestingly, it was in the more attractive and newer neighborhoods that we found people expressing despair and seeking reassurance that our candidate could be trusted to come through for them, given what they were going through, especially as single mothers no longer able to afford, for example, all the medication prescribed for themselves, or for a child. In the more politically active neighborhoods, where there were signs for a variety of candidates, most of the voters had made up their minds long ago, and some voters talked with great excitement about seeing “her” (Hillary Clinton) down the street at their high school (and everyone said “*our* high school” very proprietarily) earlier in the week. Some who had decided more recently said the Philadelphia debate had convinced them to vote for Hillary. In other precincts, again, notably in the newer neighborhoods, voters less absorbed by the campaign said they hadn’t made up their minds how, and sometimes even if, they would vote. I studied and “read” the details. It seemed to me, after a time, that one could tell a lot, even assess incremental increases in income or buying power, by the condition of the storm door – did it have both upper and lower screens and window panels? Was the handle secure? A doorbell – especially one that still worked – I saw as a sign of relative affluence. There were few doormats, but several decals, seasonal wreaths (both Christmas and springtime), and souvenir shop signs declaring “Welcome” and/or hardware store signs warning “Beware of dog.” Lots of little dogs. Some of the roughest looking houses had a couple of sections of chain link fence with a gate across the front sidewalk, and, in many yards we found stone or wooden Blessed Virgin Marys, rabbits, dogs, birds, mushrooms, and/or trolls and elves planted in otherwise barren flower beds. There were American flags and “Support Our Troops” decals everywhere. All the houses were small and square; most were white; only a few were truly well-maintained, but they were not squalid; they were merely unkempt. They seem to have attracted a lot of “stuff,” including bikes and trikes and street hockey sticks, a headless Santa and playpens thrown down on the grass, worn out couches and mattresses on the curb or in the bed of a truck, and collections of all kinds of things in the windows – dolls, fake flowers, ceramics, and, from time to time, I would see two or three or four cats, sometimes alive or real, and sometimes not, between the glass panes and the lace curtains. Except for the very occasional apartment building, each residence had both a front and a back yard, and in springtime in Philadelphia, the beautifully flowering trees – red, white, and pink -- were the only landscaping anyone needed, or, for the most part, had, although we also saw striking red and yellow tulips, royal blue hyacinths, and a few spent daffodils. Everybody smoked. Came to the door smoking. There were ashtrays on every stoop outside the door, just as there were cars – economical, serviceable cars – no SUVs, no Priuses, no German imports -- on virtually every driveway surface and, as the workday came to an end, lining the street. A couple of neighborhoods had a plethora of other vehicles – a big truck, a speed boat, a motorcycle or two, or an RV in the side or back yards. Still, while there were a few people about, I didn’t see or hear many children playing, and on the weekend, you could count on one hand the people working in their yards or washing their cars on one of the area’s warmest spring days. The fact that my \"Team Texas\" colleague (I was traveling with two others, a woman I knew 20 years ago who resurfaced in this campaign, and a politically active man she met during the course of the campaign in Texas, and we worked as a very effective and efficient \"odd trio\") told prospective voters we had come from Texas to help get out the vote for Hillary was a totally foreign concept. These are not people who are in the habit of getting on airplanes to go anywhere. And yet, what might have been a complete and total disconnect was not. I stopped every once in a while to remember that I was a college classmate of the candidate, knocking on strangers’ doors to ask them to vote for her and I wondered why most people opened their doors to me so willingly and, in fact, listened to what I had to say. Most of the women gave me a big smile and a strong “thumbs-up;” most of the men said they’d be there at the polls on Tuesday. I detected no bitterness. I had been told this effort has been proven to increase voter turnout by three to four percent and after the first several hundred homes, I began to understand I was talking with people who were happy someone cared enough about them to come to their homes and ask for their votes. I was absolutely fascinated -- humbled, and fascinated. Every once in a while my guy friend on Team Texas would tell someone I had gone to college with Hillary, usually when he thought that long-standing human connection might make a difference to an uncertain voter. His instincts were right. They wanted to see me, look me in the eye, and ask me if they could trust her to do for them what she said she would. I had to tell them I knew nothing of politics and the way things get done, that I could make no promises based on the reality of having to get elected, but that I knew she was deeply committed to women and women’s rights, children’s rights, health care, education, peace, and justice – and that she had been since I first knew her at 19 – and that I was convinced the only reason she was running for President – it’s not as if she needed a job – was to make good on these commitments. It was real, and they believed me. Still, I often wondered what in the world I thought I was doing -- especially when we hit a set of trailer parks where the “Not at home” option on our report was excruciatingly literal: more than once we found only the remains of a pad where someone’s trailer had once been parked. A couple of times we were told, “Oh, she left; she died.” Here all the patterns I was beginning to understand fell apart. Here was the quiet desperation of scores of 32-ounce beer bottles in a recycling bin, syringes on the grounds, and teenaged kids hovering over what my team-mate was certain was a meth lab. Here were the men in wife-beater shirts, the drinkers gathered at a corner hurling insults at the Hillary signs on our van, here the folks who’d shout “Get out of here!” and yet here, too, were a number of single women -- 20, 30, 40, 50 -- who looked like they’d been around more blocks than I’ll ever see, insisting they’d get to the polling place Tuesday for Hillary. Anxious and exhausted, my team decided to take a break shortly after we left the trailer parks at dusk Sunday night. My colleagues wanted to go to Manhattan for dinner!! I felt like the dork I was in seventh grade; I was too tired; I didn’t want to go; I had visions of our bodies sprawled along the New Jersey Turnpike and no one being able to figure out what we were doing there. But I couldn’t get back to where we were staying, so I strapped myself into the back seat and went along for the ride, succumbing to peer pressure to live a little more expansively. We almost aborted the trip because of the traffic, but eventually drove through the Holland Tunnel about 90 minutes after we visited with some Obama canvassers at a turnpike stop coffee shop (everyone was friendly), and headed uptown. Driving through Manhattan’s neighborhoods to midtown, and securing a legal on-the-street parking space, which was, serendipitously, right across the street from a restaurant we’d been looking for (though we couldn’t recall what cross street it was on) was an absolute hoot – the whole trip turned out to be a therapeutic and absolutely hysterical experience, and dinner was delicious! Getting back to our accommodations at 2 a.m. we deep-sixed our plans to do a 7 a.m. “Visibility” gig for Hillary (that would be standing on a busy street corner with Hillary for President signs as people commuted to work Monday morning) and rededicated ourselves to knocking on at least 300 more doors, beginning at the more reasonable hour of 10 a.m. I was extremely impressed with the young women running the Bucks County office -- they were incredibly smart, upbeat, efficient, and effective -- made me feel much better about the campaign, except that Obama still has better materials, stronger attendance at rallies and the press eating out of his hand. I am coming to the conclusion that Oprah\'s brilliant multi-level marketing must be at work here. . . . Anyway -- I was happy for a glimmer of hope, and hugged everyone good-by when I left to return to Texas. We’ve emailed the three who seemed to be in charge to congratulate them on their impressive margin of victory in Bucks County, and to ask where they’ll be assigned in Indiana so we might work with them again. Yes, Team Texas is traveling once more for the campaign. In fact, my colleagues made plane reservations for me long before I was able to decide to go. I was holding back, thinking once was enough to learn all these lessons about socio-economics, once was enough to make the point that I cared about the campaign, once was enough to see if anything anyone did made any difference in the vote, once was enough to leave my neatly organized, respectable, predictable life and husband in a purely emotional response to the abuse Hillary has taken in this campaign and my sense that this could be history in the making and I wanted to be part of it, even a (very literally) pedestrian part. But as the fight for the nomination continues, it seems once was not enough, just as winning big in Texas, Ohio, and Pennsylvania was not enough; the vote in Indiana is also going to be critical. So knocking on doors for a few more days is the least I can do.
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