OCEAN BEACH, CA. The short, older woman aimed for me, and without breaking stride, passed by, and in a stage whisper, rasped, “He’s a dirty Muslim.” She kept going without looking back. I didn’t respond at all. I was in the parking lot of a San Diego market, raising money for Barack Obama and the Democratic Party. Hers definitely was the worst comment I had received that day. And with enough time, one is bound to get a few like that, but more were much less abusive, like simply “I’m a Republican,” or a shake of the head with a look of disgust.
Yet, the vast majority – the vast, vast majority – of those who gave any kind of response at all from the hundreds of people I approached over a weeks time, were supportive of Barack Obama and what I was doing. Even though most people didn’t respond at all to my intro of “Got a couple of minutes for Barack Obama?”, I did enjoy a bunch of “I’m voting for him,” “I appreciate what you’re doing,” “I’m with you all the way,” and even, literally pats on the back. A couple of people gave me water or juice – totally unsolicited – , as I stood in front of a half dozen Henrys, Star Bucks, Trader Joes, and on a local university campus, out in the sun, standing the entire time – and raising hundreds of dollars.
Wearing the standard DNC blue shirt, I joined more than a dozen other activists that day fanning out across San Diego to continue the office’s campaign fundraising. Working out of an office at the beach, we would be sent out across the County to liberal neighborhoods and campuses.
I had joined the Obama efforts and for a week I worked with the kids who are leading the crusade to elect the first African-American President and save the country and “take back the White House” as they say. And I certainly don’t mean ‘kids’ in any sort of derogatory way, but as an older guy from the Sixties and Seventies, to me people in their twenties and even early thirties are kids. But these are kids I was inspired by, led by and who I worked side by side with. Surrounded by young people who were very much involved and on top of the presidential campaign, being paid bottom wages, I had joined them to share their sweat, pain and pleasure in working our butts off for Barack Obama. There were a few older people, a few who had been in sales, a few who had been involved in Party politics, but overall, the day crew was a mix of whites mostly and a few African-Americans, a few Latinos, fairly split between women and men.
One of the very first things that inspired me, was the politicization of the office leadership. Here were young people who could teach me a thing or two about the state of the nation, the presidential campaign, and how to approach strangers for money. The office was split between the day crew who like me, went out to campuses, markets and busy streets, and the afternoon/ night crew who went door-to-door – a couple of dozen kids who I never met.
We were raising money to send organizers into the swing states like Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Montana, Virginia. Our office had just sent three organizers to Colorado the weekend before to set up a brand new office. Some from my office had recently been to Las Vegas to register voters. They had registered 6,000 new voters inn Sin City just in one weekend.
Here in San Diego, we were raising thousands of dollars weekly, even daily. And these kids worked damn hard raising this money. They were dedicated, idealistic, even those who could stand it only for a few days – as it was grueling work. One young guy told me that at least he felt great about the money he had raised for Obama in the two days he had been working with the office – something he could brag about to his children that he would have some day.
Despite the long hours of standing in the sun, these kids didn’t complain. They maintained their enthusiasm for hours, keeping a smile on their face – you know, it’s not easy to ask strangers to listen to you, to convince and encourage them to give you money. The kids persisted into and then through the long afternoons, having the energy to engage and be genuine and pleasant and urgent all at the same time. These kids would, some days, take in hundreds of dollars and other days a mere $9. My lowest day was $34. Yet my best day was over $200. Others in the office some days collected hundreds of dollars; one team of three took in $1100 in one afternoon at San Diego State.
Naturally, I don’t think fund raising is the only organizing tactic that we need to be engaged in right now in this important electoral campaign. But I did this for a week. Obama has raised a record amount of contributions – nearly $450 million – nearlly half of it in contributions of $200 or less. Money from the little people, the common people, all types of people, the citizenry.
It was funny how people gave you money. Sometimes it would come in waves. I remember one day, I had collected only a total of $5 over several hours, then a half hour before we were to return to the office, a guy handed me his credit card and wrote out paperwork for a hundred bucks. More than once, I would be counting only a few tens and fives in my pocket for hours, only to take a break, and have a wave of giving, a $100 there, a twenty there, another twenty, within ten to 15 minutes.
My favorite one was this old guy who came up to me and asked, in a rather gruff voice, “Do you know what the most important election in my lifetime is?” I didn’t know where he was coming from. He wasn’t smiling. Was he talking about the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon match, or the 1932 Franklin Roosevelt election? “This one,” he said pointedly. We then got into a fifteen minute discussion. He was an 82 year old, retired public school teacher. He was pissed off. He gave me forty bucks.
My worst encounter was at a Del Mar art and food fair; I was standing on a corner near the beginning of a row of vendor booths, when an older white man walked up to me with a scowl and blurted out, “I’m disgusted that you would even do this at a fair!” – I was really taken aback and, breaking the rule that you end every encounter on a positive note, shot back: “So much for freedom of expression, huh!?”
But, of course, all the other negative encounters and all the others always ended pleasantly.
Actually, we were not out there to try to convince anybody to vote for Obama, but rather to find his supporters – people who already were voting for him, and get them to invest in his campaign more by contributing money, with their dividends being better health care, a saner foreign policy with more diplomacy, three to 4 appointments to the Supreme Court, a more humanitarian approach to government and its relations with people. We actually didn’t get into that many discussions with folks.
It was a trick just to get people to stop, to break stride. There’s a whole art to approaching strangers – whether you’re in sales or politics – and one needs a thick skin. You need something catchy to grab people’s attention. For awhile, I tried, “Do you have a couple of minutes to keep Sarah Palin out of the White House?” A couple people laughed. One of our rules was that we could not actually physically approach people, or block their path or get in their way. And we weren’t supposed to stop customers at a market until they were on their way out. A good number of passersby – not breaking stride – would tell me over their shoulder that they’re voting for Barack. Most people would not avoid me at all, but a few, I could tell as soon as they saw that I had a clip board, would suddenly take a detour to their car. One elderly woman actually threw up her hands in front of her face as a shield as she walked quickly by. On campus, many students were late for class.
A lot of the Democrats that did stop were very emphatic but most of them told me they’re broke – especially the university students. But the seniors too, hurting on their fixed incomes. A lot of people mentioned the bad financial times, Wall Street, the uncertainty. Again, so many people told me that they’re voting for Obama, that even though they didn’t hand me any cash, check or credit, in a very real sense – despite the heat and my fatigue – I was inspired and energized by an unspoken sense of solidarity. Not something you feel, especially in San Diego, but there was a sense of unity for an ideal – and for change – at last. There was a lot of anger at Bush, of course. Fear of McCain, disgust at Palin.
There is a general disdain out there for the status quo. Of those who are awake. So many people just walked by, making sure their eyes didn’t meet mine. They’re in a hurry, they can’t be bothered. They’ve already decided. Or they don’t really like to deal with anything political – especially outside markets.
I didn’t see any McCain pins nor did I see any McCain campaigners or fundraisers. It was all Barack people.
If everybody who told me they’re voting for Barack Obama actually do vote for him, it’s going to be a landslide. The kids are right. The future is here.