When I was around 11 or so, I was obsessed with The Man from U.N.C.L.E., a TV show about two secret agents – one American, the other Russian – working for a multi-national intelligence agency. My favorite agent was the Russian, Illya Kuryakin, played by David McCallum. He was dashing and mysterious and wore black turtlenecks a lot. I would say that I had a crush on him, but even then I knew I was gay, so, I really wanted to be him – or at least dress like him. I was so obsessed with the show that for Christmas that year I asked for the Illya Kuryakin secret lighter gun. It looked like a cigarette case/lighter from the outside, but it fired caps and inside had a secret radio compartment. I know there had to be other things on my list that year, but I couldn’t name one if my life depended on it. You see, I got what I wanted most of all. And that, in a nutshell, was Election 2020 for me.
Yes, I had a long wish list, including Democrats regaining control of the Senate. I’m still hoping that present arrives late by way of Georgia, and I’m totally cool with that. But here’s the thing – what I wanted the very most was for Donald Trump to not be our president after noon on January 20th, 2021 and I (and 79 million others and counting) got that – even if it does take an army of Secret Service agents to remove him. Paging Illya Kuryakin! Joe Biden will be the next president of the United States and I’m going to just let myself be happy about that for a minute. And I’m proud that I played a teeny tiny part in helping to make that happen.
In August, I started phone banking for Progressive Turnout Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to connecting with voters one-on-one and getting Democrats to the polls. I guesstimate that I spoke with over 3,000 voters – those were actual conversations and doesn’t include the hang-ups and go to hells. Thankfully, I only got a few of the latter and they only came near the end when everyone was suffering from election fatigue – even the people who were happy to hear from me.
I know calling a stranger on the phone and talking to them about voting sounds like a fresh hell to many of you. I get that, but to me, it felt like the most important job I’ve ever had. And I loved it. Most days, I felt like I was making a Ken Burns documentary – interviewing all sorts of people all over several battleground states, but mainly in my home state of North Carolina. Every day I would talk to folks who lived in towns that I never heard of – Supply, Lowgap, Peachland and Chocowinity to name a few. I listened to some southern accents so thick they made my North Carolina born wife sound like she’s from the Bronx.
We followed a script for our calls seeking some basic information – who folks were voting for, how they were voting – i.e. early voting in person or by mail or on Election Day – and their main concern in this election. I captured this information on my iPad, but early into my calls, I started taking notes on a legal pad – writing down things people would share with me. It felt important to me to capture these thoughts and save them – you know, like a special card or note you get in the mail and slip into a drawer because you’re not ready to let go of it just yet.
I was the one who often felt heard in so many of my conversations with people who articulated many of my own concerns – the chaos and disinformation of the past four years and the assault on so many issues I care about – social justice, income inequality, climate change and oh, yeah, democracy. I know some of these voters were a lot like me, but the conversations that left their fingerprints on me were the ones with folks not at all like me – the very young, the very old and the people of color.
One afternoon I called Deasia, a young black woman in New Bern. She was in her car with her mom on the way to early vote for Biden. I knew by the sound of her voice that this had to be her first time voting in a presidential race. She said cheerfully, “I just turned 18. Today is my birthday.” She told me that racial justice was the issue most important to her. I wished her a happy birthday and told her that she would get her present on November 3rd and she laughed politely. She was sweet like that.
The oldest voter I spoke with was 96 and lived in Goldsboro. I asked her what issue was most important to her in this election and she said, “Honey, I’m an old woman. I don’t care about issues. I just want people to get back on their feet and get work and be able to feed their families.” I spoke to many of these wise owls over the past few months and believe me, I hung on every word.
But I think my favorite call was with the young black mother in Sanford I spoke with on the Sunday before Election Day. I asked her if she had voted yet and she said, almost apologetically, “No. I was going to early vote on Saturday, but my water broke on Friday. I’m in the hospital – I had a Halloween baby.” I was shocked that she was speaking with me at all, much less being so nice. I congratulated her on her baby, a girl, and told her that I would let her go. She said, “Oh, that’s okay. I can talk.” She went on to tell me that she would probably be released from the hospital later that day and that she planned to vote on Election Day. I told her that she could certainly vote curbside if she wasn’t up to standing in line – just thinking about that made me wince. She said, “I’ll be okay. I’m determined to vote. This election is so important.” We talked for a good while about family – this was her third child. She told me that education is very important to her – especially getting her older kids back to school safely. As I was thanking her before ending our call, I said, “Oh, I forgot to ask you your daughter’s name.” She replied in the sweetest, most tender voice, “Serenity. Her name Is Serenity.”
There are days that I fancy myself to be a decent writer, but I could never make up a story that good. And yes, sometimes there is crying in phone banking.
In addition to all the voters that gave me hope, I had some emotional support political junkies throughout this election – namely Jeff and Chris. Jeff is my best gay boyfriend and we are frighteningly similar in many ways – good and bad. We are both passionate about politics and on occasion don’t play well with others when they don’t seem to be as engaged or enraged as we think they should be. He is wicked smart politically and is a great student of history. I like to think of him as the Queer Eye version of Doris Kearns Goodwin. Now that’s a podcast just waiting to happen. Maybe next cycle.
Jeff and I, like over 65 million other people, carried our scars and PTSD from 2016 into this election. We both vowed to not give into our poll paranoia (damn you, Nate Silver!) and exude what we called nauseous optimism about Election 2020. Joe Biden was neither of our first choices, but once he became the frontrunner, we were all in for riding with Biden. Sure, we had some weak moments during the long campaign, but we mostly kept them to ourselves through anxious texts. Jeff is also one of the funniest people on the planet, so we laughed ourselves silly through some of the tenser times. One day we were texting about The Lincoln Project and Jeff wrote that he wanted to have Steve Schmidt’s babies. A laugh like that can get a girl over a rough patch.
Chris and I have been friends for so long we can’t remember how long. She lives on top of a mountain outside of Charlottesville and is retired and worked her liberal ass off writing a gazillion postcards for Democratic candidates this cycle. We have been through a lot of elections together – including the 2000 Gore v. Bush nightmare. She, too, has a very keen political mind and puts her money where her blue heart is. She somehow trusted me to help guide her numerous contributions to senatorial candidates throughout this cycle. I must confess, I really enjoyed spending her money. I adore Chris, but she would admit that she was a Nervous Nellie as Election Day drew closer. She would text – “Talk me off the ledge” – and I would. I knew Joe Biden was going to win. I had a certainty about it that belied my cynical nature. And I have all those voters that I spoke with to thank for that. Well, not the ones that told me to fuck off, but you know, even they inspired me in a different way. I just knew that they did not represent the majority in our country. And I was right.
So, it was kind of perfect that Chris was the one who told me that Joe Biden had finally been declared the next president of the United States. I had been babysitting Steve Kornacki and his khakis for days just waiting and watching and learning more about the districts in Pennsylvania than I ever dreamed possible. My dear wife had been so patient with my obsessive viewing that I relented to go for a walk with her the Saturday morning after the election. I felt certain no call would be made until later in the afternoon, but I took my phone with me just in case. We were about 30 minutes into our walk when a text from Chris came through: “I didn’t know I would cry.” I frantically texted her back, “What?” And she said, “They called it.” I screamed, “It’s over!” so loudly that people in their yards started cheering. And then I took my wife in my arms and kissed her like she was that nurse in the famous V-J Day photograph. We practically danced the two blocks to the home of some dear friends who had just pulled into their driveway and had not heard the good news. We shared the biggest virtual hug ever and smiled our faces off. Then my phone rang – it was Jeff, of course. I hadn’t heard him that excited since the Pippin revival. I can only remember that he told me that he loved me and thanked me for everything that I had done. And I have never been happier to hear his voice.
I spent the rest of the day glued to coverage of the joyous global celebrations and I took some quiet time to think about all those voters that I had spoken with since early August. Those everyday Americans who love their country and cherish democracy. They made me believe in the best of humanity again and in some ways, they made me believe in myself again. I wished I could call them one more time to thank them. And it felt a lot like that Christmas morning so long ago when I got what I wanted most of all.