THE U.S. ELECTION Barack’s Canucks, the sequel
Last week we told you about a handful of friends who were headed to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to help get out the vote. On Friday, we received this e-mail report on their role in the 2008 U.S. election.
NOV. 2, 2008, 10:30 A.M.
After landing in Pittsburgh, I text my son Jordan to say I’ve arrived and am ready to work.
During the next 24 hours, a small band of friends will arrive from Ontario to help the Obama campaign: Dimitri Lascaris is a Green party activist; Atul Bahl works for the NDP; Steven MacKinnon is past national director of the Liberal party; I am its former president. Ian Roland is a veteran campaign manager; Mario Cuconato worked in the Paul Martin PMO. A few weeks earlier, in an email discussion about the Canadian election, our talk had turned to the significance of the U.S. campaign. We were moved by Barack Obama’s ability to inspire, motivate and turn the page.
We offered our services to Jordan, an American with dual citizenship and graduate student in New York. He’d been working on the Obama campaign for 15 months. (He is proud that while Hillary Clinton won 61 of 62 New York counties in the primary, she missed Tompkins County, where he was working.)
Jordan convinced us our help was not needed in New York, where Obama was expected to win handily. Instead, he hooked us up with organizers in Pittsburgh, where there were 12 Obama offices. Pennsylvania was expected to be an important battleground.
Jordan picks me up in a pale green Ford Escape hybrid, then we head to the Hill District to distribute campaign literature. The Hill is also known as “the hood.” It’s the poorest in Pittsburgh and, during the next couple of days, we learn it has a reputation. Older people remember the rioting there that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968.
Jordan and I deliver vote-reminder cards to the homes of registered supporters. The cards provide each voter with specific poll details. Many buildings, including residences, are abandoned, broken down or boarded up. Obama-Biden posters are plentiful — as are Pittsburgh Steelers banners, T-shirts and hats. We see no evidence of McCain support. It feels good to be wearing the Obama paraphernalia.
As churches empty, we encounter people in the streets on our way back to Blakey Center where we will work the phones. We call to remind folks to vote and make sure they have a way to get to the polls. At least 25 per cent of the phone numbers on the voters’ list are disconnected.
Later in the afternoon, a vibrant volunteer invites us to a church service for Obama at Ebenezer Baptist Church.
An 80-person choir dances and claps and leads the congregation of 800 in celebratory worship. We are the only white folk in the crowd. We don’t know the songs, though the refrain is easy to catch (“He will take you up, up, up!”). We stand and clap and do our best.
Obama’s name is never actually mentioned. During the primaries, some churches were threatened with the loss of their tax-exempt status for being overtly partisan. It doesn’t stop the preacher from making his point: “On Tuesday, we want to be sure the fulfilment of our dream is realized.” Hope is tempered with anxiety.
The preacher takes 15 minutes to explain voting rights. He assures the congregation they can vote despite debts or unpaid parking tickets. He explains they are entitled to bring children to the polls (an important issue in a community with many single moms). After each point, he repeats, “And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”
We take note when he appeals for lawyers in the crowd to help protect voter rights.
He collects an offering to help get people to the polls. He asks everyone to donate $25. “If you don’t have $25, don’t worry, just ask the people sitting near you. Pay it back later.” The choir sings as members of the congregation make their deposits.
Ian, Dimitri and I respond to the call for lawyers. Later in the day, we’ll receive credentials, “Voter Protection” manuals and orders to report to a station in McKeesport, 30 kilome- tres outside the centre of town.
In the meantime, we head to the Hill to canvass.
Ian takes charge of the map — no easy assignment since so many properties are unmarked or abandoned. Ian, a senior and respected litigation counsel, has a gracious manner and easily engages the young men we find in the street. When we explain to one man why we’re helping out, he gives us each one of those thumb-linked handshakes and a “guy hug.”
We bump into Dimitri and Atul who assert we’re on their “turf.” I text Jordan to let him know we’re ready to be picked up. He takes us back to the community centre for a lunch of roasted and fried chicken, macaroni salad and collard greens.
Our canvassing takes us into public housing projects. These are mostly three-storey walkups with six units sharing narrow stairwells. The buildings are dirty and dilapidated. Many are burned out and empty. Although we never feel unsafe, Ian and I decide to stay paired up in the stairwells.
Those who are home answer our knock. The apartments behind their open doors are usually crowded, cluttered, noisy and smelly.
One woman comes to the door in an old flannel nightgown. Another appears covered only in a towel. But there is a sense of anticipation and hope in the building. Everyone assures us they plan to vote.
We meet up with Dimitri and Atul, who suggests it seems a bit like being on a pilgrimage.
When we stop to pick up our Voter Protection assignments, Mario spots a “Catholics for Obama” poster. He offers to buy it — the last one — and announces he intends to have his priest come to his house to bless it.
Jordan looks bagged, so I revert to the role of dad and persuade him to have an early night.
VOTING DAY, 6 A.M.
Dimitri, Ian and I meet in the lobby of the hotel to drive to our polling station. I call back to the hotel at 6:20 to wake Jordan, who will meet the others at 6:45 to head into the Hill for door-to-door and phone canvassing.
Because of all the rivers, Pittsburgh is a city of confusing bridges — there are more than a thousand —and we take several wrong turns. We arrive just before the polls open, though it’s immediately clear there won’t be much action here: One of our precincts has only 13 registered voters; the other has 294.
We introduce ourselves to the Democratic “inside poll watcher,” a trade lawyer named Lewis. We are “outside poll watchers,” although the distinction seems meaningless since we are allowed to move back and forth as we wish. We also meet the Republican poll watcher who explains she’s there on behalf of her son. He is “sitting in Iraq,” and if he can sit there, she can sit here for 13 hours.
We decide to swing by a campaign office in McKeesport, which is a decayed and crumbling suburb. It’s an old steel mill town, except the steel mills have shut down, businesses have closed and some grand old homes have been abandoned.
After our canvass there, we’re dispatched to a polling station where an Obama volunteer has been denied access to the voting register. Ian approaches the elections judge, peering over his glasses, his Voter Protection binder under his arm. I’m next in my black leather jacket. Burly Dimitri, shaved head and sunglasses, is next. It all turns out to be a misunderstanding — the volunteer was looking in the wrong place. The elections judge concludes our conversation saying, “You didn’t have to gang me.”
We meet our group for lunch where Jordan tells me Mario is awesome on the phones, “God blessing” many of the people he talks to. We have affectionately become known as “The Canadians” and are thoroughly invested in the district’s results.
We work the Hill to get out every last vote, making a couple of lastminute trips to polling stations. At one, I ask a woman if she’s seen any tactics that have stopped people from voting. “Republicans don’t come into the Hill,” she replies.
As dusk deepens, we make our way back to the community centre headquarters. We take to simply shouting at whoever we see to go and vote. Jordan asks one woman in hot pants and boots if she’s voted.
“Jordan, she’s going to Mario says. “She can still vote.” We spend another hour on the phones. Jordan sends Dimitri and Atul to a supermarket to remind every person they see to vote.
When every number on every list has been called multiple times, we slip back to the hotel to shower for what we hope will be a victory party. Before heading to the local union hall, we gather in the lobby bar in time to hear CNN declare Pennsylvania for Obama. We hoot, shout and high-five each other and the folks at the next table. We notice that not everyone is celebrating — we’re in the Marriott, not the Hill District.
At the union hall, we find an expectant crowd watching CNN on a huge screen. A steady stream of local celebrities addresses the crowd. We bump into the deputy field organizer from the Hill who tells us that one of the precincts there voted 98 per cent for Obama; another voted 100 per cent in his favour.
As state after state is declared, the room grows impatient. When Barack Obama is finally declared the next president of the United States, there are tears and laughter, relief and joy. “We did it,” Jordan keeps shouting into his phone to friends working in Florida and New Hampshire and New York.
The evening ends quietly. We return to the hotel bar for Obama’s speech. Jordan slips away as soon as it is done and sends me a text to say he needed some time to reflect.
Earlier that evening, I asked him how we ended up in the Hill District. He said he’d told organizers to send us somewhere nobody else wanted to go.
I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else.