Sunday, November 05, 2006

Turning On the Janes and Phone Banking

My spare time is consumed by phone banking after work and weekends. Blogging has taken a back seat – true of many progressive bloggers as the campaign winds down. I live in Brooklyn, New York and almost every office I can vote for is not in doubt. In the ‘90s I earned a living largely by telemarketing. Hence, phone banking to help get out the vote in other states is the most sensible use of my time and skills prior to Election Day.

A conversation I had with a woman from Cuyahoga County, Ohio, Friday evening especially illustrates the challenges we face in getting out the vote this Tuesday. As with numerous others I’ve spoken to in recent days she was cynical and resistant to the idea of voting at all. We’ll call her Jane.

Jane is a single woman raising two kids and a nurse. She’s living paycheck to paycheck and struggling to be a good mother. Her children are twelve and nine years of age. Jane’s job does not allow her to be home for her kids after school. She’s frustrated about not being able to attentively supervise their study habits and be more involved in their school. “I’d like to at least meet their teachers.” Everything from groceries, clothing, utilities and the phone bill is a hassle. She has no time and money is very tight.

I could hear Jane’s kids in the background as our conversation was interrupted. She alternatively disciplined them to “clean up” and “stop fighting.” Yet she stayed on the phone with me even as she seemed constantly on the verge of hanging up and I learned more details about her life.

Jane’s immediate response to my inquiries about whether she intended to vote or knew where to go was,

“I’m not waiting online all day like last time. Screwed up my whole day and my vote for Kerry didn’t count anyway. It was stolen.”
She protested that I was,

“Wasting my time with these calls. It’s fixed and the politicians never care about people like me.”
A decade of honed telemarketing skills has conditioned me to move on and make another call when I can’t make a sale. When it comes to politics however I’m stubborn and refuse to give up on a vote as long as they’re willing to talk to me and Jane wasn’t hanging up in spite of her rhetorical resistance. Every single vote is precious and my instinct is to fight. I’ll be damned if I was going to lose this vote to cynicism. It’s not only fear that’s kept Republicans in power. Cynicism from voters like Jane have also empowered their reign of indecency.

I reminded myself to listen and empathize – a technique that worked well for me when selling products or services. So I internalized Jane’s message to me, a tortured combination of pride, hurt, frustration and struggle. A husband that picked up and left her to raise two kids by herself. She's a musician forced to give up on her dreams. “But I’m still raising my kids in dignity.” Jane’s youngest enjoys music as she used to and believes "she can be something if she gets the chance.” Her oldest gets picked on when he studies because his peers “say he’s trying to be better than them.”

Jane is easy to like. She’s proud of making it on her own and meeting life’s challenges head on. But I sensed frustration at her inability to control her destiny and having absorbed too much risk. “My paycheck buys less and less” and “my health plan just plain sucks.”

Jane’s mom is elderly and forced to choose between paying for basic necessities or medication. Her dad died last year because his colon cancer wasn’t detected early enough and his health insurance issues prevented him from getting the treatment he needed.

“I’m a nurse and I could do nothing to help him. And I can’t do much for my mom either.”
Jane had two younger brothers. One died in Afghanistan in 2003 and the other was killed in Iraq in 2004 when he was forced to endure another tour of duty. The one in Afghanistan signed up shortly after 9/11 even though he had a football scholarship. Her other brother enlisted in the National Guard prior to 9/11 and had no choice about going to Iraq. She’s angry about losing both of them to “Bush’s wars.”

“My brother in Afghanistan might be alive but they don't get enough support because of Iraq. My brother in Iraq was supposed to come home.”
Ultimately we spoke for almost forty minutes and it was a losing effort for most of it. The conversation turned in my favor when I said this,

“Voting is about influencing destiny and not just accepting whatever fate dishes out. You could be passive about your kids and your life. But you get up every day, work hard and do the best you can. So why be passive about the right to vote? Why be passive when we’re fighting an immoral war and the politicians care more about stealing than you’re slice of the pie. Let them know you count. Make them care about people like you. They want you to just accept your vote won’t be counted. Participate so you can’t be ignored.”
To my relief Jane finally embraced that she had to vote on Tuesday. I've said similar things to others in recent days without success but it worked with her. The conversation ended with Jane asking for my address so she could mail me a copy of an old music demo she had done. And she promised to show up November 7th. Forty minutes well spent.

Since that conversation I’ve been thinking about Jane and cynicism possibly depressing turnout. Her cynicism is quite understandable. Let’s face it her vote may not count this year because of vote tampering. Also, Democrats are hardly a panacea and like many progressive bloggers I’ve vented about the party’s direction on issues such as war, torture and corporatism.

Should Democrats prevail this Tuesday we in the progressive netroots will have a special obligation to remain vigilant about core principals. Taking over and shaping the Democratic Party is an ongoing struggle. There will always be tension between pragmatism so Democrats remain politically viable and core progressive values.

Nevertheless, a Democratic victory in both federal and statewide elections is essential for the health of our democracy. If Republicans prevail this Tuesday then voters such as Jane will never believe the system can work. Citizens like Jane need reassurance that accountability in our democracy is real and that means Republicans being voted out on November 7th. They also need our leaders to nurture an economy that expands the middle class.

For a generation we’ve watched the GOP systematically shift the burdens of risk onto voters such as Jane while enriching the mega wealthy. Elderly people such as Jane’s parents are simply neglected by a substandard health care system that cares more about profits than patients. And her brothers were killed by feckless neocons that considered them disposable in pursuit of their imperialistic delusions.

I’m not naïve. I fully realize that Democrats prevailing this Tuesday is not an elixir. A whole lot of damage needs to be repaired and we need the White House. The first step is changing the national conversation in this country, shifting the center of political gravity and educating the public about their stake in national policy. Victory on November 7th is a start.

Let’s get as many people like Jane in Cuyahoga County, Ohio to the polls as we can. We can all do something to help make it happen. Three days to go.
"SusanG" rescued a cross posting of the above topic on Daily Kos. CLICK HERE to review the comments. Also, an FYI for New York residents - many Democratic candidates are also on the Working Families Party ballot. For whatever it is worth, I am going support that ballot line.


Deirdre Helfferich said...

This election I'll be voting a straight Democratic ticket. The Alaska Greens don't have credible candidates in this election, unfortunately, and one of the Democrats (Diane Benson) was a Green and has not abandoned her Green values (which, to my way of thinking, is simply common sense). So I feel good about voting Democrat this time around.

However, it's clear to me that one of the problems that the Democrats face at the national level is that the party has never been able to deal with what it did to the nation in the 2000 election, and subsequently again in the 2004 election. As I wrote in my post on my blog today, if the Democratic Party is unable to face up to bullying and fraud, and then instead of examining their own part in the problem they blame another party (the Greens) for what was a DNC decision, how can they expect to solve ANY messes? They don't face up to the Republicans, and they keep turning tail and castigating their own when people like Howard Dean and John Kerry speak out.

Locally, I feel very good about the people I'm voting for. But I see not only a lot of crookedness nationally and in the state, as your example of "Jane" does, but also an unwillingness to go after that crookedness and clean it up. Instead, I see pseudo reform that actually limits ballot access or renders voting more vulnerable to fraud, I see lots of shushing of controversial or outspoken figures, and I see a lot of moving rightward in an attempt to be successful (like the Republicans).

The Democrats are going to have to find their courage and their honor, not just their enthusiasm, if they expect to fix the mess that's been made of our country. And that starts with true electoral reform, multipartisanship (there's a good chance a Green may be elected to Congress this year), and plain old good governance.

Anonymous said...

Your experience with Jane reminds me of a 2004 conversation my daughter had with a man on a New Mexico reservation about voting. She overcame all his objections to registering and voting, convincing him that his vote might actually make a difference.

His vote actually ended up not being counted at all, due to the arcane election laws in New Mexico. My daughter realized on election night that he'd been right- at least in his case.

It still makes sense to me to vote this week, whether the chances of one's choice having an effect are slim or not. But I sometimes think that's more a matter of faith than judgment.

Deirdre's reluctance to support the Democrats without condition is understandable as well. But one has to be prepared to make alliances AND work for a more democratic (small "d") system of participation if there's long-term hope for our politics.

Nelson said...

I really enjoyed your post. I'm sure that at least one of the people which you said your talking was unsuccessful will change their mind before tomorrow.

There are so many Americans who just need to be told that, 'hey look, it's important, it's the one true way you control your government.' I think turnout in elections would be much higher if that were the case.

Apathy and cynicism (not skepticism, which is good and needed) is a cancer on our democracy.

Anonymous said...

Wow, that was a great story. We have a lot in common, you and I and Jane and it turns out. I worked as a telemarketer, and used to run phone banks for democrats, and now I work in a neonatal intensive care unit. My father died of colon cancer, I struggle to support my four children...and I share your passion for voting. I am nervous too, by the way thanks for visiting my blog today, and worry that they are going to steal it. AGAIN.

Unknown said...

My God that poor woman. How brave she is - most would crumple under the strain of so much tragedy and grind.

And you did a magnificent job of showing her that her vote had as much value as her pride, fortitude and hard work. The progressive cause needs more like you. Keep up the great work!