Inside an Outsider’s Campaign for Political Office – “We Walk, We Win”

by on September 24, 2014 · 0 comments

in California, Election, History, Media, Politics, San Diego, Women's Rights

we walk we winBy Lori Saldaña / Part Three of Four

In Part 2, Lori Saldaña discussed the path to her decision to mount a grass-roots campaign for the California Assembly in 2004. She really didn’t have a choice: all the political pros around thought she was too much of an outsider.


I decided to give up on getting support from Sacramento. My volunteers and I adopted the motto “We Walk, We Win.” A typical weekday would be: make calls to raise money in the morning (rarely more than a few hundred dollars), walk precincts in the afternoon (rarely actually talking to voters at that time of day), then teach in the evening. On weekends I would walk 4 precincts: 2 on Saturday, 2 more on Sunday.

Between these activities, I was looking after 2 houses and providing care for my mother and grandmother, whose illnesses had required additional surgeries and hospitalizations.

Beginning with a trip to the emergency room in January 2004, my mother would eventually spend the final two months of my campaign recuperating from surgery. She didn’t return home from extended care until the day after the March 2004 primary election. This meant my 96-year old grandmother had to stay in an assisted living facility until my mother was well enough to care for her again at home.

I did my best to visit both of them early in the day, or in the evening after class.

At one point my mother had an allergic reaction to something in the hospital. Her airway closed, and she was rushed back into Intensive Care. For the next week I was making fundraising phone calls from the waiting area outside the Intensive Care wing of Thornton Hospital at UCSD.

Throughout this time I also attended endorsement interviews and events for various labor, professional and business organizations that traditionally support Democratic state candidates. However, the best I could usually do was block a full endorsement of another candidate.

I was often told something along these lines: “We love your progressive politics/education experience/military family background…but you can’t win.” (At that time I was married to a combat veteran, though we had recently separated, and my father is a career Marine who served in WWII and Korea.)

In the final weeks of the 2004 election the amount of campaign literature sent out from my 2 opponents and their supporters was overflowing the mailboxes on the porches I visited. At first this was discouraging, then I noticed that many people simply placed their recycling bins on the porches, and the materials never made it inside the door.

And another unexpected thing happened: my opponents used their resources to attack one another, and ignored me. They equated my lack of fundraising with lack of support among voters. (In the end, the voters thought differently.)

Then, in the waning days of the primary campaign, I began to hear curious rumors through the grapevine of fundraisers, lobbyists and political directors who had originally discouraged me from running. They told me their inside polling was showing me doing better than anyone had anticipated. They also claimed they couldn’t share the details of the polls, which would have been considered an “in-kind contribution.”

(In retrospect, I believe they were desperately trying to back-pedal away from their original assessment of me as a complete waste of time, and score points with me in case I miraculously survived the primary.)

While I appreciated this information, it didn’t help my personal or financial situation, which was pretty desperate. I was variously told it was too late for organizations to provide financial support, that they had already “maxed out” to my opponents, and/or that any money sent my way might generate a last minute attack that I would not be able to respond to.

We had no money for paid staff, office space or equipment, let alone more direct mail. In out high-propensity voting district, one mail piece to likely voters cost about $25-30,000. (In the end, the district was among the top-5 in voter turnout for California out of 80 Assembly districts.)

I wore out several pairs of shoes. Even my personal cell phone that I used for fundraising calls from the hospital and to communicate with voters during precinct walks was falling apart. At one point the antenna broke off (this was a 2000-era Motorola design), and rather than take the time or money to replace it, I just jammed a paper clip into the opening and kept calling; it worked fine.

Our meager budget only allowed me to send out a few pieces of mail over the course of the campaign. These were used to define me, and introduce me to the voters, since I had never represented any of them before. They featured photos of President Clinton (based on my service as his Border Commission appointee), and photos of me in the college classroom (since polling for a college bond ballot measure the previous election cycle had shown that voters had a very high favorability rating for community college teachers).

My favorite photos were of my parents: my father looking young and handsome in his Marine dress blues, and my stylish mother in a sleeveless cocktail dress, getting ready for a formal military event. These images of military family life played well in many parts of San Diego.

By election night I had given my all to the campaign, my students and my family. My determination was wearing thin, and so was my body: I lost 15 pounds, in part due to all the walking, the long days, and living on a very tight household budget.

I had reduced my teaching schedule to give me time to care for my still-hospitalized family members, having used up all my personal and medical leave (parents and grandparents aren’t covered under family medical leave). As a result, I had little money to spend on groceries, or time to cook and eat.

But on March 2 2004, I hoped all of this work would ultimately pay off. Part One in this series discussed her motivations and considerations in deciding to run for Assembly. In Part Two she sized up her opposition and realized that she couldn’t rely on the political pros to win this race. In tomorrow’s conclusion we’ll see the moment of truth through her eyes.

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