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Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Wednesday and Everything After

I'm sorry, California.

I got the call late Monday night. Maja, one of the Dean staffers and volunteer coordinators, told me that I would be doing GOTV early Tuesday morning. 5:30 early, on the Howard Dean-friendly East Side of Milwaukee.

I had a McMuffin fix in the Saturn--the same Saturn I was once lucky enough to drive Dean to the airport in that Sleepless Summer night last August--on the way to the 24-hour Walgreen's that would serve as the initial staging area for the morning lit drop. Once I got there, I found that Elliot, the Dean staffer with the material, was a little late. But I met up with David, Ed and his wife whose name I've forgotten, Juliet, plus Jody and the eighth-grade "Truants for Dean" she brought with her from Illinois.

To fill the time until Elliot got there, I passed around some of the Dean for America signs from my trunk, and we stood on the surprisingly busy (for that early in the morning) corner to do visibility. Okay, well, that was my excuse, anyway. I was really trying to get away from David.

You know, I hear from people about these grating, annoying, rude, negative Dean supporters who do nothing but bad-mouth the other candidates. The Deanie-Meanies who drive potential Dean fans into the camps of other candidates. For the longest time, volunteering here in Milwaukee, leading Meetups, and coordinating the occasional state-wide house party, I never ran into those people. Dave, though, was one of those people.

Right around six A.M., Juliet came running out to tell us that Elliot was finally there.

I'm sorry, Connecticut.

We split into three teams to cover the six wards. We were hitting our ones, twos, and threes. The ones and twos got a reminder postcard with their polling places' addresses stuck in their doors. The threes got one last piece of persuasive literature, in the hopes that their undecided selves might fall on the Dean side of the fence.

I was on Jody's team. Since I knew the neighborhood (I used to live on the East Side), I was the navigator. Jody drove her mini-van, and the kids--Jody's son Scott and his friend Hannah--did the legwork. We managed to hit all the addresses within just an hour and a half.

But, as it turns out, though I avoided Dave's team, Jody was also one of those Deanie-Meanies. It wasn't just the other candidates she slammed, it was their supporters, too. They were idiots and jerks and worse. I got into this campaign because I believe in Howard Dean and the principles he stands for, and because I want to vote for him. I'm not in this to badmouth or merely vote against the others. It turns out that John Edwards was having breakfast at the Brady Street Pharmacy, a neighborhood institution in the wards we were hitting, and Jody wanted to stop and go in and cause trouble. The kids, Scott and Hannah, were fantastic, though. I cannot say enough about them and their hard work.

I did not go off on her as I wanted to, but I did convince her that the Dean campaign needed us somewhere besides at an Edwards event: Jody had gotten a call from headquarters on her cell phone while we were working, saying that they needed more volunteers to make calls starting at nine.

So when we finished, we packed up the materials, and Jody followed my Saturn--with that April '03 vintage "Meetup for Dean" bumper sticker, crusted with salt but still a beacon of hope--downtown to headquarters.

I'm sorry, Georgia.

Once we got there, a very frazzled-looking Jon and Megan got us all set to make reminder calls to our ones and twos, starting at nine A.M. Trouble is, even though the phones were filled for much of the morning, we had too many to call meet the deadline that the campaign imposed for getting the first call-through done. Megan and Jon, not to mention every other staffer, eventually had to get on the lines to finish the call-through, which finally happened at about a quarter to two. (The campaign was hoping for 12:30.)

Megan, who seemed near tears at points, was doing her best to keep herself up. Once we were finished, I had a chance to talk to her. Seems she's been doing nothing but bounce from campaign to campaign for the last two years, since finishing her degree, and was ready to be done. She had been under the gun in New Hampshire for months, and then was sent out here (where, of course, there was no pressure at all!), and needed a break. She didn't know exactly what she'd do, but she was planning to make a break with the campaign after Wisconsin, whatever happened to Dean.

In all, I must have called 300 people and answering machines. Dozens of other volunteers--many of whom did not stay as long as I did--covered thousands more.

ABC News's Dan Harris stopped by to work on a story while we were there, to run on "World News Tonight with Peter Jennings" on the future of "Deaniacs" (his word) after the likely end of the Dean campaign. His focus was about how Dean supporters would fall into two camps: Anybody But Bush ("ABB"), and Nobody But Dean ("NBD"). I was ABB.

(Until Thursday morning when they pull it, you can see the "WNT" show here, in the right column, if you're willing to sign up for a 14-day free trial of something. Harris's story starts at about 3:30. Don't miss the great shot of Scott and Hannah on the phone in their bright-orange Iowa hats!)

Harris and I spoke for probably five minutes, but I disliked him immediately. As we were gearing up, he asked where I was from and what I did for a living, and so on. When I told him I taught English, he asked what books I teach. I told him, and he "jokingly" asked, "What, you don't teach Don Quixote?"

Anyway, it was clear he wanted me to talk about abandoning the Democrats if Dean was forced out. So many of his questions started with, "Come on, really, if Dean doesn't win . . ."

But I stayed on message, and honestly, too: Besides coming back to the idea that Dean was not out of the running yet, I kept talking about the things he (and I) believe in. And I said that I certainly would be spending November doing exactly what I was doing now (that's the part that made the cut). But more than that, I talked about how being a "Deaniac" meant being uncompromising and energetic in our pursuit of change. This thing is bigger than Howard Dean, I said, so now I plan to work on the WI-5 congressional race to unseat Jim Sensenbrenner. I plan to work on taking back the state assembly and senate, which are both Republican-controlled now. I am not going to be a complacent Democrat any more, and it is all because of Howard Dean.

But Harris found another volunteer in the room. "My time, my loyalty, my passion, my vote belong to Howard Dean," she said. I could hear her conversation with Harris as I kept making calls, and it was all I could do to keep myself from turning around and screaming at her about how it was people like her giving "Deaniacs" a bad name and that her kind of thinking would almost certainly doom us to four more years of Bush.

When the camera turned off, and she returned to the table, Jody gave this "NBD" a big high-five and a hug. Figures.

I'm sorry, Hawaii.

A while after the interview, but before we finished that first massive call-through, a well-dressed woman I didn't know walked past me as I sat with a cell phone glued to my ear, squeezed my shoulders, and said how much she'd enjoyed my interview (she was in the smaller office behind Harris as he interviewed me). I said thanks. Later, once the calls were done and I was eating my sandwich (thanks to Chris, the field manager, who offered to pay, though I paid for it myself), I went in to introduce myself to this woman, to mention, you know, how I'm also a "reporter" and have been volunteering for a year and all that. She shook my hand and introduced herself as Andi Pringle.

Wow, I thought. And we had a good long talk, I gave her my contact info, and all of that. I hope to be able to work with her again somewhere somehow. I was very impressed. Meeting her is among the highlights of my time in the campaign.

Once we finished that first call-through, Meagan (the Milwaukee field director, not the Megan working the phones) was all set to send us out to do some more visibility, but then the call came from the SEIU boiler room that we needed more folks on the auto-dialed phones to hit undecideds before the polls closed at eight.

So I drove Diane, a local volunteer, plus Sharon, up from Illinois, to fight the good fight with us, over to the call center. We got there about four.

I'm sorry, Massachusetts.

I need to say a gracious thanks to Becca, an Iowan who forewent her paycheck for much of the end of the campaign, who stayed here in Milwaukee to be the Dean representative at the call center, seven days a week for a solid month. I also want to thank Sasha, a great SEIU staffer who ran the dialer. He's from Vermont originally, and very savvy and smart. He has great kids, too.

We were doing just quick calls of the previously identified undecideds around the state, and asking if they'd voted yet. Almost all of them had, which made me feel very good about turnout (which, by the way, was huge). But the few who had not were willing to listen, and I'm pretty sure I turned a few to Dean.

One call in particular, will always stick with me. I talked to Stephanie in Fond du Lac, giving her many good reasons to vote and to vote for Howard Dean. Finally, she said, "Honestly, if I do go vote, it will probably be for Kerry." When I asked why, she said, "I'm a teacher, and my union has endorsed him."

"Certainly your union has a right to endorse who they want," I said, "but I'm a teacher, too, and I don't know how anyone who works with children could not support Howard Dean." And I explained "Success by Six" to her, and how child abuse fell more than 40% in ten years under that program, and child sexual abuse by more than 70%. I talked about No Child Left Behind, and how Kerry supported the bill and then claimed ignorance about how badly Bush would administer it. If anyone should be suspicious of what "market-based" reforms would do to schools, it is we teachers here in Wisconsin, who have seen Milwaukee's school choice undermine public schools for more than a decade now.

In the end, I had Stephanie convinced. I don't know for certain that she voted, or that she even voted for Dean. But if she did, and she happens to stumble across this, I want to thank her, and I hope that she does not feel she wasted her vote casting it for the man in this race who has done more for children than any of the other candidates.

I'm sorry, Minnesota.

Sasha told us that night that we went through more than 25,000 numbers from the tiny SEIU call center, which was an incredible pace. I should also thank Bill, Cathy, Michael, Nick, Marshall from Illinois (who didn't have time to tell me his stories from Missouri, but sounded like a great guy!), and the other people working the phones from nine in the morning. I really do think we made a difference. I mean, after all, I think we all had at least one call like the one I had where the woman said, "Thank you! I so totally spaced on that! I was going to vote this morning but I had errands and ran out of time." Just remember, I told her, it was Howard Dean who reminded you to vote!

Finally, we were almost finished. It was nearing 6:30, SEIU itself was moving in to do a post-election survey on the quality of their materials, and many people were anxious to get up to Madison to see Dean's speech and attend the rally. Michael, who was there with me at the first Meetup in March, said something that I knew was true, though I didn't want it to be. "I've got to go to Madison," he said, "and shake Howard Dean's hand one more time--the ninth time!--because I know in my heart this will be his last time in Wisconsin."

Our Meetup will continue, Michael and I agreed, and I'll be working with him on Tim Carpenter's bid for the WI-4 congressional district, so I know I will see him again. Maybe others, too.

But this talk of not seeing Dean again drove it home that there are many people I've met over the last year that I will not see again, people I've called colleagues and friends, people I will miss dearly.

Rochelle, Carin, Bridget, Todd, Keith and Giselle, Rajan, Mike and Jan, Mike Tate, Meagan Mahaffey, Tony and Deb, the other Tony, Margarita, Stacie, Teege, the Davidsons, Bill, several Cathys, Steve and Tim in Marinette, Malita in Madison, and too many more even to think about trying to name you all. Plus the staffers--Maja, Kay, Megan, Jon, Mike. Kate O'Connor, who also got a ride in my Saturn. Courtney O'Donnel. Even Brit, who was responsible for cutting my speech from the rally last week. Plus Jen the intern from last June, who was so very helpful. Not to mention Hunter, and Michael Silberman and the Meetup team. And Jasper! We all love Jasper.

I'm sorry, New York.

Anyway, I took Diane back to her place, and Sharon back to Dean headquarters a few blocks away, telling her all the way that I hoped Dean would still be viable on March 16 when Illinois finally gets to vote. She told me a little of her story, too: She's an unemployed victim of the Bush Economy, and had spent time in Michigan a few weeks before. Sharon was so passionate and dedicated, and a nice antidote to the time I had to spend in the car with Jody that morning. Diane, too--a Green party member who knows where the priority is this fall. Please, Diane, let's work on getting those Greens to vote (D) in November!

After I pulled away from HQ for what I knew would be the last time, I wasn't sure what to feel. I had been very hopeful earlier in the day, talking to the ones and twos who were unwavering in their commitment to vote Dean. Even while phoning the undecideds, though it was call after call of "already voted," I was bouyed by the assurance that turnout would be high.

But I also knew that Dean was taking time off in Burlington after the primary. That his staff had no sense of what the next day or week would bring. That some staff, like Megan the phone captain, were ready to walk away anyhow. I can't help but think, as I remember Megan's worried face Tuesday morning, if that's what a stewardess might look like if she knew the plane were going down.

I just happened to hit the hour of my local public radio that features "Marketplace" for the drive away from HQ, so there was no election news at all. I liked that. I learned about coffee, about a wireless phone merger, about news that wasn't about me. It was, in fact, the first news I'd heard all day.

I'm sorry, Ohio.

My wife and I moved last June, so this was our first election in the new house. We'd wanted to vote together, but since I didn't know my schedule, and she didn't either, we voted separately.

I got to the polls around seven, an hour before they closed. I went straight to the end of the table where the registration changes happened, and I was surprised to see a young man, maybe 18 or 19, working the polls. It reminded me of how often over the last year someone has complimented me, told me how great it was to see a young person (I'm 29) working so hard and being so committed to the process. I told him that. He said thanks, but was focused on his duties: He made me swear that I was who I was and lived where I said I did. And then I got my ballot.

There was a final surge of adrenaline as I connected the arrow next to Howard Dean's name. One more feeling that I did, in fact, have the power. I voted in the remaining races on the ballot--some local stuff--and then went to the machine where my ballot was sucked into the tabulating/ storage thingie. I was voter number 731 in that polling place.

I asked how many usually vote in a spring primary like this. Well, came the answer, with the redistricting that just happened (the number of alderpeople was reduced this year in Milwaukee), it's hard to say. But this was the busiest the veterans there had seen the polls in a very long time, they told me. One last ray of hope for me as a Democrat, I guess.

I'm sorry, Rhode Island.

When I got home, I was exhausted. I was hungry, sore, tired, and on my way to a resigned depression. Rather that watch news, my wife and I ordered pizza, and watched some TiVo. Things that had nothing to do with news, or the election.

But I kept checking the results online. Right away I was disappointed at Dean's performance, but Edwards shocked me. He was winning for a time, and doing very well in the early returns in a lot of industrial counties--Dodge, Sheboygan, even Milwaukee. The results started trickling in for the other races, too. Turns out, the people I supported and endorsed in the other races all finished dead last in their contests. Howard Dean, despite his weak showing, was the best finish any of my horses had.

(I did think, in my cynical, depressed moments, that maybe I should have endorsed John Kerry months ago, so that Howard Dean would be winning by now. Sigh.)

And I'm especially sorry, Vermont, that you won't be able to vote for your favorite son in two weeks. That you had to play host to a speech that, I'm sure, Howard Dean hoped he would never have to give.

I know Wisconsin was not mine to win or lose. Not even Milwaukee, or my neighborhood. But this has been a year of my life. It is a year of my life that I would not trade for anything, but a year of my life nonetheless. I remember the heady days in November, when the unions were endorsing us. I remember the singing-out-loud moment that I heard Gore was endorsing. I even remember a local planning meeting last month, where we talked about how we would graciously assimilate supporters from all the other campaigns as the spring wore on.

You know, Dean was right in his speech today. We will--we must--soldier on. We're already planning our March Meetup here in Milwaukee, talking about what we can do to stay involved with the process, and how we can support Democrats from here on out. We're talking about what local races to get involved in, and how we can truly bring about the change that we were promised, and that looked so attainable for just a little while.

We do have the power. I have felt it; I feel it still.

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