Working In These Times
Live From Battleground Ohio: Final Day of Doorknocking—Are We Making a Difference?
Telephoning voters on a rainy afternoon, I connect with a gentleman who deftly turns the tables by shifting the subject to his favorite pastime—piloting gliders.
I try to redirect his attention to the upcoming election, only to hear him ask, “You ever go up?” (The answer is no, not in a million years).
When he tells me he’s a World War II veteran who’s been flying light gliders for the better part of 60 years, I check his age against the call sheet and, sure enough, he’s 90 years old. I manage to get out the words “Sherrod Brown” and “Barack Obama,” to which he says “sure, sure, that’s who I’m voting for,” before telling me that, weather permitting, he’ll be flying solo again this weekend.
I remind him about Ohio’s early voting procedures and urge him not to wait and to be sure to cast his ballot right away—sound advice for any voter, especially one who’s 90 and flies gliders.
If Ohioans vote their pocketbooks in 2012, the state’s 18 electoral votes are a slam dunk for the Democrats. An array of Democratic programs—Obamacare, the automobile industry rescue, Pell grants, funding for basic research, food stamps and agricultural price supports—directly benefit the state’s economic and job creating engines of manufacturing, health care, higher education and farming, the same sectors the Romney/Ryan policies hang out to dry. Turning Medicare into a voucher free-for-all and Social Security into a crapshoot threatens the standard of living and quality of life for seniors and their adult children. Allowing the tax system to reward job exporters and coupon clippers disproportionally shifts the burdens to working class and middle-income people in the form of a higher taxes, lost exemptions, bad roads and bridges, a struggling public education system, and inferior public services.
But with only a few days to go, the race still feels tight.
Some of the most stubborn anti-Obama voices you encounter belong to the very people the Romney/Ryan policies would harm the most. Sondra, my waitress at the hotel, can’t give me a factual reason why she’s voting Republican, telling you what she believes rather than knows. She gets most of her political information from Denise—“my brains”—a recent college grad who prepares the hotel’s hot buffet and short-order breakfasts. Denise’s family runs a piano repair and tuning business whose revenues have fallen by $10,000 a year for the past four years, and she places the blame squarely on Barack Obama. When you try to compare the factual differences between the Obama/Biden and Romney/Ryan budgets, and their implications for small business owners and young adults (such as Denise herself, who doesn’t get health insurance through her employer), she tells you she’ll look it up on the Internet, where she gets “the majority” of her political and policy “facts,” from websites you can only imagine.
In several working- and middle-class Toledo neighborhoods, political lawn signs are outnumbered by black and orange vinyl banners advertising the url of an evangelical fundamentalist TV church.
But if Thomas Franks’ What’s The Matter With Kansas? seeks to explain why and how certain segments of the working and middle classes habitually vote on “guns, gays and God” at the expense of their economic self-interest, I’m reminded about what I once heard Republican fogmeister Frank Luntz say during an informal private lunch was the matter with the American Jews: “They like to live like Republicans but vote like Puerto Ricans.” On both sides of the aisle, Americans seem stubbornly intent on caring about things besides their household's bottom line.
Walking one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Toledo, I cross a broad, professionally landscaped front lawn and knock on a set of substantial wood doors. A fortyish woman exuding the sort of intimidating cordiality you often see among those we call "privileged," lets me spin out my spiel on Issue 2, the redistricting initiative, without interruption. She refuses my offer of an Obama/Brown flyer with a polite preemptory wave of the hand, saying “Save it for someone else. You’ve already got our vote, absolutely.” Then she tells you, “What you’re doing is really important. Thank you.”
On a solidly middle-class block of brick Colonials and Tudor-style bungalows near the university, a tall woman with a no-nonsense demeanor delivers her judgment that Romney won both the first and second debate, hands down. She looks directly into my eyes, without cracking a smile, and asks if the point of redistricting is to achieve racial balance. This is a curveball I hadn’t expected, and as I fumble for an answer, she tells me that if it isn’t, it should be. As I stand there, slightly stunned, she tells you she’s an environmentalist and Obama has her vote.
It’s an organizer’s nature to want to engage people by getting their story, listening carefully to what they say, presenting a vision that connects their individual circumstances with a collective vision for change, and then spurring them to action.
Nice framework, but hardly applicable to the last days of a political campaign. The strangers you encounter who surprise you by saying yes, they’re with you, were with you before you showed up at their door. Your job was to give them a shot of encouragement, that they’re part of something larger, and then to enter or update their data in the machinery that will make sure they follow through.
As for Denise and Sondra, there’s no amount of time or listening or relationship-building this late in the game that’s going to bring them around by Election Day. That’s a longer game in a longer struggle and, truth be told, something better left to someone who’s going to remain here longer than an out-of-town door-knocker.
On my last afternoon in Toledo, during a Get Out The Vote rally at the New Jerusalem Baptist Church, an African American pastor gins up the crowd by calling “Fired up!” to which we respond, “Ready to vote!”
“Ready to vote!”
The brief program features two union leaders, an NAACP representative, a Bowling Green student dependent on Pell Grants, and the local Democratic Congress member, Marcy Kaptur. The crowd includes various city and state officials, clergy from a number of denominations, and long-time church members—among them Latinos, suburbanites, city residents, teachers and automobile workers and public employees, African American college students and their parents, and political activists from the suburbs.
But one speaker viscerally moves everyone in the pews. He is a neat, conservatively attired man in his forties, dignified in bearing, with inconspicuous gold rimmed glasses, close-cropped hair, thin straight lips, and a polite, reserved manner accentuated by just the trace of a soft Southern drawl. A cardiologist and chair of the University Medical College Department of Medicine, he looks like the last person you’d expect to see preaching from this dais. Later he tells me that he has no trouble lecturing to auditoriums filled with medical students, or spontaneously addressing high-level meetings of administrators, alumni and donors. But this rainy afternoon in an African American church filled with labor and community activists on the edge of downtown Toledo, his voice cracks as he recounts the story of the woman treated for an earache in his emergency room who, three days later, died of a brain infection because she couldn’t afford to buy the antibiotics they’d prescribed for her.
He can’t be partisan, he tells the hushed assembly, and he’s speaking only for himself and not the university or hospital, and these are private comments, but we need to, all of us, make sure to vote this election because “the United States ranks 43rd internationally for the survival of women. We live in a country,” he says softly, “where a woman can die of an ear infection, and that’s not right.”
That’s not right.
Sometimes, you think, what this election—and your small part in it—comes down to is something as simple and as morally unambiguous, and as hopeful as that.