Be Kind To Your Annoying Neighborhood Political Organizer

In August 2010, when I told my new therapist what I do for a living, she cocked her head and said, "I'm just trying to understand... why did you think this job was a good idea?" This may have been a bad sign.

Sep 14, 2012 at 12:30pm | Leave a comment

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Data entry done and only four hours left until she has to be back at work, the wild political organizer regularly just passes out on her office floor in a pile of yard signs.

In August 2010, when I told my new therapist what I do for a living, she cocked her head and said, "I'm just trying to understand... why did you think this job was a good idea?" This may have been a bad sign.

It was August 2010, and I had been on the verge of a mental breakdown for weeks. I was working as a political organizer in rural Ohio, a job that involved 80 to 100 hours a week, canvassing up and down country roads and making around 300 phone calls a day to complete strangers.

Triggers for my anxiety include:

-Lack of sleep

-Talking to strangers

-Talking on the phone

My therapist may have had a point.

"Listen," I said through my barely restrained sobs. "I just need to figure out how to stop crying in Burger King drive-thrus so I can not get fired."

Beyond some self-affirmations and a new prescription for Lexapro, there wasn't much she could do for me.

The first election I ever campaigned for was 2004's presidential election. After developing an intense schoolgirl crush on Howard Dean (Who can blame a girl, really? Doughy progressive white men: Sooooo dreamy.) I hastily switched my allegiance over to the Johns, Kerry and Edwards, once the Democrats went with Boring/Creepy 2004 instead.

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My angsty election day LiveJournal post, November 2004. 16-year-old Ella couldn’t spell, but she sure had a lot of emotions.

That was when I got my first taste of how annoyed people can get when you knock on their door or call their house to talk politics. Especially if you knock on their door for the 400th time that month.

The problem is, if you don't knock on people's doors 400 times in the lead-up to the election, a significant portion of them actually will forgot to vote. A significant enough portion that, without a sizable and suitably annoying get-out-the-vote operation, a candidate will lose an election he could have won. Just ask John Kerry, who faced the kind of voter apathy even endlessly excited 16-year-old me couldn't overcome.

This year, since Barack Obama will be sure to send endless streams of hopeful organizers and volunteers to harass you at your door and on your phone, I'd like to make a fervent call for some empathy and maybe a bit of kindness for the poor souls. Or at least help you figure out how to politely decline their advances without leaving them quietly stress-weeping on your front porch.

A few essential facts for dealing with your friendly (read: annoying) neighborhood political organizer:

1. We've seen things, man.

I wore holes in three pairs of shoes canvassing on mile long stretches of country roads in 90-degree August heat, where I once was chased off a porch by a man with a shotgun and a "These colors don't run" bumper sticker who had clearly been misidentified as a possible liberal.

I had multiple women (Democrats and Republicans alike) tell me they weren't sure who they would vote for because that was their husband's decision.

One of my supervisors, Mark, had his car broken into twice. Instead of going in through the empty window covered in duct tape, the second thief broke in a new window just for funsies. The shattered glass landed all over Mark, who was asleep in the back seat at the time.

At that point it was a week out from the election. Mark was so sleep deprived he just stayed silent to avoid any unnecessary shankings, then rolled over and fell back asleep once the burglar had left with his iPod and phone.

2. If you volunteer for us, we will love you with the slavish devotion of a Labrador Retriever suffering from Stockholm Syndrome.

One of my two favorite volunteers, Barb, was a wonderful woman who lived 20 miles away from any major city and ran her own leather-working business that catered almost exclusively to Hells Angels and Harley Davidson enthusiasts, since she "wasn't about to let a Republican get their mitts on my work."

Barb hosted multiple phone banks for me and once sent me home carrying my body weight in bags of tart red cherries she’d grown in her backyard.

In return, I carried Barb’s granddaughter around on my hip for most of election day so the girl wouldn’t run out of the office and fall into Lake Erie as we phone banked. I also once drove Barb the three hours to Columbus so she could meet President Obama and shake his hand at a rally. It's the little things.

3. We can smell weakness.

"You're too busy caring for your sick mother to come phone bank? Do you know that the Republicans want to get rid of the Medicare she relies on to afford her medication? You can't afford NOT to phone bank!"

Crass and kind of evil yes, I know, but before you judge too harshly I refer you to points four and five....

4. We are about two Red Bulls and a particularly hot and frustrating day of canvassing away from complete mental breakdown.

A quick round-up of the places I cried during the 2010 election cycle:

-On an empty country road in Huron, Ohio.

-Waiting in line for deep fried cheese at the Huron county fair.

-In my shower at least once a week trying to work up the courage to go back to work.

-On the phone with my mom because mommy I just don't think I can do it anymore I just want to come home can I just come home?

-In a Wal-Mart parking lot as I debated whether I had an extra half hour to get someone more union-friendly to change the flat tire I'd gotten leaving my office at 2 in the morning the day before.

I got really good at hiding the constant stress and tears from my volunteers -- emotional repression for America! -- but this job is hard. It might suck getting harassed to volunteer for the 20th time that week, but, as a warning, it will be much more awkward for you when the organizer you just rejected is weeping in the fetal position on your doorstep.

At this point you, like my wonderful therapist, might be wondering why in the hell I thought this job was a good idea. Ultimately, between the long nights and stress ulcers, there were good moments, too.nYou haven't fully appreciated a vacation day until it's your only one in the entire month and you spend it alone on a weekday, riding every ride at a nearly empty amusement park.

And whenever all us organizers ended up in the same zip code for a group training or big rally, the booze would flow as freely as our tears. (Pro-tip, political organizers are pretty fun people when we're not dying of stress. By that, I mean we range from huge lushes to functioning alcoholics. Go out drinking with some of us after a shift of phone banking. You might regret it the next day, but in that fun, "My head hurts and I think I made out with someone in exchange for a campaign donation kind of way.")

In the end, though, what kept most of us going was point number five.

5. We really, truly, sincerely, obnoxiously believe in this bullshit.

And most of us only call it bullshit so we can pretend we're as "with it" as all you cynics out there.

"Of course it's the lesser of two evils," we say as we hastily shove our Joe Biden beer koozie under the bed. "One vote probably doesn't matter but, you know, could you register so I can count it toward my total?" we mutter with a shrug. But at night we go home and hug our Bo Obama plushies, curl up under our Shepard Fairey posters and lull ourselves to sleep with the tender melodies of that Will.i.am autotuned Obama song.

Yes we can.

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Me in happier times, marching in Columbus Pride with yet another Ohio Democrat who loves the gays and cannot win an actual election.

Ultimately, if you really want us to shut up, do the following:

1. Register to vote.

2. Vote as early as possible. 

3. Tell your friendly neighborhood organizer you've done both these things, then give them a hard no to anything else.

If, on the other hand, you want to nurture our tender little dreams of a better nation -- a stronger nation where we love freedom and queers and not roundly fucking over poor people and immigrants in an endless fight against imaginary godless communists, switch out number three for "I'd love to knock on some doors with you! Also, I brought you a six-pack and three friends who love doing data entry. When can I start?"

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