I’d already finished my shower and gotten dressed by the time my alarm went off at 5:30. Truth is, I’d been awake for a while, nursing that lump of dread in my gut. Was I really going to do this thing?
Two presidential elections ago, I’d complained to my friend Mike that I’d contributed and I’d voted and there was nothing else I could do. Mike, who is much more civic-minded than most (he was born in Canada, after all), begged to differ. He challenged me to join him making canvassing phone calls in swing states.
Anyone who’s spent more than five minutes with me knows how conflict averse I am. How I recoil from even the slightest social tension. But this was a freaking presidential election – how could I not step up to the plate?
Turns out I’m not very good at phone bank work, but we sat around the living room and made calls together for a few hours. The next day I made a few more. Everyone said it would get easier, but frankly, it didn’t.
What it did do was relieve the sense of futility that most of us (probably on both sides of the gaping political divide) feel. Simply doing something, like getting up and running a few miles when you’re stressed out, let me think clearly again, let me focus.
Now, those who know me also know how far to the left I lean politically know which side I was calling for. And while I don’t want to take sole credit for it, I felt strangely empowered when all three states I’d been calling went “blue” in the election.
I made phone calls again for the mid-terms, but not as many. There was a lot going on. And in 2016, we just made our usual donations, filled out the ballots and mailed them.
This is why, at 5:30 on a Saturday morning, I was driving down to San Jose to get on a bus to Modesto to help canvass for a Democratic challenger in a neighboring district. I’ll spare you the politics of why I picked Josh Harder to support. But I had to get out and do something.
I’d tried, earlier in the week, to do some phone bank volunteering. You know how they say that character is what you do when nobody’s watching? Well, sitting home alone, staring at that phone, I didn’t have the character or courage to keep making phone calls. I needed structural incentive. I needed to get myself into a situation where I couldn’t back down when I got uncomfortable, where I couldn’t get distracted and just start checking Facebook.
Modesto seemed like just the right thing to keep me uncomfortable.
I drove south to the rendezvous in pre-dawn quiet – was I really going to get on that bus? Once I had, I knew I was committed; I’d be surrounded by true believers, folks who’d been doing this for weeks, if not more. If nothing else, shame would prevent me from backing out. The lump in my gut protested: think carefully.
I did think. And I thought of how ashamed I’d be if, after this election, we’d missed restoring some balance to our terribly out-of-kilter nation. And if all I’d done was sit by the sidelines and cast a single vote.
I’ve mused before about my grandfather Jack, and a saying he would conjure: You do what you can. It went both ways. First: if there’s something you can do, you do it. It’s okay to complain – that’s how we bond and come to grips with the situation. But once you’re done complaining, you buck up and do what you can.
Second, I think he was reminding me that there’s a limit to what any of us can do. And once you’ve done that, you’ve done it. There’s no point beating yourself up, twisting around, or trying to figure out what you could have done better. You’ve got to make peace with the fact that you’ve done what you could.
I drove on.
The bus was dark and empty except for the driver when I arrived. Maybe I was in the wrong place? I asked the driver: “Modesto?” He nodded. “Modesto.”
Last chance to bail out…
I picked a window seat and dozed as others trickled in. We were half full by the appointed departure time. Ten minutes later, an enthusiastic local coordinator was shooing the last of the volunteers on board and offering us pumpkin bread and squeeze applesauce. The murmurs went up: “No coffee?” She shook her head sadly. “We’re going to stop on the way.”
The sun was warm by the time we arrived at campaign headquarters. My seatmate Julio and I had bonded over our nervousness about volunteering. But for Julio, this election was personal. He grew up in a migrant family, picking apples with his parents. He gave me yet another reason to be there.
Freshly caffeinated, we filed off the bus and into the warehouse that serves as campaign headquarters. One round of volunteers was just finishing their training, so we milled about outside until it was our turn. Then scrunched together under the banner as a tireless young man in a hi-viz vest enthusiastically went through the routine one more time: how to use the canvassing app, what we can say, what we can’t say, what we do when we don’t know what to say. Any questions? Millions. But it was time to go.
You know how I said I was bad at phone banks? I’m even worse at in-person canvassing. I teamed up with two other Bay Area volunteers. We synchronized our apps while a local driver shuttled us out to our target neighborhood, then divvied up the streets and hit the sidewalk.
It was a relief when the doorbells on my assigned houses went unanswered. When I did find the person I was trying to reach (“Hi, I’m a brand new campaign volunteer for Josh Harder. May I speak with Lucia Hernandez?”) I found myself tongue-tied, unable to get through the questions.
They weren’t even tough questions. We weren’t trying to convince people to change their minds, we were trying to convince them to just vote. Historically, the gap between registered voters and “likely voters” is the chasm that decides elections, and my job was to convert the former to the latter.
But most folks who were home were friendly and understanding. Some were supportive (“Thank you – we’re working on it, but appreciate the reminder”). Some just smiled politely and shook their heads (“Sorry, but we’ve already decided.”) That was fine. Only had one who treated me like an axe-murderer-in-training. But she was more than outweighed by her neighbor, who treated me to a story of how his mother came to the country with nothing, and how the social services in California helped her get on her feet and buy her own farm. He figured he needed to keep paying that forward, and was teaching his kids to, as well.
Near the end of my day, on our last round of houses, I crossed paths with an energetic young man out knocking on doors for incumbent Jeff Denham, Harder’s opponent. He seemed, as I’ve said elsewhere, a nice enough fellow, but in too much of a hurry to chat. We did talk long enough to agree to at least hit the current block in opposite order, so as not to tag team residents with back-to-back doorbells.
I’ll admit that I did consider suggesting that we visit doors together and offer folks who answered the opportunity to get both perspectives at once. But I found no one particularly interested in asking questions or hearing opinions. Mostly they just wanted to assure me that yes, they were voting (or had voted) so that I would go away and they could get back to their Saturday afternoon.
We were exhausted by the time we finished the last of our houses around 3:00. Our roster had been shorter than expected, as two of our assigned canvassing sections turned out to be inside a “By Invitation Only” gated community. But I’m not sure we could have handled more than we did. We flopped down on the sidewalk corner and called the number we’d been given for pickup.
The local volunteers gave us a hero’s welcome as we shambled back in. Water, cookies, shade and thanks. By 4:30, the rest of the “bus gang” had returned. We compared notes, stories – most hilarious encounters and most awkward – as we piled back onto the bus. There were parting hugs from the locals; we really had just dropped in and saved them tons of work, and then off we went, driving into the sunset after another day of trying to keep our democracy going.
So why am I telling you all of this? Because I want you to think that I’m an awesome (if a bit too liberal) civic minded citizen? Sure. But there’s another reason. Ready for it?
I’m going again tomorrow. Thursday Nov 1st. Back out to Modesto again, but driving myself this time. And I’ve got three empty seats. Who wants to come along?