Friday, October 31, 2008
October 31, 2008
NYC Lesbians Hit Philly for Obama
A group of New York City lesbians took to the streets of Philadelphia to turn out the vote for Barack Obama. The Illinois U.S. senator holds a comfortable lead there, but John McCain has fixated on Pennsylvania as the only sizable blue state he hopes to turn red.
By Kerry Eleveld
It was around 8 a.m. last Saturday when a troupe of about 35 New York City lesbians and several men piled into a bus bound for Philadelphia, where they had signed up to knock on doors in an effort to get people to the polls for Barack Obama next Tuesday.
“It’s one of those elections where 20 years from now people will ask me where I was, and I want to have an answer,” said Katie Kelly, 24. The proclamation immediately inspired a protest from her 26-year-old girlfriend, Elspeth Greene. “Hey, that’s my line,” Greene said, as they stood next to each other in matching “Obama for President” T-shirts, one purple and the other green.
Pennsylvania has become increasingly important as John McCain pulled resources out of other states such as Michigan and Wisconsin that voted Democratic in 2004 to concentrate his efforts on winning the Keystone State’s 21 electoral votes. Most recent polls there show Senator Obama with anywhere from a 7- to 14-point advantage, but McCain’s advisers have argued that voting trends in the state are sometimes unpredictable and that it’s their last, best chance to steal a “blue state” from Obama, even as the U.S. senator from Illinois threatens to flip a handful of key red states such as Ohio and Florida.
Bus organizers Erin Drinkwater, 28, and Tanene Allison, 27, said the road trip was the second stage of a grassroots effort to get more LGBT women involved in the campaign. “The strategy was, How do you get new people engaged in the campaign and destigmatize canvassing -- make it fun, make it accessible?” Allison said, as the cult classic But I’m a Cheerleader played in the background on the bus’s video system. The three-step plan had started with a canvassing sign-up party held at a local lesbian bar called Henrietta Hudson the previous week, and the daylong commitment to walking Philadelphia was actually a baby step on the way to a bigger request -– who might be willing to spend the three or four days leading up to November 4 walking neighborhoods in a swing state like Ohio, where Allison planned to be.
When the movie ended, Drinkwater and Allison offered a mini training session. People would pair up and be provided with a “walk kit” that included a map of the area they were to canvass, the exact addresses of the doors they should approach, and the names, ages, and party affiliations of the people who lived there. At this point the campaign had enough intel about each area to know where Obama supporters were and who might still be a fence-sitter, but McCain backers would be skipped altogether. The main priority was motivating the right people –- Obama folks, in this case -- to the polls, especially since Pennsylvania has no early-voting option.
“The campaign tries to make four contacts with voters before Election Day -– the constant contact is what gets people to vote,” explained Allison. Volunteers were to mark down whom they spoke with, confirm whom that person planned on voting for, and urge them to vote. “The campaign will know who to target on Election Day based on what we do,” said Allison.
And if people seemed particularly enthusiastic, they should be given the opportunity to work with the campaign. “If people are interested in volunteering, there’s plenty of ways to engage them in their comfort zone,” said Drinkwater. “They can make phone calls without ever leaving their home.”
New York, a reliably blue state, has provided a rich well of volunteers to Pennsylvania throughout the primaries –- when many New Yorkers canvassed for Hillary Clinton –- and now into the general election for Obama. According to campaign aides, one or two LGBT-specific buses have been shuttling back and forth from New York to Philly ever since September 27 -– about eight in total (though the Henrietta Hudson bus, sponsored by local activist Yetta Kurland, was not officially coordinated by the campaign.)
It’s all part of a massive volunteer effort in Pennsylvania, but campaign officials aren’t divulging any numbers. When the group of women arrived at the Germantown field office, spilling out of the bus and onto the sidewalk, passersby knew exactly who they were and from whence they had come. “Thank you, New York!” one man offered spontaneously.
The Obama field office, one of 81 across the state that total about 700 staffers, was a bustle of activity –- from the “check-in” station up front, to an intensely focused crew of phone bankers with eyes glued to their call sheets, to a coordinator who was tracking their get-out-the-vote efforts for the day. The women were quickly given their marching orders and dispatched. Drinkwater paired up with one of the group’s 15 first-time canvassers, Melissa Hooper. “This is so exciting,” she enthused as the two approached their first door on Queens Street. “This is my first time to do this…ever!”
Germantown is a predominately African-American area, with a mix of Indian-Americans and lesbians and socioeconomic strata varying from blue-collar to middle-class. Drinkwater, a congressional aide by day, said she had worked a similar neighborhood the week before in Pittsburgh –- highly Democratic but with traditionally low turnout on elections. “The people there were so pumped,” she said, adding that it was sort of a nervous excitement. “You got the sense that the community wasn't really sure -– Can this really happen? Is this really going to happen?”
As the two white women weaved their way through the streets, they met with a similar dynamic. Most people had already encountered campaign workers and had quick answers for them. “We’re ready,” Beverly Banks offered immediately, while she and her family unloaded groceries from their car. “I’ve voted in every election since I was 18, whether I knew who was running or not,” she jested.
Banks patiently listened as Drinkwater ticked off the list of folks living at the address, confirming who was registered and who was voting, including her own three daughters. Then Banks proudly added that her youngest daughter, Alicia, was 33 and would be voting for the very first time in this election.
Another 33-year-old who planned to vote for the first time was Beatrice Harris. With tattoos ranging from paw prints to names and geometric symbols lacing her body from head to toe, Harris, donning a bright red “Obama for President” hat, declared her love for the candidate.
“I have this huge poster of him over my bed,” she said, approximating how big it is as her hands drew an imaginary square against the wall. “I think my boyfriend's a little jealous of him, actually.” Harris had been volunteering for the campaign, the first time she had been involved in the electoral process in any way. “This is something I will never ever forget,” she said.
Oliver, a white 20-something who declined to give his last name, was the closest Drinkwater and Hooper came to encountering an undecided voter in their 12-block radius. He answered the door chatting on his cell but got off the phone to engage. He said he wasn’t sure whom he was voting for but quickly followed with “I'm not voting for McCain.” As Drinkwater prodded him a bit about his hesitations with Obama, Oliver didn’t name anything specific. “I might just vote for Ron Paul because he's independent,” he concluded.
Back at the field office several hours later, the volunteers checked in their walk kits so the new data they had gathered could be entered into the computer system that night. As the band of women assembled to get back on the bus, field office volunteers broke into an “I love New York” chant.
During the 2 1/2-hour bus ride home, Drinkwater and Allison facilitated a group debriefing. Feedback was overwhelmingly positive. “It’s really moving to connect with people about something so important,” said Miranda Massie, a 41-year-old straight ally who was on the bus.
Athena Reich, 32, told the group how she had managed to get the phone numbers of 11 new volunteers for the campaign in one day -- a record, according to field office workers. “I just asked people if they wanted to volunteer, and if they said no, I would say, ‘But you can change the world.’ ”
Claudia, a 29-year-old Romanian who participated even though she is not eligible to vote on Tuesday, remarked at what an unusual opportunity it was to engage at random with other people in this country. “Americans in general are so private,” she said. “Being so close to their premises and reaching out to them -- it’s something that doesn’t happen so often; it’s very rare.”
Based on the number of walkers that day and the average number of doors and contacts that people typically make, Allison estimated that they had knocked on roughly 3,200 doors altogether and made about 1,600 contacts (though Drinkwater and Hooper’s route yielded less than a 50% contact rate).
But more importantly, Allison asked for a show of hands as to who planned on canvassing in a swing state and who else might be ready to sign up. Of the 35 volunteers, nine had already committed to going and 12 more said they would be interested in doing so.
Allison took her seat and reflected on their experiment in attracting new Obama recruits. “It worked,” she beamed.