Canvassing Las Vegas, a Scary Moment Just Before Election Day

Sign on the gate 2 doors from the home of our Las Vegas trouble-maker.

“Get out of my neighborhood. I have guns! If you two don’t leave right now I’m gonna go get them.”

It was the Saturday before election day and we were canvassing in Las Vegas in a sprawling cookie-cutter development – not a fancy one – with “front yards” of sand, not grass.  Worn Halloween figures and flags hung on the doors; fake spider webs stuck stubbornly to doorways and bushes.  My son Dan and I had just arrived and this was our first block.  It was the weekend before his birthday but both of us were beyond anxious about the election and hoped that going door-to-door, even more than making calls, might ease our souls a bit; at least we were doing something.

A moment earlier we’d been joking with this same 30-something guy over the neighborhood Halloween decorations. He asked what we were doing walking along his block and Dan said “Just talking to people.” “What about,” he asked. “What are you talking to people about?” “Hillary Clinton” I said, smiling at him – (that almost always works.)

Not this time. As we moved beyond him and on up the street, he was still yelling. “Get out!  Get out!”  Shaken, we decided to move up a block and try the next house on our tally sheet but he and his friend were making their way toward us, his friend telling him to “do something about it” if  he was going to yell anyway.  We fled.

I’ve seen angry crowds before, including demonstrators and police in Chicago in 1968.  I’d seen reports of scary Trump rally crowds too.  But this single person, focused on us with such rage, was a different kind of scary.  My heart was pounding as if I’d had way too much coffee.  As that response ebbed, I just got sad.  And then sadder.  “This isn’t how our country is supposed to be.” I kept saying to Dan.  He, wisely, was more concerned about danger than he was with analyzing the social meaning of all this.  He has a two-year-old son and was unsettled more for him, and for his wife; he needed to stay safe for them.

That was wise, but for me, the cruelty and rage of these two men, who’d turned on a dime from “We all DO love our Halloween here” to “Get the fuck out of my neighborhood” was painful on so many levels.

They weren’t the only ones.  At least two more times, the response to our question: “Have you voted yet?” was “I don’t do Democrats.  Go away,” declared with icy affect and stone cold eyes.

Saturday afternoon, as we waited at headquarters for a new neighborhood assignment, we were visited by Gabby Giffords, and her husband Mark Kelly, as well as Lucy McBath, one of the Mothers of the Movement, a sad sisterhood of moms whose children, her son Jordan Davis among them, had been killed by police officers.  The combination of the realities faced by these people and their efforts to reenforce the critical nature of every vote we could pull out of our assigned areas was a reminder of all that is at stake in our country.

Enthusiastic volunteers wait for Gabby Gifford and husband Mark Kelly to address to the crowd.

Lucy McBath, one of the Mothers of the Movement. Her son was Jordan Davis

Here’s the thing though:

This anger didn’t arise on its own. It’s been enabled, and not just by Mr. Trump and his allies and followers. Not all the angry people we met lived in lesser circumstances, with less education and income, than the norm but they do live differently from the people who govern them – and the people who cover them.

Listen to Columnist Sarah Smarsh in The Guardian

sarah-smarsh-sized*  Earlier this year, primary exit polls revealed that Trump voters were, in fact, more affluent than most Americans, with a median household income of $72,000higher than that of Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders supporterss.

*  Forty-four percent of them had college degrees, well above the national average of 33% among whites or 29% overall. . . .
These facts haven’t stopped pundits and journalists from pushing story after story about the white working class’s giddy embrace of a bloviating demagogue. . . .
*  The faces journalists do train the cameras on – hateful ones screaming sexist vitriol next to Confederate flags – must receive coverage but do not speak for the communities I know well.
*  One-dimensional stereotypes fester where journalism fails to tread. The last time I saw my native class receive substantial focus, before now, was over 20 years ago – not in the news but on the television show Roseanne, the fictional storylines of which remain more accurate than the musings of comfortable commentators in New York studios.

* In lieu of such coverage, media makers cast the white working class as a monolith and imply an old, treacherous story convenient to capitalism: that the poor are dangerous idiots.

Sure political passions on both sides are self-defined far differently than they’re defined from the outside. But if those who cover non-elites never go near them except to write about them; if they’re described more through sociology than personal stories, oddities instead of neighbors, the divisions we’ve experienced in this election will not ease.

We don’t go to the same schools, we don’t live in the same neighborhoods, we don’t share military/non-military histories and we don’t agree on politics. We also don’t have access to simple exchanges: in the carpool line, as room parents or scout leaders, at the supermarket or the gas station, at the playground or even at neighborhood Halloween events.

I grew up in a steel town on the Monongahela River.  I was the lawyer’s daughter; when we graduated I went to an Ivy League college that almost no one in my community had even heard of.  Several of the kids from my high school who went to college did so by joining the Army.  Because of Viet Nam, many of them never made it home to enroll.

We all went to the same dances and football games though, and parties in each other’s homes.  I know – know – that every day that I spent as a journalist I did a better job because I’d grown up among so many different kinds of kids, even though it was always clear my future was going to be different from many of theirs.

We need to be able to depend on journalists to translate a bit for us and right now that doesn’t happen enough. Of course no American should threaten another with a gun.  Of course not.  But we also need to be able to expect from those who deliver information to us that they’ve gone beyond their own experiences to learn how others live- and to share that understanding with the rest of us.


68chicagoGrant Park 1968 – in the heart of Chicago.  Grant Park — where my friends and  I were gassed and beaten – terrified and abused – during the Democratic Convention in 1968.  Grant Park – haunted by so much.

Here’s how I remembered it on the 40th anniversary this summer:

I wonder if you can imagine what it felt like to be 22 years old, totally idealistic and what they call “a true believer” and to see policemen behave like that.  To see Chicago Mayor Richard Daley call the first Jewish Senator, Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut, a “kike” (you had to read his lips – there was no audio but it was pretty clear) and to see your friends, and colleagues, and some-time beloveds with black eyes and bleeding scalps.  To be dragged by a Secret Service agent from your place next to Senator McCarthy by the collar of your dress as he addressed the demonstrators, battered, bruised and angry. To see everything you’d worked for and believed in decimated in the class, generational and political warfare.

Grant_park_obamaWhy does this matter, you ask?  Because, this moment – 40 years later — as Barack Obama assumed the leadership of our country with such an elegant speech, informed and supported in part by the values, and people, who fought, bled and wept through those awful days and by a majority of those as young now as we were then and just as committed to the vision they’ve been offered and by an enormous, excited turnout, black and white, — he did so on this same site, in the shadow of the Hilton where we put all the kids with broken heads — and tried to keep the tear gas out of our eyes.  We’ve been haunted by that time for so long, and as far as I can tell, this was an exorcism. As I heard a commentator say this morning: “The culture wars are over.  The Vietnam War is over.”  And not a moment too soon.

Line_from_steps_croppedWhat’s happening is far larger of course.  Yesterday morning we voted in our lovely DC neighborhood, middle class, well-kept, bikes and an excellent walk-to-it elementary school, so of course
there was a long line waiting to vote in a riot of autumn color.  We stood for two hours even though Washington would clearly choose Obama, (and did so with 92% of our votes.) Each individual vote
wasn’t urgently needed.  Instead, it was the need to cast the vote that
was urgent.

Diverse in age and history, largely African-American, our community stood
together, talking, laughing, meeting new friends in front of or behind us
in line.  People had their kids with them, called grown kids on the phone from line and waved at late-arriving neighbors.  It was one of those moments where you feel history all around you, and a remarkable privilege to be voting in such company, who’ve worked through all the years of discord to maintain a civil, multicultural community.  A bonus.

Beyond this landmark day, though, the next months are going to be tough.  As the new White House staff, cabinet and administration form, all this free-floating joy will take on concrete forms that remind us of the huge challenges and risks that face us.  There will be things that disappoint us, and things that make us mad.  The reality that caused people to elect this man will descend upon us in a relentless  economic, social, military and persona avalanche and we may be hard-pressed to remember the joy we felt last night; the promise that has so engaged us.

When that happens, I will think of the older African-American man who called out “shalom” to us in the canvassing orientation when he saw my friend’s yarmulke, of the excited first-voters — just 18 or newly naturalized — whom we met as we walked through one Virginia housing complex after another, of our four-year-old door-bell-ringer beside himself over “Obama” and asking everyone from the supermarket checker to his teachers to vote for him, of my sons last night calling and texting literally across a continent and an ocean, of the day I was electrified by the broadcast of Martin Luther King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, of the fact that 66% of under-30 voters, so long detached and cynical*, voted for Obama, and, finally, of the distance we have to go – and won’t — unless we work together to resolve each challenge and, perhaps more importantly, each disagreement.

This is a great day.  And a scary one.  And now, as our new president-elect prepares to do his part, we have to resolve to do ours: to work through those disappointments and disagreements, to accept the call to contribute and to sacrifice and, as he and Abraham Lincoln before him asked us, to heed to the “better angels of of our nature.”   They’re there – and we’re going to need them.  If they can show up, and Barack Obama can show up, so can we.

* (speaking of younger voters):  A friend of my sons (a third son, really) sent me this from one of his favorite blogs.  It’s just so sweet.



Stumble It!


That’s my four year old friend, his dad and our friend Lea at the door of a home in Virginia.  We spent Sunday afternoon canvassing for Obama and the down ticket races in this housing development whose residents had names from Gomez to Kim to Ilbibi to Hussein to Brady.*  These were town homes with small back gardens, beautifully kept and facing out onto mini-wooded areas that made it feel peaceful and apart.  Not fancy, just well-designed and executed. Plastic bikes and push toys sat out in  the open; we even saw some skateboards left leaning against a tree.  Not too much worry about theft, apparently.                           

As we walked, I realized that this – these homes occupied by families of so many backgrounds, were part of what we were campaigning for: the opportunity of all Americans
building their lives to find a place – a home — a life.  And that the battle, underneath the craziness, is about the best way to guarantee those rights — and possiblities – to more of us.

The past week or two have been painful for Obama supporters.  Polls are down, Sarah Palin seems to have hijacked much of the campaign, the McCainies are attacking and the attacks, however vicious or frivolous they may be, (and the are) seem to be sticking.  That’s what drove me to Virginia Sunday.  In all my years around politics I’ve never done field work; for most campaigns I’ve been a reporter and during those years I was scrupulously careful to remain neutral and apart.  Now though, I’m out of the news business and I can campaign.  And so Sunday I was  walking around Virginia with three friends, a water bottle and a clipboard.  Our assignment: talk to the folks on our list, find out if they’ve decided for whom they will vote and check the right boxes.  We check Strong, Lean, Undecided.  If they support our guy, we make sure they’re registered and ask if they want to volunteer. 

We didn’t really meet anyone we could try to convert and in our 57 stops we hit lots of "not home" — it was Sunday afternoon after all, and the rest were either for Obama or "We’re for the other guy — you’ve come to the wrong house."  The lack of conversion candidates didn’t matter though because we were mostly building a  registration and GOTV (Get Out the Vote) list that will be accurate and useful on election day.  The coolest moment: meeting an 18-year-old first-time voter– I suspect a first-generation American and clearly excited to be voting for Barack Obama.

*I’m using names of the same ethnicity but not the real ones; that feels too intrusive.