March 13, 2009 § 2 Comments
Or How the Brits Helped Us Win the Election
The voice on the telephone is distinctly British.
“I’m calling from the Barack Obama campaign.” The voice says “Ba-rack” like “coat-rack,” rather than “Ba-rock” like the rest of us have been saying. “We understand that you’d like to volunteer for the campaign.”
Oh right. I had clicked that box on the online form. “That’s right,” I answer brightly, but sighing inside. I’ve worked on almost every Democratic presidential campaign since Carter in 1980. I wonder if that makes me something like the kiss of death. I wasn’t going to do it this time around, but then McCain unveiled his lipsticked pit-bull, and it made me really uncomfortable that someone that dim might be a heart beat away from the presidency.
“Can you come in tonight?” the voice inquires. Why is a British person working on the Obama campaign? “Hello?” he asks. Tonight. I wasn’t sure my commitment could be that immediately summoned.
“Er, I have a previous commitment for this evening. What about tomorrow?” I make a note of the directions to the address, at the intersection of Gettysburg and Germantown. Good grief, how were they going to get any volunteers there ever, let alone at night? I’m not timid about neighborhoods, but there are lots of folks that wouldn’t set foot in the intersection of Gettysburg and Germantown, even in the broad light of day.
The next afternoon, as shadows lengthen through the trees, I set out for the campaign office. Up Third Street I drive, past Rut’s Eatery Soul Food, Beer & Wine & Laundromat, past the International Brotherhood of Church Ushers, past the mural that urges the neighborhood to “Try Harder” to the edge of the Veteran’s Cemetery, (44,000 white headstones,) finally turning left onto Gettysburg Avenue.
The intersection at Germantown and Gettysburg is home to two gas stations, (one Shell, one BP) a Papa John’s pizzeria and a defunct RiteAid. Hmm. I turn right up Germantown Pike, past the Key Bank, the permanently closed liquor store, an abandoned donut shop. In the driveway of the C.J. McLin Correctional Center, I turn the car around. A right turn down Gettysburg reveals a steep hill, apartments that look like public housing and another convenient place to turn around in the parking lot of the Rockhill Missionary Baptist Church.
Back up the hill to the intersection, I pull into the BP station and look around. No campaign signs, no places that look like they might be campaign headquarters. It’s twenty minutes past the hour I was supposed to be there. Oh well, they probably don’t really need me. I put the car in gear and drive home, passing the Wireless Carry Out & Party Supplies. I bet they don’t have any paper hats, I think to myself.
When I get home, my son says, “Some guy called for you. He left his number.” The “guy,” to my surprise ,is the English voice, Tim, from the campaign office.
“I’m so sorry, I couldn’t find the office. Oh. Okay. Well, sure. I’ll be there shortly. I’m leaving right now.” I guess they did need me after all. I’d been very close at the Wireless Carry Out & Party Supplies.
At the top of the hill on Germantown is a small cream colored, utterly unremarkable 1930s era office building. In the window hangs the iconic Shepard Fairey poster of Barack Obama. But I see how I missed it, as in the rear view mirror, Dayton glimmers in the distance like a modern day Oz. I remember admiring the view as I drove towards it earlier. But how did I miss the guy on the front sidewalk, waving an Obama sign and calling out “Ohhh-Baaahhh-Maaahhh” at every passing car? Those who honk jauntily are rewarded with a thumb’s up.
The office is a salmagundi of campaign posters, leaflets, stickers, legal pads, pizza boxes, drink cups, coffee mugs, all deeply shadowed in the late afternoon light. The chaos is anchored by two desks at right angles, covered with open laptops, a collection of cell phones, a scattering of clipboards. Behind the desk sits a slight, pale man, somewhere between the ages of 14 and 40. “Hi,” he says, standing up and extending a hand. “I’m Tim.”
He gives me a clipboard, a sheaf of addresses to canvas, and we talk for a little while about the campaign, and the nuances of going door to door. I’m gathering up the materials to leave, when I ask if he’s an immigrant, or here on a student visa, or what. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the idea of an Englishman on the campaign.
“Oh no, no. I’m just here to work on the election. I work for the Labour party in Britain. I just got here a few weeks ago and I’ll be headed back a few days after the election. This is my first visit to America.”
When citizens of other countries come to help us with our elections, we must truly have strayed far afield. Apparently Tim has been to other troubled places to help with elections: Africa (where elections truly are something of a different order) and I think he said the Balkan states. It’s remarkable, the company we find ourselves in.
The days and nights and weeks that follow are marked by each turn of the page on the clipboard, by each set of steps up to each doorway where the door will either open to reveal an enthusiastic Obama fan, a hostile McCain supporter, or someone very concerned to find a middle aged white lady in a dress standing on the porch. (Those people are always relieved to take the literature and promise fervently to turn up early at the polls.) Sometimes the door won’t open at all, and there is a box on the page to check for that too. One of my colleagues in the field will be back. The whole campaign strategy is based on relentless nagging.
A training session for “team captains” is held one Saturday morning at the University of Dayton featuring campaign strategists from the top of the state level down. If this makes you think of serious men in smoke-filled back rooms, you couldn’t be farther off. Think instead of the zeal of multilevel marketers combined with a high school pep rally. We are to make five compulsory cell phone calls to five potential volunteers. Random individuals are put on the spot to reveal their results. Sometimes the cell phone is plucked out of their hands so that the strategists can talk to the potential volunteer. I want very much to crawl under the chair.
The central event of the morning is a long skit designed to reveal the structure for the final push of “Get Out the Vote” on Election Day. Tim is there, the only one in a suit, looking every inch the middle brother between Harry Potter and John Lennon, wearing a large handwritten sign around his neck that says “ Houdini.”
The job of the Houdini is to make the names on the voter rolls disappear, by carrying the names of those who have already voted back to the staging locations, where they are entered against the master list of voters who are likely to cast their vote for Obama. Early voters had already been removed from the list, and those potential Obama supporters that remained on the list through the day would be subject to more visits from the Obama faithful. “Have you been to the poll yet?” “Do you need a ride?” “Oh, sure, you can take your children with you.”
In the mornings and afternoons and evenings spent in the campaign office, calling potential volunteers for Election Day and entering data into massive databases, I find out a bit more about English Tim.
He’s a graduate of Balliol College (est. 1263) at Oxford University. The undergraduates at Balliol are thought to be perhaps the most politically active in the University, and those students are noted for having particularly left-wing proclivities. Balliol has a college tortoise (to expand on this would take another entire column) and for 43 years before her mysterious disappearance in 2004, the resident tortoise was named Rosa, after the noted German Marxist, Rosa Luxemburg. The student in charge of caring for the tortoise (Rosa’s replacement is Matilda) is referred to as “Comrade Tortoise.”
So it is not at all surprising to hear Tim Flatman say that his personal feelings about the candidate is that Obama is just a little too far to the right, especially when you consider that during his tenure Tim served as the co-chair of the Oxford University Labor Club, and is a member of the Socialist Youth Network. Perhaps one would not expect that he had also played the cello in a quartet while at university.
He wouldn’t be mistaken for an “angry young man.” Though clearly passionate about the issues surrounding migrant workers and asylum seekers, and promoting the most ideological qualities of socialism, he seems little bothered by the pettiness that so often slows the political process. British Prime Minister H.H. Asquith (1852-1928, PM from 1908 to 1916), himself a Balliol alumnus, once acerbicly described Balliol men as possessing “the tranquil consciousness of an effortless superiority.”
Seeing Tim in his same black pullover from day to day, wolfing down burritos on the run, and constantly, ever so gently shepherding, directing, guiding all manner of volunteers, there is not a shred of evidence that he feels effortlessly superior, even if his tranquil consciousness is as ever present as his olive drab rucksack. The melange of English meets ebonics sometimes makes for a communications challenge. It’s interesting to see how both parties work it out.
One Saturday about ten days before the election, there is a full-court press for canvassing. Two campaigning cells jostle for space in the one cramped buildinge. The other group, headed by a determined young black sorority sister, is almost savage in their collective ambition. This is not to say that they don’t sincerely want Obama to ascend to the presidency, but their attempts to see what they can attain for themselves along the way is embarrassingly evident.
During the course of that Saturday, they poach volunteers from Tim’s carefully tended pool. The sorority queen’s minions squabble so vehemently among themselves that one pleasant middle aged black couple who had come in to volunteer, turn quietly on their heels and leave. One of the organizers, a mouthy New Yorker with seemingly endless collection of sleeveless hoodies, cannot seem to speak without sneering. It concerns me that these people are campaigning on Obama’s behalf, but Tim takes it in stride. “Their district has the history of the poorest voter turnout. They need all the help they can get.” He has his eyes on the prize. Not even his prize, our prize.
I am sent on dry runs to see how long it takes to get from the staging area to various polling locations, (so that they can anticipate the lag time for Houdinis) calling in after arriving at each prescribed destination. I save the number as “English Tim” on my cell phone. Months later, it remains there even though I am certain that the number of the burner phone the campaign furnished Tim is no more likely to reach him than it would Santa Claus.
On the Sunday before the election, when I step into the office, something is immediately different. Jerry, always dapper in navy jacket and gray slacks, gives me a hearty good morning. The office has been re-arranged; one might even say “decorated.”
“Where’s Tim?” I ask.
“Oh, Tim was deported,” Sleeveless Shirt boy says, coming down the hallway. “We threw him out of the country. Are you here to volunteer?”
“Now, now . . .” cautions Jerry.
“Nah, I’m just kiddin’ ya, he went to another office. To hang out with more British people. Gotta love those Brits workin’ on our campaign.”
In the car, there’s a message on the cell phone. It’s from Tim, with directions to the new office, in the positively palatial (by comparison) Canaan Community Center. The former Beth Abraham Synagogue, up on Salem Avenue, is still in the heart of Dayton’s west side, but far less on the fringe than the Germantown Pike office. This space, too, is shared with another subset of the Obama-machine, but the “Tim” of that group is the genial Tucker Hutchinson, who affably shakes my hand and says “But we already have a Red Team Captain.”
Tim shrugs. “Well, now we have two.”
Indeed there are more Englishmen. Bill Turner, a social worker and another Labour Party member, has decided that this occasion was worthy of a trip across the Atlantic. A man of Indian descent, who gave his long and melodic name twice before grinning and saying, “Just call me Raj” is stateside on business with his firm. He too is here to help, an hour after getting off the plane. My husband, who has flown in the day before, accompanies me tonight; he has been away in Montana for months.
We work together at a long table in a meeting room on the second floor of the center. This is the final sort through of the master list, checking and re-checking for those voters still left to cast their ballots. This information is fed back into the database, and a new list is generated, one more effort to get out the vote.
Vanessa Edwards Foster, the president of the National Transgender Advocacy Group, a longtime activist and a transgender identified delegate to the Democratic National Convention, came from Houston on a bus with a group of volunteers. In her blog, Transpolitcal, she writes:
“Tim actually came over on his own dime to devote his time to electing a president in America! That was impressive, and actually depressing at the same time. We rarely concern ourselves with elections outside of the U.S., much less being volunteers on their campaigns. We have a tough enough time getting our own out to vote, much less volunteer, even more rarely involving ourselves as heavily as Tim. Yet here he was organizing us on our own elections there in Dayton.”
Walking up the stairs, Tim is telling us about his most recent canvassing efforts. Apparently there was one neighborhood that no one wanted to go to. Isolated and poor, it has a (perhaps earned) reputation for violence and danger.
“Even volunteers that live near there didn’t want to canvass it,” he says with a laugh. He goes on to say that he gathered up the sheets and started going door to door. At most doors he is greeted with surprise, and then enthusiasm. He discovers a hotbed of support for Barack Obama. “I got twenty more volunteers in one afternoon,” he adds, grinning.
If you ask Tim, or Bill, or Raj why they take such an interest in American elections, they will speak to you about global influence and world concerns. They are, of course, interested in furthering the socialist agenda of the Labour Party, but they are a bit cagier when it comes to talking about it. Some topics just don’t play as well in the states, and really, socialism is poorly understood here.
The legacies of George W. Bush have left a mark on Britain like those of no other president in recent times; costs that include a declining economy and war dead from a quarrel not at all their own. It’s no surprise that they are interested in seeing a change on the American political scene. What’s impressive is the extent they’ll go to in the effort to make it happen. I don’t know where Tim spent the few hours each day when he wasn’t in the office. I don’t know how he funded a transatlantic trip and nearly a month on foreign soil. We kept meaning to have him to dinner, but the days ran out. When we finally leave at nearly one in the morning, just hours before the beginning of Election Day, Tim and Bill are still there, sorting and collecting and stacking reams of stapled canvassing sheets.
We start The Day in the clear and chilly dark. Tim is sick, some kind of upper respiratory virus finally having taken hold. His voice is just about shot, and the day has hardly begun. In a tiny back room (Aha! At last, back room politics!) I meet with the former mayor of Dayton, Clay Dixon, and the other Red Team Captain. He reminds me of slightly of James Earl Jones, and his presence is commanding. He calls me “Boss,” and I laugh.
Line Managers come to see us and we send them to polling places. They’re to report back with any problems, each of which will be delegated to the appropriate problem solver. There are some problems, the first being that the back room has very poor cell reception, so we don’t always get the call when they call in. Clay Dixon’s method of fixing things is often “hands on,” and he is frequently heading out the door to go handle something.
In the front room, Tim and Tucker are organizing canvassers, sending out teams in every direction. The leagues of volunteers are the tireless foot soldiers in Obama’s army. Everyone has a job (or several) to do, and the hours click by in the rhythm of the leaving and returning, the little excitements that warrant a call to the Board of Elections, making sure that the voters, every one of them so precious, has what they need to get their votes cast. All day women come in with food: fried chicken, mashed potatoes, salads, biscuits, cookies, candy. Coffee. Tea.
As night falls, line managers go out again, each armed with a bag of tricks to keep voters amused as they stand in long lines.Then the calls begin to come in. There are no lines at any of the precincts. How long should they stay? We confer. Stay a little longer.
We get a visit from the current Mayor of Dayton, Rhine McLin, a woman whose father C.J. McLin was a state representative and a driving force in the civil rights movement. He sued the McCrory’s in downtown Dayton when they refused to serve him at the lunch counter there. Mayors McLin and Dixon greet each other warmly, it’s interesting listening to them talk. This is a historic occasion for all of us, but I’m not sure that us whites really understand the deeply exquisite sweetness this night will bring.
But first, a dose of nonsense. Panicked by the lack of lines at the polls, the campaign field organizer, Michael Berger (who is not to put too fine a point on it, an ass) comes charging down the stairs. A thirty-something black man who has mastered the air of self-importance, he orders (yes, orders) everyone out the door to canvas. The Mayors have already gone on to places unknown, and the women with the food aren’t going anywhere, but he wants everyone else on the street right now. Then he rushes back upstairs to his office.
We’ve already let the Line Managers go home, so my job in the back room is technically done. Would I stay, Tim asks, to take the canvass sheets that come in? Of course, how could I say no? Somehow, he’s found his voice again as if he’s beaten back his cold with sheer will. Plus, my husband has been sent out to canvas with Bill Turner (one of the other Englishmen), neither of them knowing a thing about the streets of Dayton. The Community Center, after a day abuzz with intense activity is very quiet. I wander into the room where the women wait, poking around for something to nibble on.
In ones and twos, the canvassers come back. The last canvass has not turned over any non-voters. Either people are not home, or they are home after voting. There continues to be no lines at the polls. People shrug. I take their sheets and stack them on the table. Now they are helping themselves to the posters on the wall, anything leftover on the shelves. As soon as that starts, the waiting women finish the job, stripping every last remaining remnant of the Obama campaign as souvenirs.
We exchange stories, everyone is exhausted, but reluctant to let go. Working on a political campaign is like a theatre production, creating instant alliances, an immediate kind of affinity, the shorthand of initimacy, all of which ends when we pack up the greasepaint and go home.
Tim comes in out of the cold and he is cheerful. He hasn’t turned up any pockets of reluctant voters either.
“No lines just means we did our job,” he says and the satisfaction is evident in his voice. “We got out the vote early.” Volunteers and staffers scatter into the night, many to downtown clubs to watch the returns. No one asks us to join them, and that’s fine. We’re very tired. Five o’clock in the morning was a very long time ago. We call out our goodbyes and stagger to the car, going home to watch the returns on television.
It is no surprise that Montgomery County, with 80 percent turnout, falls into the blue column. But just minutes after 11, when the polls in California close, they call Ohio for Obama. And as goes Ohio, so goes the the presidency, I cannot help but weep. I think about calling Tim, but he’s already drifted out of reach.