An Election Day Earthquake
I’ve been phone banking and politicking for political candidates and causes for over 50 years.
From RFK in his US Senate & Presidential campaigns in New York State in 1964 & 1968; to my history teacher Mike Andrew’s try for State Legislature in 1970; to my own run for public office two years later; to Mario Cuomo’s gubernatorial campaigns in 1982,1986, 1990 and 1994; to the Presidential crusades of Jimmy Carter in 1976, Mondale/Ferraro in 1984, John Kerry in 2004, Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, and Hillary Clinton in 2016, I’ve done just about every level of political task — big and small — to advance the people and policies in which I believe.
I’ve always preferred face-to-face contact, public speaking and message framing, and hated doing phone calling to prospective voters who didn’t want to be bothered. My dislike for cold-calling was baked into me since childhood when I witnessed my mother’s soul-withering experience of dialing-for-dollars, and customers, for the old Gimbels Department Store. She was paid $5 per “sales lead.”
Growing up, I could recite her practiced phone spiel to earn money from home, selling upholstery: “Hello. I’m Estelle Taradash (my mother’s non-Italian sounding phone name), and I’m calling to offer you a special this month on Gimbel’s re-upholstery of your most beloved furniture.” More often than not, I’d hear my mother slam-down the old style phone receiver and mutter, “You miserable son-of-a-bitch.” It was the tip off that another “prospect” had been rude to her. I could feel her fury at being dissed, and internalized her disgust with the indignity of struggling to make a living by dialing up strangers.
Years later, I did the same thing — not for dollars, but for votes. In the early days of phone-banking, political calls were far more fulfilling, with people actually picking up their phones, and engaging in conversation. Answering machines, took some of that away, but forced us to sharpen our skills at leaving precise messages to voters. Cell phones almost killed that campaign staple entirely, since people could delete any phone numbers they didn’t know.
Advancing technology forced campaigns to improve call-lists and the messages used to reach voters. Some campaigns did better than others, and early on-line computer calling — which I first did with the Obama campaign — actually made the process seem like a video game, where you could easily measure your progress. Even that grew old fast.
Politicking by phone would never fulfill me the way forming a human contact with prospective voters did. I loved going door-to-door. As the call lists grew more “corporate” and impersonal — and campaigns focusing more on quantity of calls made, instead of quality of contact — the entire process became tedious, impersonal and unsatisfying. The phone-banking efforts for Hillary Clinton in 2016 in North Carolina, an open-carry state where I did Voter Protection, were abominable, empty and ineffective.
I vowed I would never phone bank again, until the COVID Pandemic made that an empty threat. Since I didn’t want to expose myself to too many people during the continuing COVID health-crisis, phone banking, letter writing, drafting speeches, or publishing timely and persuasive articles, were among the best avenues of civic and political involvement left for me. Sending money to dozens of Democratic candidates around the country — including hundreds of dollars to the Biden/Harris campaign — was simply not enough. I needed to do something more.
So, at the recommendation of two friends from Berkeley who have done extraordinarily targeted campaigning and pinpoint contributing to key political candidates over the past few election cycles, I joined a non-partisan effort to pull out the vote in the City of Philadelphia, called Fairmount Votes, or PhillyVotes.com.
The brilliance of this non-partisan campaign was its emphasis on Voter Education during Pennsylvania’s first-ever experience with Mail-In Balloting. For those of us who were Biden/Harris partisans, we knew that the greater the number of votes coming out of Philadelphia — the pivotal state’s largest population center where Democrats far outnumbered Republicans — the greater were Biden’s chances of winning Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes.
The campaign organizers — many in their 20’s and 30’s — were unpaid volunteers, and focused on the quality of the information we were giving voters, not the quantity of calls we made. Every voter we helped correctly cast their ballot, under this new voting set-up, was all that mattered. On one day of calling, for example, 250 of us mostly-Boomer volunteers, reached 15,000 registered voters in the City of Philadelphia. Astounding. We were, as Mario Cuomo was fond of saying, “all part of something bigger than ourselves.”
What made the entire effort even more excellent, was the seamless cooperation between diverse groups and generations — from across the country — who believed in making pure Democracy work. Tech-savvy Millenials and Gen X’ers exhibited extraordinary empathy toward chat rooms bursting with bumbling Boomers, walking us through the nuances of this computer driven system. We were a team of equals, regardless of age, income or lifetime achievements, and egos were left off-line. It was exhilarating.
The eye-opening experience rescued me from the dizzying world of TV’s talking-heads, bloviators, and polling junkies, and pointed clearly toward why those of us willing to fight together — differences be damned — for the soul of this Democracy, would rebuild and save our communities, and this nation.
We rocked it, accomplishing more together than we could have ever achieved alone. The selfless, soulful effort underscored my belief that Biden/Harris would win Pennsylvania, as well as Wisconsin, Michigan, Texas, Arizona, Iowa, Georgia & North Carolina, in an overwhelming national Electoral College victory, that would also sweep in a Democratic Senate. And, although we might not know who won Pennsylvania for days, we would know who our new President is on Election night.
Our COVID-tempered, tectonic, home-bound movement for civic and social justice, and the resolute, but quiet, roar to restore a sense of decency to this Democracy, will prove to be an extraordinarily powerful earthquake, just waiting to explode