Sunday, September 28, 2008

Notes from the road: Shoe-Leather Democracy

(Image copyright Image Comics. All
rights resererved).

Last Saturday, I did my bit for the cause of hope. I went door-to-door doing voter registration for the Obama campaign.

Pennsylvania is a swing state. If Obama clinches it, he’s probably going to be elected. Obama got a 9-point bounce in the polls after the debate last Thursday, so things look good right now. However, we know from past experience that nothing ever can be taken for granted. We also knew that Obama lost here to Hilary Clinton in last spring’s primaries. If McCain wins in November, given the state of his health, the net result will most likely be a know-nothing moose-hunting beauty queen in the White House for 8 years or more and a Supreme Court completely owned and controlled by corporate CEO’s and television ministries. So a dozen or so of us upstate New Yorkers took up clipboards and pens, grabbed stacks of Pennsylvania voter-registration applications, piled into cars and headed for the Rust Belt city of Scranton, Pennsylvania, about an hour and change south of us. I rode with our organizer, Donna (not her real name, protect the innocent, etc.). I think she was channeling Mario Andretti that morning as she piloted her subcompact car down Route 81, its check-engine light blazing all the way. We got to town in record time.

Obama headquarters is in a theater building not far from Boscov’s department store. Here we briefly mixed with locals working on the campaign as Donna checked in with one of their honchos. There were bagels and cream cheese, which I attempted to avail myself of until I realized that what I thought was a sesame bagel turned out to actually be a garlic bagel. I threw it away because no way did I want to go pitch for Mr. Obama with a breath that could stop a vampire. I had half of a whole-wheat bagel instead. Anyway, Donna soon hustled us back into her car and headed out for our designated turf.

I’ll tell you, if you ever need driving directions, forget Google Maps. It sent us here and there just to make a simple turn. It left street names out on maps. A drunken gas-station attendant could have seriously done a better job. But eventually we got to where we were going, a housing project on the edge of town. I set out with Donna for one side of the street while another volunteer, Harvey (again, not his real name), who’d ridden with us covered the other side.

I knew that convincing people in this particular economic class to register and vote was going to be a very tough sell. I’d attempted to register voters in the projects in my own hometown several years earlier, and while the people a fellow volunteer and I met were by and large decent to us, they made it abundantly clear that they had absolutely no interest whatsoever in participating in a system which they probably believed was keeping them in poverty.

The cross-section of the population of the housing project we arrived at last Saturday was African-American, lots of Hispanics and some white elderly people. The houses themselves were boxy brick-and-wood duplexes, and others containing four apartments each which looked a suspiciously like double-wide trailers. We met several Hispanics who politely told us in broken English that they weren’t interested in voting. They were citizens, not illegals, so there was no issue with immigration, but they were just plain not interested. Donna managed to turn some of these people around and register them anyway (we made a note to bring more Spanish-language registration forms with us next time).

Single mothers proved to be our toughest clients. One was an attractive woman in her late twenties with three children who made a living (though I still don’t see how) working at a Wendy’s fast-food restaurant. She was knowledgeable and apparently paid attention to political developments, but was simply turned off to the idea of voting, period. She preferred to leave things up to chance, and that was that. I told her that I believed even voting for the lesser of two evils was better than letting the worst of them win by default. Donna reminded her of how many times John McCain had voted against raising the minimum wage in his career as a senator, but even this argument wouldn’t wash. After trying to convince her to at least register, for over 10 minutes, we bid her goodbye and set out for the other homes in the projects.

Our easiest sells were people over 65, some of whom had no doubt gone through the Great Depression of the 1930's. Many of them were Obama supporters, though we did meet one die-hard Republican who told us that Obama was trailing by 50% or so after last Thursday’s debate. His friend or housemate who was standing nearby reminded him that Obama had in fact gained several points. Donna and I suspected that the guy had been watching Fox News. The most bizarre encounter of the day was a buxom woman of about 60, who appeared outside her front door dressed only in a worn, ripped body-length T-shirt which didn’t hide very much. She proceeded to rant incomprehensibly about Hilary Clinton. She basically repeated the same sentences over and over, ignoring whatever Donna or I said. Finally, Donna and I politely excused ourselves and took off to the next home.

When we’d finished, Harvey had signed up five people, Donna and I had signed up eight. We went downtown to get some lunch and talk strategy with the other volunteers. I noticed that there was a comic shop nearby, so after finishing my meal, I sauntered on over and bought a few interesting titles, including an R. Crumb book which I’d never seen before. On my way out, I thumbed through the new-release shelves and found the book whose cover is reproduced above. When I showed it to the other volunteers, they stormed the comic shop and bought up every last copy.

I’ll be doing it again next weekend. Film at 11.

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