It’s what campaigners say every November, I know, but this year’s election really is as important as it gets. Will U.S. voters choose to halt the progress of Donald J. Trump’s slow-motion coup? Or will the tide just continue rolling over us? So much depends on what happens in Nevada – a state that once elected a senator by a mere 401 votes. The race between Jacky Rosen and Dean Heller represents the best chance we have of taking the Senate away from the GOP this year. That’s why 40 people are spending two months living in a hotel this fall, working to make it happen. I’m one of them.
It’s 11:00 on a Tuesday morning in Reno, Nevada, when Christina, Cesar, and Nate step to the front of the room to start the meeting. They begin a slow, accelerating clapping, and the room responds in kind. “Se puede o no se puede?” shouts Cesar. (“Can we do it or not?”) “Sí se puede!” comes the thunderous answer. (“Yes, we can!”)
Next, a canvasser named Tonya gives the weather report: “It’s gonna get up to 92 today, with just a little bit of breeze. So drink lots of water.” Then Christina goes over yesterday’s numbers: “We knocked on 2,148 doors and talked to 612 voters. We identified 429 Rosen supporters and 419 for Sisolak. That’s great!” Again, everyone applauds.
Christina, Cesar, and Nate are our team captains, the “leads,” as we call them, of this election effort. We’re all part of what’s known as an “independent expenditure campaign”; that is, we do our work without coordination or even communication with any candidate’s organization. Our campaign has been mounted by Culinary Workers Local 226 under the auspices of the AFL-CIO to elect Democrats to the U.S. Senate and the governor’s mansion.
Like the leads, Tonya is one of almost 40 rank-and-file members of UNITE HERE, the hotel, casino, and food-service workers union in North America. Along with some family and friends, they’re now in Nevada for the duration. They’ve taken a leave of absence from their jobs as cooks, casino workers, hotel housekeepers, and airport catering workers to help elect Jacky Rosen senator and Steve Sisolak governor. For two months they’re living away from their homes and families in an extended-stay hotel.
Six days a week, these men and women hit the streets of Washoe County, knocking on doors to talk with voters about the issues that truly matter: the rising cost of living, a stagnant minimum wage, the overcrowding and underfunding of local schools, and Republican efforts to deny health insurance to Nevadans with pre-existing conditions or throw hundreds of thousands of people off the Medicaid rolls. They listen to voters’ stories and respond with their own.
I live in San Francisco, but until November 6th, I’ve joined them here in a campaign that seems to go on 24 hours a day. Most of my own work is done in a cramped office attached to the main room of the campaign’s headquarters, where I share a desk with Paul, the other “data nerd.” We spend our days hunched over laptops, preparing the lists of voters and their addresses that the canvassers will load into their electronic tablets the following day.
Get-out-the-vote technology has come a long way since we used to buy expensive paper lists from private companies and photocopy precinct maps purchased from the local registrar of voters. Today, most progressive campaigns contract with NGP VAN, an integrated electoral database that facilitates all kinds of voter contact, from email to phone banks to door knocking. Using the VAN, campaigners can locate specific voters they particularly want to talk with, based on, among other things, age, gender, race, party affiliation, and voting frequency.
Data nerds like Paul and me can then explore individual precinct maps filled with the dots of target houses and use a mouse to draw boundaries around areas where the canvassers should be putting their energies. It’s a process known as “cutting turf.” Canvassers load these “turfs” onto their tablets daily and promptly have a map of where they’re going, including information about each voter they’re likely to run into. They can then add to our database by recording observations and the results of their conversations as notes for future canvassers: “Mean dog,” “Confederate flag hanging in the garage,” or “needs a ride to the polls.” Each night, the results of that day’s canvass are uploaded to the VAN.
Wonderful as it may be, however, the technology remains secondary to the true wonder of this Nevada campaign: the surprisingly powerful conversations that canvassers are having when they knock on those doors. More about those conversations later, but first a bit about why they’re so important.
What are the stakes?
Nevada’s voters – along with those in a few other states – have the opportunity to shift the balance of power in the Senate. Reclaiming one (or at least part of one) of the three branches of the federal government is the best hope of staving off the overlapping agendas of President Trump and the Republicans.
Voters here also have the chance to elect a Democratic governor. Control of state legislatures and governorships has gained a particular significance as the 2020 census approaches, because state governments control the process of drawing congressional districts. According to the Gallup polling organization, since 2006, Republican Party affiliation has hovered somewhere between 26% and 30% of the population, but the gerrymandering of congressional districts has helped that party hold onto 236 of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives. (The Democrats have 193 and six seats are presently vacant.) Every 10 years, after the national census, congressional districts get redrawn. So the best chance of reclaiming future House seats from Republican gerrymandering lies in winning as many statehouses and governorships as possible now.
The U.S. and the rest of the world have endured more than a year and a half of Donald J. Trump, his bluster, bombast, and horrific blunders. After years of complaining that this country is the world’s laughingstock, the president finally demonstrated the truth of that claim when a recent self-aggrandizing speech of his provoked laughter at the U.N. General Assembly.
We’ve lived through a presidential election tainted by Russian interference; an ever-flowing stream of blatant lies from the White House; the vile separation of families at the U.S.-Mexico border; the successful appointment to the Supreme Court of two right-wing ideologues; the recycling of Bush and even Reagan-era war criminals; and the continuation of U.S. support for a criminal and ruinous war in Yemen, where millions of people are teetering on the edge of famine.
Over the last 20 months, the Trump administration has begun to demonstrate the classic hallmarks of a fascist regime: racism, authoritarianism, and extreme nationalism. This rightward lurch comes in the disturbing context of growing anti-democratic movements internationally – from eastern Europe and Germany to Brazil and the Philippines.
That’s why it’s hard to overstate the importance of this campaign in Washoe, Nevada’s second-most-populous county, where Reno is located. In 2008 and 2012 – together with Clark County, home of Las Vegas – Washoe helped swing the state for Barack Obama. In 2016, its voters did the same for Hillary Clinton. In this year’s mid-term election, it holds the key to possibly turning the Senate.
For almost a decade, Washoe and Clark counties have put Nevada in the “blue state” column, but the margins have grown slimmer each year. According to figures assembled by UNITE HERE, Barack Obama beat John McCain in this state by almost 120,000 votes. Four years later, he beat Mitt Romney by a little less than 68,000. In 2016, Clinton won Nevada by only 27,200 votes.
As is so often the case in a mid-term campaign, turnout is the crucial factor. It’s not easy to get people to vote in a non-presidential election year, even when their own interests are very much at stake. And that’s where the union’s approach is crucial.
I’ve worked in a fair number of electoral campaigns over the years, some of them run by issue-based political organizations, some on behalf of a specific candidate. The compressed timeframe and exhausting pace can create a powerful incentive for the people involved to be less than truthful about their achievements. Sometimes it’s lies all the way to the top. Precinct walkers exaggerate their contact numbers when reporting to their leads. Leads exaggerate their team numbers to their supervisors, and so on up the chain.
This campaign has been different. The leadership is focused on getting as accurate a picture as possible of each day’s canvassing, of the quality as well as the quantity of discussions with voters. The leads work with canvassers to be sure that when a voter replies, “I guess so,” to “Can we count on you to vote for Jackie Rosen?” that “guess” doesn’t get recorded as “strong support.” That voter is someone we should talk with again and possibly even offer to bring to a polling site ourselves during Nevada’s two-week early-voting period.
Three organizing skills
Many of the canvassers have worked on union-organizing campaigns in their own shops. In fact, recently one of our organizers, Seth, was over the moon because his local in Sacramento, California, just won a contract they’d spent months fighting for. Leaving that city in the midst of that campaign was a hard choice for him, but the skills he brought to Reno have proven invaluable.
It’s fair to say that UNITE HERE has at least two goals in this campaign. The first, of course, is to elect Jacky Rosen and Steve Sisolak, which, as these campaigners see it, will further both the interests of working people in general and the union’s goals in particular. These include guaranteeing the rights of immigrants, who make up much of the workforce in the hospitality sector of the economy; advancing the concept that “one job should be enough” for economic survival; and keeping the government from taxing the hard-won health benefits of union members while ensuring that all working people have access to adequate health care.
Rosen, for example, is committed to raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. (Since 2009, it’s been stuck at $7.25.) She has also visited the U.S.-Mexico border to investigate the grim conditions at Trump-era immigrant detention facilities. Finally, unlike her opponent, she’s committed to holding on to the health-care rights Americans won under Obamacare.
But that’s only for starters. The campaign also has a second purpose, as important to the union in its own way as winning this election: the development of future organizers and leaders from its rank and file. UNITE HERE emphasizes leadership among those who are the majority of its members – immigrants, people of color, and women. I often overhear the leads discussing how to help specific canvassers practice leadership skills. Most mornings, Cesar, Nate, and Christina – each of whom came from that same rank and file – ask a few of the canvassers to demonstrate one of three crucial organizing skills: getting in the door, asking an “agitational” question, or telling a personal story. All three will help any canvasser make a genuine connection, however brief it may be, with the stranger who opens the door when they knock.
“Getting in the door” means being able to catch a potential voter’s attention, even after she says she’s busy, or not interested, or disgusted by all the negative ads she’s seen on TV. There’s no way to identify a voter as one of yours – or persuade her to become one – if you can’t even start a conversation with her. I often watch canvassers demonstrate approaches that work for them. A typical one I heard the other day: “I can see you’re really busy and I wouldn’t interrupt you, except that this is really important for our community. I’m a hotel room cleaner from Northern California spending two months away from my family, living in a hotel, to have a chance to talk with people like you.” It works, because it’s real.
You then ask what the leads call “an agitational question” to heighten the emotion of the moment, raise the temperature a little. This is effective, but only if you’ve paid close attention to whatever clues you can pick up about the situation of the person on the other side of that door. It also means really listening to how they answer your questions. Otherwise, you won’t connect to a voter’s genuine concerns. “Is the cost of living affecting your family?” a canvasser might ask in a less-affluent area. “Are you worried about how crowded your children’s schools are getting?” could be a question that gets the attention of a voter with a yard full of toys. Not surprisingly, for instance, some Spanish-speakers respond emotionally to questions focused on how they feel about the president who launched his campaign by decrying “Mexican rapists.” Canvassers come back to the office and role-play their conversations, constantly trying to figure out better ways to make and hold that crucial connection to a voter.
“Telling a personal story” is a way of inviting that voter to see the unknown person at her door as someone like herself and to understand why that canvasser really believes her vote matters. Several mornings we’ve listened teary-eyed as a canvasser tells a story from her own life. “I was homeless as a child,” one woman began, “and I don’t want any other child to have to go through what my family and I did.” Her generosity in exposing her life not just to fellow campaigners but to complete strangers, to people who might mock or even rudely dismiss her – or might be moved enough to really begin to talk – inspired us all to keep at it.
Wide and deep
In the past, when I’ve worked on electoral campaigns with community organizers, I’ve found that they’re often frustrated with the minimalist quality of the contacts permitted anyone by the pace of an electoral campaign. That’s not surprising since community organizers want to make deep connections with potential or actual community leaders. For that, multiple conversations and visits to people’s homes are often a necessity, so that there’s time for both of you to open up and make a true connection.
Electoral organizing, by contrast, is often described as going wide but not deep. Your goal is to touch as many people as possible, with time in short supply, and get them to vote your way in a specific election (or simply out to vote). It’s all about the numbers. That’s why electoral organizing can, in the end, be so unsatisfying. Even when you win, it can feel like you haven’t built anything lasting. The day after the election, the organization you helped put together is usually dismantled like the campaign office where you’ve lived for the previous few months. Even when community organizations participate in elections, they often find it difficult to consolidate their relationships with the campaign volunteers, let alone the actual voters they’ve met.
Knowing all that, why did I choose this particular campaign to work on in 2018? I could, for instance, have tried to add my bit to Stacey Abrams’s run for governor in Georgia. I’d certainly love to see that particular black woman occupy that particular post. Like many folks I know, I could have worked in northern California’s 10th congressional district where a Democrat has a rare chance to unseat an incumbent Republican. But I chose to come to Nevada for two reasons.
I wanted to work on a campaign that I knew would be well-organized and well run, that wouldn’t waste my time or that of other campaign workers, volunteers, and above all voters. Experience had shown me that UNITE HERE knows how to get things done.
I also wanted to work on a campaign that would build beyond Election Day. As the daughter of a sometime union organizer and a proud member of my own union of part-time college faculty, I believe that, despite their internal failings and the endless vicious attacks launched on them in this century, unions remain the best vehicle for the collective power of working people. And that power – combined with the strength of national and international movements for peace and racial, gender, and climate justice – is what stands between Donald J. Trump and his plutocratic ilk and the rest of us.
And I’m impressed with this union-run electoral campaign in the northwestern corner of Nevada. Six days a week, at least nine hours a day, ordinary working people are going both wide and deep in an organized effort to build political power and better the lives of workers and their families. Their eyes are on Nevada in an election where the stakes couldn’t be higher.
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