Issue No. 18 • Spring 2017
One of the requirements of being a field organizer in Pinellas County is to own a car. Raised in San Francisco and schooled in New York, I tend to pride myself on being the sort of person who would not own a car. Indeed I didn't, but I accepted the job anyway, reasoning that these were the types of sacrifices one has to make in such consequential times. Just the willingness to make a short-term investment in a car doesn't make it just happen though. I don't know exactly what I would have done without the help of my Supporter Housing, but only thanks to him was I able to find such a trusty 2001 Nissan Altima.
"Supporter Housing" is one of a myriad unique phrases (among them "vol" for volunteer and "knock a door" meaning "knock several hundred doors") which quickly make their way into one's vocabulary after mere days of working on a campaign. It refers to a generous campaign supporter, in this case a retired military contractor named Kevin Kiely, willing to lend out his spare bedroom to an exhausted 22-year-old whom Kevin could go weeks without seeing. I would leave for the field office before Kevin woke up and return late at night after he had finished each of his nightly cable shows. Of course, the phrase Supporter Housing began as a description of one's living arrangements, but over time came to refer to the people who offered them up. Kevin was my supporter housing. My boss, the regional organizing director for mid and south Pinellas County had a Supporter Housing who was a retired astronaut. One of the two other organizers working out of the Largo office, Sophia, lived with a married couple I only ever knew as Sandyandlauren. To this day I can't remember which is which.
The job of a field organizer is fairly simple. You spend the first part of a campaign registering as many voters as possible, and the second part of the campaign making sure they vote. Your success in that endeavor depends largely on your ability to cultivate a large base of volunteers, and even largelier on wild national swings that make all of your efforts worthless. A typical day would see me racing into the office at 9:03 (late) and trying to make sure I had everything ready for the day. I had to print out call-lists for phone bankers, and coordinate where I would send my volunteers doing voter registration. Then, as volunteers came in, I would train them, either on the phones or in what we called "VR," confusing every retiree who came into the office excited about their chance to try out the new Oculus Rift. Depending on how close I was to hitting my goals, I might have to go out myself to register voters, or have to stay in making calls. Our call goals ranged from 150 to 300 "personal dials" a day, including nonstop calls between the hours of 5 and 9pm, when pickup rates are highest. But response on these calls are still extremely low, as some of my volunteers can attest to. At one point, I spend 45 minutes training a volunteer on the phones only to have her quit after making 9 phone calls and having nobody pick up.
"I don't think this is working," she said. Then she left the office and never came back.
Following call time, we had to enter all the data we had collected that day into the online system. Every call, every shift scheduled, every voter registered or signed up to vote by mail. Usually we would have help from our data volunteers like Brad, who was the only person I knew in Largo to ride a bike without a DUI. Lad liked to come in at night to help with dat because he usually didn't get up until about 5pm anyway. As it turns out, he had spent several years in federal prison and was in the process of starting his own religion.
Finally, we had to prepare everything we could for the next day. We prepared clipboards to ensure they were stocked with VR forms, and tidied up the office, which was invariably strewn with call-sheets and empty water bottles. It was always mysterious how this amount of work always kept us until midnight. Maybe it was exhaustion or the joy of finally being rid of volunteers, but the nighttimes, after even the data vols had left, were when time seemed to speed up, and as we changed our chalkboard counting down the number of days until the election, it never quite felt real.
Every day, at least a few groups of people would stop by day to inquire if this was where they could get those free yard signs. We had a stock of them, of course, but only to keep people from freaking the absolute heck out. It's hard to understand for people like me, who were raised outside the confines of a swing state, but people feel rather strongly about yard signs. If you don't have them, they will yell. If you try to claim they are not very important, they will scream. If you try to get them to volunteer, they will shout bloody murder.
"There are too many Trump lawn signs out there! We got to get more Hillary signs!"
"Can I take five, I promise I'll give them out to my neighbors."
Still we tried, frequently and desperately, to explain the best way to help is to sign up for a few shifts.
"Maybe try making phone calls, registering a few voters, knocking a few doors?"
"Look, I'm offering to put up a sign in front of my house. That's ALL I'm willing to do."
I swear I heard the phrase "That's all I'm willing to do" three hundred times in my two and a half months in the Sunshine State.
Perhaps the most common refrain I heard from casual supporters on the phone was "I can't help you, but I'm campaigning hard on Facebook." When I pressed them, and I always pressed them, they would state firmly that they are of course doing their part because "I post on Facebook every day and that's ALL I'm willing to do."
In the waning days of the campaign I took to writing grandiose poems int he form of text messages addressed to the two other organizers in the office every time a yard sign person walked through door. Two such message went like this:
The yard-sign person, standing over us, 100 feet-tall. It's eyes, large, glow red with lust. "Free things," it demands, its voice, deep and faraway, like a train in the distance. Beneath it we sing our cry in unison: "shifts." But our calls are weak, and go unheard by the mighty beast, who lumbers away, its arms flapping loosely in the wind, carrying 16 signs with it, to plant them in its trunk, to be forgotten until December.
Yard Sign Man, with beard of shredded plastic. Colorful shirt bleached pale from sun. We hack at the tethers that bind him to his notions. "Shifts," we cry desperately. "A few hours of your time." The Yard-Man laughs, a full-throated, yet hollow tone. "I can't," he demands, "I work part-time at the Kinkos." He pulls himself up from the Earth and lumbers away, change falling from his broken pockets, and hope leaking from our broken hearts.
It could be the yard sign people were right. Maybe Hillary Clinton just needed the exposure that only yard signs can bring. Her issue, in my opinion, was probably just a lack of name recognition.
Invariably, we staffers knew less about the twists and turns of the election than the volunteers. The primary source of news for us organizers in the Largo office was Judy Gibbs, who would arrive at the office before opening (we eventually gave her a key) and breathlessly asked us if we could believe what Donald Trump had done this time. Every day, we would say we had no idea, and that we didn't really have much time to keep up with the news. Perhaps surprisingly, the national campaign had very little to do with our work. No matter what was happening on the front page of the New York Times, our jobs stayed the same. A parade of faces would come through our doors, still glowing with the reflected rage of their favorite MSNBC anchor, shocked that Donald Trump had said or done such as thing as this. To me the only really surprising thing was that people kept on being surprised.
"There's no way Donald can win now that this tape has come out. This will expose him as the kind of man he really is." Fed a steady diet of Rachel Maddow and Saturday Night Live, volunteers never seemed to be asking themselves the question I found myself asking every day: "How could anything change anyone's mind at this point? Who in the world, who has heard Donald Trump talk for more than 20 seconds, would be surprised to learn that he rejoices sexual assault. Who has decided previously that they were okay with this man being president, but now they can no longer justify voting for him?"
People never once believed me when I told them there was a chance Hillary would lose. Their favorite anchor told them over and over that this race was really about taking back the Senate. The White House was a done deal. People would constantly justify not coming to help by claiming that the election was in the bag. When I hypothesized that maybe it wasn't, they would laugh. And then usually they would hang up.
We looked upon the presidential debates with loathing and horror. For each debate, word came from the state level that our office must organize a watch party. These events were designed to rouse our supporters, create a sense community, and result in new waves of volunteers. It's a good idea in theory, but I found roused by an event where Donald Trump got so much freedom to show his true colors Following one debate, I was tasked with making a call for the assembled to sign up to help us out, that this debate was evidence that we must do everything we could do support Hillary. Not an hour earlier Donald Trump had made the claim that he would accept the election result-if he won. Somehow I was less roused than I was woozy from shock and sadness and also wine.
Pinellas county is one of those "Bellwether Counties" they keep tabs on as the results come in on Election Night. Directly across the water from Tampa, and north of St. Petersburg, Largo is a strange microcosm of a town. 85% white, 9% latino, 6% black, 3% asian. Half Democrat. Half Republican. The town was my tiny model America, and I watched it fall to bits as precinct after precinct I had walked and driven and gotten to know as well as any place I had ever lived, went red for Donald Trump.
Florida has this annoying habit of making it very difficult to vote if you're a Democrat. You will get turned away from the polls if your address does exactly match the address on your voter registration, or if you are at the wrong polling place, or if you don't have your ID, or if your ID is the wrong ID, or if you don't have two pieces of ID, or if you have ever, ever committed a felony.
Almost without exception, people I sent out to register new voters came back with the same shocked discovery.
"People want to register to vote, and they really want to vote for Hillary Clinton, but they can't." The volunteers would avert their eyes and drop their voices to a whisper, "They're felons." Person after person would tell me they were all in for Hillary, but they were arrested for smoking weed when they were 18, or for driving with an expired license or for shoplifting a pack of gum. None of them were ever allowed to vote again unless granted a special exception from both Republican Governor Rick Scott and Donald Trump's second favorite Attorney General Pam Bondi. In all, a full 23.3% of voting age black Floridians are permanently barred from voting. Far, far more than the numbers it would have taken to swing the result the other way.
One inescapable truth of running a volunteer-powered organization in suburban Florida is that you're going to get a fair-few retirees. Many of these folk, even those in a Hillary Clinton field office, can have antiquated opinions. And Democrats in Florida aren't quite the same as Democrats in New York. On November 10th, as we were clearing out the office, Charlie, one of my most loyal volunteers, took me aside to council me. He told me how proud he was of the work I had done, marveling at how I was able to keep my cool working with two women. "It's not easy to spend so much time with people you have nothing in common with."
The night of the election I slept in my car because I didn't want to risk facing Kevin. I didn't want to risk facing anyone. I felt responsible, like I hadn't worked hard enough. But I was also mad at everyone who had helped me. Even the people who came into the office kept claiming the election was a shoe-in. We were coasting into an easy victory. People began asking us where the victory party was going to be more than a month before Voting Day. Of course it wasn't their fault. They were the good ones, the helpers. It wasn't even the fault of the Facebook campaigners or the Yard Sign People. The election wasn't decided by the margin of better organizing or more volunteers. Donald Trump didn't win in a landslide like he may claim, but he won the electoral college handily. There wasn't anything any of us could do with the hands we were dealt.
Maybe it's true that Hillary Clinton just wasn't the right candidate for the time. She was, after all, a woman. In retrospect it seems obvious that America wasn't willing to elect a woman President. That much became obvious when they picked Donald Trump as her opposition.
It feels different now. People are mad enough that they could have swayed the results of the election. It frustrates me to think of how much more useful this energy would have been only a few months ago. But letting go of that blame might just be another of those sacrifices one has to make in consequential times.