On the Kansas side of the Kansas City suburbs, common wisdom holds that Kansas is a red state. For those of you who aren't familiar, Kansas is that perpetually red rectangle on the center of your political maps. It is unquestioned; Democratic candidates don't even come here to campaign. (Obama has been to Kansas City, MISSOURI twice.) But Democrats and liberals DO exist in Kansas. I know, because I am one of them.
It is tough to be a progressive in a predominantly conservative area, but you would be surprised at how few ACTUAL conservatives I meet. People here who have no real interest in, and/or any discernable knowledge of politics tend to label themselves "conservative" because liberals have been so demonized that they believe conservatism is the norm. But when you talk policy with them, they are interested in the same things that I am interested in; liberty, justice, education, jobs, religious freedom, civil rights, a non-intrusive government, etc. When they are forced to really think about what they believe, it is not so different from what you or I believe as progressives. Just don't call them liberal or progressive; they don't stand for that.
So it was on a cold, wet Saturday after the Republican National Convention that I found myself standing with the largest group of volunteers I had EVER seen at my Congressional District's Democratic field office. There were so many of us (I would estimate my group to have numbered sixty) that we would not fit in the tiny district office. We were not the first; two groups had gathered before ours and the next group was beginning to form inside. The volunteers asked us to step out into the alley behind the office.
We talked amongst ourselves as we waited for instruction and marching orders. I was there because I had been shocked to action by McCain's pick of Palin as his Vice Presidential nominee. All that I could find out about her, along with my personal impression of her, convinced me that this person would be a DISASTER for our country. I had summed her up as the mean cheerleader in high school; part shallow, insecure anti-intellectual, part bully. To have her follow the arrogant frat boy that has been president for the last eight years was just too much to stand.
As we all spoke with those around us, others voiced that same concern, and others. A young woman with a six-month old baby in a stroller will be voting for the first time; she was ashamed to admit that she had never paid much attention to politics. She has real concerns about where things are heading. Some ladies and gentlemen of retirement age were volunteering for the first time out of concern for the economy (and this was before the stock market tanked). College-aged kids felt strongly about ending the war in Iraq. Middle-aged women and men voiced concerns about the lack of education spending. One lady spoke with visible passion about the historic possibilities of electing the first black President. Many voiced the opinion that Obama seems to be more down-to-earth and that the middle class needs an advocate. Some were even registered Republicans.
It is actually not as strange as you might think that a registered Republican would turn up to canvass for Obama in Kansas. Many of the Kansans I know are registered Republican, not because they identify with that party's stated goals or policy planks, but because there are so few Democratic candidates that run for office, that, if they don't register Republican, they seldom get a choice at all. They feel the need to vote in the party's primary to hopefully weed out the ultra-conservatives. (We have a particularly nasty one in Johnson County that is like the horror movie character Jason Vorhees; he just won't die.) Though we have experienced high profile political desertions lately from the Kansas Republican Party and an overall surge in Democratic registrations before the primaries, until recently most local races featured Republican candidates running unopposed. Sadly, it seems the national Democratic Party does not feel the need to build a following here. Even with Dean's 50 State Strategy, we seem to have been left for dead.
After we received our instruction, we were told to canvass in pairs for safety reasons. I turned to the fifty-something woman next to me, and we agreed to canvass together. As we picked up our packets and headed to a nearby neighborhood, it started to sprinkle. We mapped out our strategy, gathered our supplies and started out to talk to registered voters. The campaign volunteer had instructed us that we could choose to go to all houses on the list or just the ones that had registered Democrat and/or unaffiliated. We were in a working-class neighborhood of mostly unaffiliated voters. After a few less-than-cordial run-ins with registered Republicans, we decided to stick to Dems and Unaffiliateds.
We began by going door-to-door together, though we eventually split the streets by side and went it alone. We spoke to a middle-aged woman who will be voting for a Democratic President for the first time in her adult life. She was very upset about the way the Republicans had "screwed up the country," and, though she is strongly pro-life, she just couldn't bring herself to vote Republican again. She has grandchildren to think about. We spoke to a woman of retirement age that had raised two children as a single mother when it was not "in vogue" who will be voting for Obama because she is so frightened by who McCain would put onto the Supreme Court and could not believe that women's rights to privacy might be taken away in her lifetime. We spoke to many folks who had been leaning toward voting McCain until he picked "that stupid Palin woman" as his vice presidential nominee. We spoke with a young lady visiting her mother about the importance of voting in this campaign and helped her to register to vote. I told her I know what it is like to be a young single mother, worried about the cost of childcare, healthcare and rising food and energy prices. I brought up the fact that Obama is the only Presidential candidate to my knowledge that knows firsthand what it is like to be on food stamps. (For my part, it should be a prerequisite for candidates to have known poverty at some point in their lives.)
By the time we got down to the end of the first block, the rain had picked up to a steady shower. My canvassing partner ("Sally") was smart enough to have brought an umbrella, but neither of us could figure out how to hold the umbrella while managing our pamphlets, maps and voter lists and filling out our questionnaires. Though my forms started to get a little soggy, and we were wet to our skins, we were in good spirits.
Sally and I spoke as we walked between houses. I am a forty-something mother and grandmother with strong Constitutional convictions struggling to remain in what I perceive to be the working middle class. She is a recent convert to the Democratic Party that feels strongly about the need for change. She is a pharmaceutical rep with grown children and one in college who will be voting for her first Democratic President. She obviously felt strongly enough about it to get out and talk to others about her decision. I told Sally about the Republican woman I spoke to who wants to vote for McCain, because she truly believes he is a maverick and could whip the party into shape, but vowed not to vote for him as long as Palin was on the ticket. She was very angry about what she had heard Sarah Palin was doing to polar bears. Sally told me about the retired gentleman who will be voting for Obama because he is a big Joe Biden fan. He had voted for Bush in 2004 and believes it was a big mistake.
To sum it up, Sally and I spent four hours walking in the rain in a Kansas suburb, speaking mostly to unaffiliated voters, some Democrats and a few Republicans and met with only two that were definitely voting McCain. While some were still undecided, by-and-large most we talked to said that they would be voting Obama. This in Kansas, a state so red, the DNC doesn't even acknowledge our existence. It was a good day; well worth the ache in the legs and back that I felt for two days after. It was a gray, rainy, cold, wet day full of HOPE for the future of Kansas and the country.
Even better, when I got home, I planted the neighborhood's first Obama sign in my front yard. It joined the three signs for Democratic Congressman, Democratic District Attorney and Democratic State Representative that had been placed in my yard while I was gone. Within a matter of hours, I received two phone calls from neighbors thanking me for my signs. Both callers have been Democrats for years but were always afraid to put signs in their yards because they were afraid to irritate neighbors that they assumed to be Republican. Over the past few weeks, many more Democratic signs have popped up in my neighborhood. The moral of this story...It only takes one rabble-rouser to build a coalition.