No grumbling, I told myself. Get out there and do something. So I did something I have never done before; I joined a political campaign as a volunteer. As long as I’m not parading around with a swastika on my arm, any campaign would do, but the one I joined is JimJohnson4governor in New Jersey. He’s a progressive Democrat, I know his wife slightly, and respected friends speak highly of him (“I’d move heaven and earth to get Jim elected”). So instead of staying home grumbling about the daily cascade of scandal and chicanerie, at least I’m doing what a citizen is supposed to do. I think.
My mother was a politician for a while, and I can tell you, it doesn’t run in the family. This is my first personal immersion in what they call the “political process.”
My first outing was on Washington Street in Hoboken, getting signatures to get Jim on the ballot in New Jersey. He already has the required 3,000, but we want to get as many as we can. I am told that after the signatures are presented, in the beginning of April, the campaigns sit down with them to see how many of them they can get disqualified. One woman, for example, said she’d already signed a petition for Phil Murphy, another candidate for governor. You can’t sign two petitions.
I also needed to sign an Affidavit as a collector of signatures, including getting it notarized. I have been impressed by the rules for campaigning, and I haven’t even had contact with the fundraisers. Just collecting signatures is tightly controlled.
Next, I canvassed my building with Pilar, a young, Hispanic, bilingual paid member of Jim’s staff Brad, a young, black, college student from Union City who is interning in the campaign.
You can’t just waltz into a building and canvass, you have to have a resident with you. This made me a valuable member of the team, though I made myself more valuable as we went from door to door because I’m really interested in each of the people we talked to, and I got a gold star for schmoozing.
There are 25 floors, 9 apartments per floor – 225 apartments in all. It took us three and a half hours to cover half of them. It was exhausting, but fascinating.
We started with a list of all the people in the building who were registered Democrats, though I could see it was out-of date. I don’t know every person in the building, but did know for sure that some of the people had moved to a different apartment, or had moved away. Since I knew the list was out-of-date, I didn’t know what we would find – maybe one of those people who said “F—k you” to me when I was canvassing on Washington Street. Maybe people would be offended or disturbed at our visit – I didn’t know what to expect, and was nervous.
It went well. Some people were busy, and we exchanged a few words, left a flyer, and moved on. Most had a few moments to discuss what they considered an important political race.
We encountered one woman on her way to the trash compactor. She was interested in Jim, but annoyed with our mayor, Dawn Zimmer, who was “turning the place into yuppy heaven, with bicycles all over the place.” Yup, I could see how old-time residents of Hoboken would be disturbed at the gentrification of their town. Another old-timer said, “Zimmer wants to build parks for the homeless to sleep in.” This aversion to spending our hard-earned taxes on the least among us sounded more Republican than Democratic, but she was a hardcore Democrat, and she’s got a heart of gold – she has raised two adopted sons who have developmental problems. She’s walked the walk when it comes to people in need.
Three times I handed over the flyer for Jim, who is black, and the woman at the door looked at Brad, who is also black, trying to gauge whether he was Jim Johnson. One of them said, “Oh, you’ve brought him with you!” I was embarrassed. Jim is a good thirty years younger than Jim, and his skin color is much darker. I experienced vicariously one of those experiences that black people talk about – “Can’t tell them apart….” As if one black person spoke for all.
I took a chance on sounding the wrong note, but had to say SOMETHING, so I put my hand on Brad’s shoulder and said, “Just in case you thought that white people don’t notice this sort of thing, aren’t bothered by it, I want you to know I noticed.”
Brad is a gentleman, raised to courtesy and good humor (he calls me “Miss Ann”) and was gracious about it.
By the time the afternoon ended, I was tired. But I’ll do it again. I got a lot more than political capital out of the afternoon; I got to know my neighbors and learned their opinions, which I would never learn in the elevator. I exposed my own political beliefs to the people I run into every day; that was a little uncomfortable, but turns out to be a good thing.