Chasing Democracy

“I think I’m going to throw up.”

That was the text I got from my dear friend Chris last Friday night. She is not one to normally share her digestive issues, so I sent her back a perplexed emoji.

“RBG is dead” was her response. Oh. My. God. The words most of us have prayed we would never hear – well, at least not until Joe Biden was safely sworn into office.

We were so foolish. How did we expect an 87-year-old/pound woman who had cancer 17 times to survive long enough to save us from ourselves? So, I did what a lot of people did last Friday night. I wept. The flat-out ugly cry. And then I cursed God and humanity and rent my garments in an Episcopalian sort of way. And then I felt fear. That kind of fear you feel deep in your gut – cold as steel.

I saw a montage of every civil rights march, vigil and meeting I’ve ever been to race before my eyes. Only the montage was running backwards – like Benjamin Button’s aging – all those things so many of us have fought so long and hard for – women’s rights, gay rights, trans rights, healthcare, all disappearing. I turned on MSNBC – I know I’m a liberal cliché and I can live with that. It was the first time I was praying for FAKE NEWS, but it was real. And then, before RBG’s ferocious tiny body was cold, Mitch McConnell announced he would work to fill her seat as soon as possible. And that’s when I got angry. White hot rage. And that’s pretty much where I have remained and that’s okay – that’s a great place to be 39 days before this election. Rage gets shit done.

I’ve been working for Progressive Project Turnout for the past two months and we just moved into Phase 2 of our operations – ballot chasing. Think of it as storm chasing for political nerds. I don’t have a cool truck or Helen Hunt by my side, but I do have my trusty data that tells me who requested a mail-in ballot but has not yet returned it. Sexy, right? Damn straight.

The truth is that talking to voters is the thing that has saved me since RBG died. I was dreading getting on the phone that first Ruthless Saturday afternoon. I was teary and anxious and wondered if I could maintain my neutrality with a Trumper. My first call was to a woman in rural Pennsylvania. “What do you want?” she barked at me and I could feel tears brewing. I gave my spiel, took a deep breath, and popped the question, “Are you supporting Joe Biden on November 3rd?” She said – and I swear on RBG’s gavel that I am not making this up – “Hell, yes. He’s next to the Lord in my book. I love Joe Biden.” I checked to make sure that I had not called Jill Biden and I thanked the phone bank Gods and felt a smile on my face for the first time since Ruth died. But wait, that’s not all – she went on. “I confess that I kinda liked Trump when he was on that stupid reality show, but when he talked about grabbing women by the hoo-hoo, I knew I could never vote for him. You know, I loved Obama. I wish he could have served forever like the Queen of England.” It was an embarrassment of Democratic riches and it was just what my weary soul needed to hear.

My next call was to a deplorable who told me to go to hell. And that was perfect, too – it got my blood pumping – my deep blue blood. Call after call, one clear theme emerged – voters are mad as hell and they aren’t going to take it anymore. And here’s the other thing – a TON of people have already voted. I love those calls! These voters are so cute – like the student that hands in their homework early for extra credit. They are proud to tell me that they have voted, and I give them a shiny virtual participation trophy and my endearing thanks.

These call shifts have gotten more difficult though – probably a combination of my grief from RBG’s death and the anxiety of the election drawing closer. Some days I feel like a sponge – soaking up the angst and fear and hopes and dreams of the voters I am speaking with. I am exhausted when my day is done, but the good news is that these folks are giving me hope with their testimonials to democracy. And their stories. Good God, the stories.

I spoke to a woman in her late 50s who was in the hospital recovering from her 24th surgery related to a horrible car accident that killed her husband many years ago. I apologized for bothering her, but she was all in for talking to me. She has raised five children on her own and told me that because of her pre-existing conditions, if Trump erases the Affordable Care Act, “I might as well shoot myself in the head.” I hope she was kidding. She has already mailed in her ballot.

I wondered how many folks would talk about the Supreme Court vacancy. A 21-year-old college student -a woman – told me the most important issue to her in this election was healthcare – until RBG died – now it was the Supreme Court and protecting the rights of women. As she said, rather eloquently, “Shit just got real.” That’s pretty much what a young trans woman in Philadelphia told me, too. She’s worried about losing her legal marriage status to her partner. That one hit close to home. Damn.

And the conversations around racial justice continue to gut me. I talked to a black man in his early 60s. When I asked him what issue was most important to him in this election, he said somberly, “Some justice. Not equal justice – I know that will never happen. Just some justice.” This was the same day that dry wall got more justice than Breonna Taylor. And there was the older woman in Rockingham, NC who told me she’s never missed a vote in any election. She explained, “Honey, you know folks don’t consider what black women think about anything too much. Other than raising my kids, the most important thing I’ve ever done is vote.” Conversations like this are not soon forgotten.

Everyone has a story. I spoke with an 86-year-old woman who graduated from nursing school in 1956. She’s still working – because she wants to – as a home health supervisor. She talked to me about income inequality and the CNAs that work for her company for $10.25 an hour – while working their other two jobs. She has two grandchildren in college who both contracted COVID-19 and were very sick. “I’m a nurse. This is not a hoax,” she said. She’s voting for Joe Biden – the 13th president she will have voted for. Her mother lived to be 106, so let’s hope she gets to vote to re-elect Kamala Harris in 2032.

Democracy is a word I hear a lot on my calls. Many of the people I speak with talk about our democracy being vandalized by Trump and they are not having it. They are sick and tired of a president who spews division and hate and continues to undermine our institutions. They speak with pride of how great our country is – this is especially moving to hear from folks who were not born here. Like the Latinix woman who told me that she had lived in several other countries. “We have a lot of rights here, but if we don’t fight to keep them, we will lose them. I’m going to be the first one in line when early voting starts.” I bet she will be, too.

And some days it is the simple kindness of strangers that makes me believe that good will prevail over evil on November 3rd. I had a long conversation last night with a 73-year-old man in Durham. He is retired after 55 years of masonry. He told me he has 10 kids – two served in the Marines – and all of them went to college. He preached me a little sermon. “I’m a black man. I’ve seen tyranny. We got too much hate and division in this country. What we got is precious and why do we want to hate and mess it up every day? I believe in love. That man in office is just too much – too much hate. We got to get him out.” Amen, brother. Amen.

And then I thanked him for taking the time to talk to me and share so much and he said in such a genuine way that it might as well have been my own father speaking to me, “I love you so much. And you’re doing a great job.” And in that moment, I thought that ballot chaser was the most noble profession in the world.

39 days, my friends. We can do this. We must. Democracy is counting on us. And so is Ruth.

Early voting in NC begins on October 15th. Click here to find early voting polling sites where you live.

Democracy at the door

Donald Trump has been President of the United States for 1,294 years – I mean days – and I have bitched and moaned and cried and cussed about it almost EVERY single one of those days. And yet, he remains president. So, I came to a realization in early June that I needed a new strategy for getting rid of him and I applied to be a Field Representative for Progressive Turnout Project – a grassroots-funded organization with the sole mission of getting Democrats to the polls.

I do not want to go to bed on November 3rd with the devastating thought that I did not do everything I could possibly do to prevent Trump from being re-elected. I know that feeling. November 8, 2016. The mere mention of that date makes me experience COVID-19 symptoms.

And that is how I found myself interviewing for a young person’s job at my seasoned age. The pandemic mandated that the interview process be virtual – on an app called HireVue. The first interview consisted of answering five questions recorded by different people – no live interactions. It was weird, but fortunately my bestie Carla had introduced me to the Marco Polo app earlier in the pandemic, so I was used to talking to myself.

The second interview was with two live women young enough to be my daughters – that I had at 40. They were both bright and energetic and didn’t seem horrified that I was a mature applicant. Our conversation went well, and they offered me the position the following week. Yikes! I was really doing this.

Project Turnout is headquartered in Chicago and my training was three days on Zoom with about 75 folks from other battleground states. The trainer was perky and had a good sense of humor. I found him amusing until he started explaining who the organization’s core donors are and said, “You know your liberal aunt who watches way too much MSNBC? That’s our base.” Wait, that’s me! I felt like the other 74 people were staring right at me in my Zoom box.

I met some nice folks in the breakout rooms during training. They were all so young, but I found that exciting – they were smart and so politically engaged. I only felt old during the ice breaker on our third day. We broke out into smaller groups and were asked what our walk on song would be if we were running for president. I thought that was a fun question until the trainer started calling on people for their answers. OMG. I had NEVER heard of the first half dozen songs. I thought I was safe with my answer – Lizzo’s “Like a Girl” – until the person before me used it. I panicked knowing I was up next and before I knew it, “Girl from Ipanema” fell out of my mouth. Shut up. I know I choked. NO ONE in my group had any idea what I was talking about. Thankfully, the trainer moved quickly to the next person and I could melt from mortification in the privacy of my own square.

My first day in the field – we call it Turf because we’re hip like that – coincided with a heat wave. A certifiable “feels like 104” heat wave. If you have known me for more than five minutes, you know that I loathe summer with a passion. I hate the heat and fear the sun. I’m a fair skinned Irish girl who adheres to the schedule of a vampire during the summer months, so I was filled with high anxiety as I hit the steamy streets.

I left my house with enough water to float a pontoon. All kinds of water – tap, seltzer, Vitamin Water. All the waters. And ice. And frozen washcloths. That’s a trick I learned years ago. Put a wet washcloth in the freezer overnight and pack it in a cooler for your day in the sun. Pull it out when you start to melt and put it on top of your head under your hat. Trust me – it can save your life.

I was so afraid of dying from heat stroke on the streets of a foreign neighborhood that I really had no fear of knocking on the doors of strangers. I was armed with my iPad that contained the scripted questions we are to ask the registered voters we speak with. Oh, and, of course, we are following strict COVID protocols – wearing a mask and stepping back six feet after we knock on a door. So, do not whine to me about a mask making you hot, okay?

The first day went well except for our iPads overheating. Note: iPads will do that when exposed to the Seventh Layer of Hell. We were encouraged to take breaks as needed and our supervisors delivered ice packs later in the afternoon. There is simply no way to adapt to that kind of heat and I have even more respect for folks who work outside in the elements. It is damn hard, and I am damn old.

I had worried about bathroom breaks while in the field – especially in this pandemic. Not to worry – I sweated so much those first two weeks that I NEVER had to pee at work. And I was slurping up liquids like Tom Hanks when he cracks open that coconut in Castaway. It was the most physically demanding thing I’ve ever done and when those two weeks were over I felt like I had won Survivor: Forsyth County – especially when some of my much younger teammates were complaining about how tired they were.

The other thing that got me through those sultry first weeks was some of the great interactions I had with voters. I am amazed that anyone would open their door to a stranger these days – during a global pandemic. I wouldn’t – unless it was a 12-year-old girl holding a stack of Thin Mints. But so many people have opened theirs and engaged with me in substantive conversations about their voting habits and their concerns for the upcoming election.

People have been so kind to me. Some have invited me inside – we are not allowed to do that. Many have offered me cold water and lots of them have told me to “keep cool” or “be careful” – one very elderly man even offered to walk me to my car because he was concerned about a neighbor’s crazy dog.

All these people have at least one thing in common besides their kindness – they do not want Trump to be re-elected. They are deeply passionate about getting rid of him. These are my people. Funny thing – I bet I was in the field three days before I even heard someone say Joe Biden’s name. There might not be a lot of enthusiasm for Uncle Joe, but there is a freaking ton of enthusiasm for giving Trump the boot. Whatever gets us there.

My favorite moments have been the conversations with first time voters. I spoke with Victor – a sweet Latinx man in his 30’s who just became an American citizen and will be voting for the first time in November. He is concerned about immigration and education – he has two children. And I’ve talked to several 18-year olds who are excited about their first vote. They want to make a difference. These people give me hope.

Our lists of contacts are highly data driven – focusing on inconsistent Democratic voters so I have only run into two Trumpers so far. Once the mark of the MAGA is revealed, we are instructed to say thanks for your time and move on. I listened, no doubt with glazed eyes, to a woman who told me that Hillary believes in abortion in the ninth month and that Joe Biden is a pedophile. My inside voice was screaming “FAKE NEWS” but I managed a wan smile as I bid her good evening. And then I remembered the grizzled veteran I met who usually votes Republican but is voting for Biden in November. My pace always picks up with those thoughts.

This work has also been a humbling reminder of my white privilege at times. I ended one evening speaking to three young black women in a row – all single moms with children. It was after eight in the evening and they were weary from their day, but they opened their doors and talked to me about their voting habits. One of the questions we ask is how likely you are to vote in November – on a scale of one to five – five being very likely. One of the women said to me, “I don’t really know. I’m not even sure who is running.” She seemed embarrassed and almost apologized. I told her who was running and that she had nothing to feel bad about. This woman wasn’t stupid – she was worn out – from the day, from yesterday, from tomorrow. I could feel her fatigue – she had gotten her kids fed and would soon be putting them to bed – and yet she took the time to talk to me – the liberal aunt who watches too much MSNBC.

On the drive home that night, I thought about what a luxury my obsession with politics is. I grew up with parents who instilled in me that voting is a precious right and that every vote counts. As an adult, I have had the time and sometimes the means to work for and support candidates that embraced issues important to me. I have been to endless fundraisers and sipped cheap white wine while someone droned on and on about what they were going to do for me. I have been inspired and I have suffered painful defeats. I have been afforded the invitation to participate and the arrogance to believe that my presence can make a difference.

Our field canvassing has been suspended because of COVID concerns and we are now phone banking, texting, and letter writing. When I got the news, I thought of Oscar Wilde’s famous quote, “When the Gods want to punish you, they answer your prayers.” Yes, I am out of the heat, but I miss seeing the faces of the folks I’m talking to. There is no more effective communication with a voter than an in-depth conversation in person. And besides, you can tell a lot about a person by the way they treat a mature masked white woman in a bucket hat on a hot day.

I hope I’ll be out there knocking doors again soon. It is by far the hardest work I’ve ever done. And, without a doubt, the most important.