Now I'm back from my fishing trip. There's nothing like fresh caught walleye for lunch. Driving 15 hours to get to the lake where we caught them, well, since I went with my 22 year old son, even that was worth it. And I needed the rest and recuperation after working the final stretch of the PA primary elections. The candidate I had been supporting, Chuck Pennacchio, didn't fare very well, but in the process, he built a statewide progressive organization that is probably the strongest Pennsylvania has ever seen. Even better, it coordinated with other progressive orgs like PDA and DFA. Note that moveon.org is conspicuously absent.
I learned an enormous amount about campaigning and the political process. The final election day was particularly enlightening. I started out working one of the wealthiest wards in downtown Philly, a block off Rittenhouse Square. The voter traffic was so light, I started asking any passersby on the street if they were going to vote democratic, and if they answered yes, I started pitching them on the two state wide candidates I was supporting-- Chuck, running for US senate, and Valerie McDonald Roberts, running for lt. gov.
The response I was getting was excellent. One couple even walked into the polling place to vote, though it wasn't their polling place. But their response was palpable evidence. I was motivating people. So I decided to amp up my efforts. I walked the block to Rittenhouse Square, a one block square park, with lots of benches where, on a beautiful spring day, hundreds of people were eating their lunches or taking breaks, reading or just enjoying the sun.
I started walking up to them, asking, "Have you voted in the primary yet? Would you like to get rid of Rick Santorum?"
Now remember, Philly went over 80% for Kerry. It's a very Democratic city. Looking for Democrats there was like shooting fish in a barrel.
You might be thinking-- I'm too shy to start going up to strangers and talking to them. But at one point, I was paralyzed by the idea of speaking to strangers, let alone talking in front of a crowd. But I pushed myself, and now, it's easy. You just have to take the first steps.
While voters were entering the polling place about one every 10-15 minutes, I must have hit over 60 people. I kept the conversations very brief-- qualify them, pitch them, give them literature and get a commitment from them to vote. I can't tell you how many people thanked me. Why? Because the newspapers and TV stations in Philly and its burbs failed to do their job of informing the public. The Democratic party wanted to keep them ignorant, because, as our polls showed, the more people found out about the party's "endorsed" candidate, the less likely they were to vote for him. I was amazed to see that the Sunday before the elections the local papers had nothing on the elections on the front pages.
Next, I went to a polling place in Philly's West Mount Airy, where 99% of the voters are African American. I went there because it was supposed to have one of the highest voter turnout rates. To get there from center city Philly, I had to drive through inner-city North Philly, another area that is just about 100% African American or Latino. On Here's where I got some more education. On the way, I noticed a lot of people at an intersection and realized it was a subway stop. I pulled over, parked and started doing my election day routine, asking people if they had voted, did they want to get rid of Santorum. I'd say 60-75% of them had already voted. Compare that to maybe 10-20% in downtown, upscale center city Philly. I pulled over, parked and did impromptu canvassing at three subway stops. Same result at each-- the African American workers returning home from work had voted in the morning. I probably gave out an additional 50 lit packs at the subway stops.
Finally, I got to the polling place, at a playground, in a well groomed neighborhood that ironically, was just blocks away from where my aunt and uncle had lived in the fifties.
When I arrived, I found an African American man handing out a sample ballot that had the "other" progressive candidate for US senate, Alan Sandals, name on it. I asked him if he was a Sandals supporter. No. He was being paid to hand out the sample ballots. He didn't know anything about the candidate. About half the time, he'd get to voters before me. Then I'd do my routine, a different one here. It went like this, "Are you here to vote? Can I tell you about two Democratic candidates?" Then I'd talk to them about McDonald Roberts and Pennacchio. If the Sandals "ballot-pusher" got to them first, I would inform them that the man was a paid promoter, that he knew nothing about Sandals or the race, that he had a right to make a living, and that I am not paid and DO know the issues, but they should keep the whole picture in mind, as my way of gently suggesting that just because he was African American and I, caucasian, he should be trusted more. Actually, this reminds me that there was another Sandals worker handing out literature who arrived, just as I was leaving the upscale polling place outside of Rittenhouse Square. Again, he professed to know little or nothing about "his" candidate. Lesson learned; if a candidate has money, there are all kinds of ways to work the system and promote the candidate. And I thought it was just about the costs of TV ads, campaign printed material and polling.
But my biggest lesson came when I walked into the pollling place, to check it out. Inside the door, a huge man, probably 500 pounds, under six feet tall, was seated about 15-20 feet inside the door, greeting voters. He was one of the local ward committeemen. People addressed him as Pastor. He was basically instructing his constituents to vote the sample ballot as he supplied it. The sample ballot was based on the endorsements made by the state democratic committee. Philadelphia is not one of the dozen or so counties in PA that do their own endorsements. It goes with the state endorsements.
Lesson: If you want your statewide candidate to win, you better make sure he or she is endorsed by the state party committee. Or, at the least, prevent anyone else from being endorsed.
I want to be clear. While I was standing at the outside door of the polling place, I approached every single person I could. Most would politely listen to me. A few brushed me off and would only talk to the committeeman. A few ignored him too. But most at least talked to him and took his sample ballot. He was someone they knew, trusted and listened to.
I met a few people running for committee person. Many of them were running unopposed. Some of them were progressives. This is a key aspect of taking political power that no-one seems to talk about. If we progressives want to get winning progressive candidates, we need to control the nomination and endorsement process. We need to be able to be there, at the polls, as elected committee people, able to be the local Democratic "guru" who advises who to vote for. We need to be the committee people who are eligible to cast votes at county and state levels for endorsements. We need to be the people the Democratic incumbents depend upon to help them get elected-- because then they will be more likely to be accountable to us.
Maybe I'm a naive, ignorant example of a political activist. But I don't think so. I'm one of thousands of people who the 2000 emergence of the Bush monster awakened and activated. And I've been working with other newcomers to political activism as well as oldtimers. This keystone roll of the committeeperson has not been discussed or addressed. It may already be too late for many states. But it is something that is incredibly powerful at the grassroots level. I like to think biologically sometimes. Committee people seem to fit into a biological / political analogy at a cellular level. A human being is composed of billions of cells. Each cell has core organelles. They have to be functioning properly or the cells die. The body can't survive if some key organelle doesn't function in enough cells. A candidate won't survive if committee people at the ward level don't get behind him or her.
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