Working on a Presidential Primary Campaign
It started when I, a 65-year old white woman, told my son, Tim, from New York City that his California suburban mother would meet him in Philadelphia the week before the Pennsylvania primary to work on the Barack Obama campaign. We dedicated Friday morning to calling prospective Hispanic voters in north Philly; volunteers were arriving from Delaware, Washington D.C. and New York. We were rewarded with tickets for entry to a rally at 6 pm, and we joined a long line forming at Independence Square. The line in the hot sun was for those of us with tickets.
The next four hours we joked, stood, complained, sweated, thirsted and talked to other avid supporters from Texas, California and Pennsylvania. We went through three security checkpoints. The candidate arrived at 8:45. As the cameras clicked, Barack promised that his candidacy of change would be independent of the old ways of doing politics: negative campaigning and taking money from lobbyists and then automatically voting for their interests. He laid out today's problems that plague so many: low wages, lack of health care and loss of jobs.
Scores of aggressive secret service men pushed in front of us, cutting the crowd into sections while Barack shook the hands of all he could reach, including ours!
Saturday we were joined by Dottie, a vivacious African-American woman, whom Tim had met the month before when they registered new voters, and Marcia, an ex-Peace Corps volunteer like me. We knocked on over 200 doors in the poor Puerto Rican and black areas of North Philly to ask for votes and check if voters knew their polling places. We kept records of who needed help getting to the polls. We netted direct answers from 10 residents, five of whom said they were for Obama. Through doors opened a few inches, another five said their vote was private. Easiest was talking to the domino players on the street. Saddest were the guys not home because they were off fighting in Iraq.
Eight loud fircracker-like blasts rang through the projects just as we completed our afternoon rounds. Dottie knew the sounds weren't fireworks and ordered us to head immediately for her car. Seconds later, five police cars, sirens blaring, careened into the neighborhood to track down the gunshots.
Sunday through Tuesday found us canvassing 300 households a day in an area with street after street of garbage-strewn empty lots and decaying houses. Some with doors we couldn't knock on because they were off their hinges. Ugliest are the big apartment buildings that are burned out and boarded up. Dottie says many are crack houses, and the groups of young black men on the sidewalks are probably drug dealers. No matter whom we encountered, people generally were friendly. Some warned us to be extra careful when walking about their neighborhoods. In contrast to the ugly buildings are scores of beautiful murals. Some are four stories high on the sides of buildings throughout Philly. They have been painted by former graffiti artists who were trained and hired by the city and depict famous black athletes, musicians, the people of the area or scenes from nature.
The black folks were impressed that white folk came all the way from California to beg them to vote for a black guy. It is almost inconceivable to many we met that a man who looks like them is actually running for the highest office in the land. One young mother in the projects breathlessly expressed it when she remarked, "That means my 10 year old son could be president!" I too was inspired by the friendliness and resilience of North Philadelphians, by the many hard-working volunteers (many ex-Peace Corps people), by my son and my friends.