Live From Battleground Ohio: Japan Comes Calling

Louis Nayman

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.

Sharonwho has straight, jet-black hair and dark eyes rem­i­nis­cent of Cindy Williamstaught 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 Mindythink Rhea Perl­man with curly blond hairtaught 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 encounterrecep­tion­ists, wait staff, bell­hops, cus­to­di­al engi­neersgreets 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 witha man­u­fac­tur­er of spe­cial con­tain­ers for ship­ping auto partswho’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.”

Louis Nay­man is a long­time union organizer.
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