Working In These Times
Live From Battleground Ohio: Japan Comes Calling
Meet Sharon and Mindy, retirees from Brooklyn, New York just wrapping up two weeks in Toledo drumming up support for Barack Obama, Sherrod Brown and Ohio ballot Issue 2. Last year they worked the Wisconsin recall campaigns. When their union, the American Federation of Teachers, invited them to come to Ohio, they didn’t need to be asked twice.
Sharon—who has straight, jet-black hair and dark eyes reminiscent of Cindy Williams—taught junior-high Spanish in Brooklyn for 25 years. She is a Sephardic Jew who keeps kosher and can trace her lineage back through Aleppo, Syria, to expulsion from Spain. She lived in Mexico while growing up, then New York, then Israel, then Brooklyn again. She’s a proud grandmother with a grown daughter who is a Lt. Colonel in the Army, a son in Florida who served as a Marine gunnery sergeant in Iraq, and another daughter in corporate sales.
Her friend Mindy—think Rhea Perlman with curly blond hair—taught special education for 25 years in Brooklyn. She and her husband, also a retired New York public school teacher, enjoy a dignified retirement on pensions her union fought to secure. Her grown daughters work in the helping professions: one in education, the other counseling and advocating for LGBT youth and individuals living with HIV.
They earned my affection on day one at the hotel breakfast buffet, when the first thing they did after being seated was to each slap down two single dollar bills next to their pink, hotel-issued complimentary meal coupons. Every hotel employee they encounter—receptionists, wait staff, bellhops, custodial engineers—greets them by name.
Why do they volunteer to come to places like Milwaukee and Toledo to work 10-12 hour days walking routes that would tire a 20 year old, braving unleashed dogs and sometimes iffy neighborhoods, and chatting up strangers on the phone until they can recite their phone script in their sleep? Of course it’s an adventure exploring new places, and the intense camaraderie of campaign life forges lifelong memories. But mostly they come, as you learn from your parents and your social circles and your religion, because it’s what a person does.
“I mean, can you see what they’re doing to the middle class?” Mindy explains. “To women and working people? Can you imagine what they’ll do if Romney gets in?”
One elderly gentleman Sharon visited wanted only to talk about how Obama wants to take away his guns. “Guns,” she said to me in an aside, “in the plural!” Obama’s not going to do anything with your guns, she told him. When she tried to get him to talk about Medicare, he answered with “guns.” Fair taxes? Guns. Saving the car industry? Guns. “He actually said guns are more important than his Social Security! How you gonna buy bullets?”
Later in the day, a crew from Japan Public Television arrives to film labor’s phone bank in action. The correspondent is a tall, lean thirtyish man with stylish black rimmed glasses and a full head of longish straight hair arranged in what used to be called “the casual look.” His name is Hideki, and in a charcoal v-neck, black wool sport jacket and skinny jeans, he could easily be mistaken for a junior faculty member at the local university. His command of English is flawless.
Hideki’s cameraman pans the narrow interior conference room then focuses for a long time on Mindy. Suddenly, her luck seems to change and instead of getting a succession of voice mail connections you hear her engage the person on the other end about Obama, Brown and the ins and outs of Issue 2.
“Take it from me,” Mindy concludes, “Issue 2 is . . . very beneficial . . . for Ohio people. You really need to vote yes for it. Tell all your friends, too.” With a cheery “bye-bye” Mindy concludes the call, then looks up from her computer screen directly into the camera. Later, when I remark that it seemed like an unusually long conversation and inquire if she wasn’t speaking into a dead line on the other end, she withdraws in mock horror and wants to know how I could ask such a thing.
It turns the crew from Japan are staying at the same hotel we are, on the same floor in fact. We invite them to have dinner with us.
Mindy and Sharon arrive while Hideki, Dee and I are ordering drinks, and Bobby, the waiter, greets them by name. I ask Hideki’s impressions about the campaign in Ohio and feel a sudden kick to ankle. “Don’t talk politics,” Sharon whispers purposefully. Before leaving the phone bank she was warned by Kate, labors Toledo Area Campaign Coordinator, that we shouldn’t talk about politics because nothing’s off the record.
“This conversation is off the record,” I say. Hideki looks at me like I’m nuts.
Later I tell Sharon that he didn’t have a pad or pen in his hand so we were never in danger.
“He could have had his smart phone on record,” she says knowingly.
When Bobby returns for our food order, Hideki asks for the Kobe burger. Really? In Toledo? We tease him mercilessly.
The reason for Hideki’s proficient and colloquial English is the seven years he lived as a kid in Sidney, Ohio. It turns out his father is in the Japanese auto industry.
We ask if he’s visited the Romney campaign, and Hideki tells us he interviewed a Lucas County Republican Party official who essentially conceded that Toledo is pretty much rock-ribbed Democratic country. We ask if the Romney headquarters was packed with volunteers; Hideki says there weren't many, and most seemed to be mostly high school kids just goofing off. This rings a bell with Mindy and Sharon, who encountered several teenages knocking on doors for Romney one day. Rumor is they’re getting paid $130 a day.
When asked what he’s finding throughout the state, Hideki says he’s been surprised at how many people tell him that Ohio’s economy seems to be turning around. He mentions a small business owner he spoke with—a manufacturer of special containers for shipping auto parts—who’s stepped up hiring and looking for skilled workers. There’s a feeling of economic optimism he hadn’t expected, tied to the resurgence of the automobile industry.
So who do you want to win the election, he’s asked.
He says it isn’t for him to say.
Based on what you’ve seen so far, then, who do you think is going to win Ohio?
Obama, he answers.
“Your lips to God’s ear,” Sharon chimes in. “And you can quote me on that.”