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Harvesting the Grassroots

Life as a Democratic Fundraiser

By David Freedlander

So far this year George Bush has raised $260,500,000, mostly through complicated pyramid schemes whereby those who donate and are able to get others to donate are rewarded with titles, access, and prime seats at events. He is disproportionately backed by the banking industry, real estate developers, and what, for lack of a better term, we shall simply call major polluters.

The Democratic National Committee, meanwhile, not to be outdone, and unable to find the type of major donors who give to the GOP outside certain zip codes in and around Malibu or the Upper West Side, hired Grassroots Campaigns, Inc., a for-profit grassroots fundraising company. The DNC expected them to raise between 2 and 4 million dollars and open up 12-15 field offices. In 9 months they have raised 15 million dollars, and opened offices in 38 cities.

Those energetic, good-looking kids in the red t-shirts with DNC plastered across the back who ask you for money at the busy pedestrian intersections of town come from GCI, out of an office on Post and Van Ness. There they receive motivation, instruction, and of course, those ubiquitous t-shirts. They then fan outward, layering the city in good intentions and pitches for dollars to fight against the regime.

The office is across the street from a motorcycle shop and around the corner from the prostitutes and trannies of the TenderNob. A swarm of flies greet visitors at the doorway. A small woman with dreadlocks apologizes on their behalf and asks me my purpose. It is 8:30 and the whole place — wall-to-wall brown carpeting, a broken bathroom, a meeting room in front, a larger gathering room in the back, two small offices with rice-paper-thick walls in the middle, golden pictures and glowing articles of Johns Kerry and Edwards taped to the walls — is already active. Well, maybe not active. Full of those same good-looking energetic young people talking, lounging on the floor. They look almost like a typical San Francisco crowd but less ironic, more earnest, less ashamed of being caught caring.

A young woman with hipster-cred pointy glasses calls everyone to gather in a large circle around her. “Allright,” she shouts, and stretches toward the ceiling with her legs apart. The crowd around her does the same. “The latest polls are in. John Kerry is now trailing in the swing states.” The assembled quietly hiss. She swings her torso forward, her fingers touching the floor and making little grabbing motions. We all follow. She continues, lifting her head up from between her knees: “We are going to go out today and turn those polls around! We are going to tell everyone what George Bush is doing to this country! We are going to tell them how their contribution can put John Kerry in the White House!” She reaches back up to the ceiling to symbolize poll numbers rising in the future. She continues like this until everyone is thoroughly ready and limber to ask unsuspecting pedestrians for cash.

Every few weeks the DNC sends its canvassers new “raps,” spiels which they are to recite during their solicitation. No room for riffing here. Approaching someone with, “Hi! Does George Bush make you ashamed to be an American with his sheer lack of curiosity, phony compassion, and regular guy rhetoric despite being the scion of perhaps the wealthiest and most privileged family in the country?” would likely get you fired.

The room is soon filled with people talking at each other in groups of three, trying not to look at their papers, a cacophony of “58 days before the election…The Republicans have raised millions of dollars…Help elect John Kerry and other Democrats this election…”

As they swarm out to the streets, I stay inside and answer phones. All the ads you see pasted on streetlights and in the classified sections of newspapers for Jobs to Defeat Bush list the telephone number of this office. All callers are invited for an interview, and those who can form complete thoughts are hired for about 10 bucks an hour, plus a commission on their take. They are given three chances to raise a certain amount of money. Those who fail to do so are let go.

At around 3:00 a new group gathers in the main room. These are the neighborhood canvassers. Spencer, the director of the San Francisco office, is leading every one this time. The word is that Spencer was a biologist living in Atlanta before getting involved in the campaign. More stretches, claps, unisonic chants. “Whose city is this?” he calls out. “Our city!” “Whose election is this?” “Our election!” Whose country is this?” “Our country!”

We are given our assignments and I head out to the wealthy peninsula enclave of Hillsborough, mostly “red” territory but still firmly enough in the Bay Area that it lies as a potential gold mine if you knock on the right door at the right hour. Five of us pile into Noah’s Honda SUV and hit 101. As everyone half-heartedly tries to memorize their raps, the talk is mostly of things to do in and around the Bay Area, particularly once the campaign ends, but soon it inevitably turns to politics. Walker, selected by the office to be our field manager for the day, is holding a copy of the recent Harper’s he got at the library. He’s trying to be a novelist and worked in publishing before joining the campaign; he has a soul patch on his chin and the easy swagger of an appointed leader. He’s the kind of guy that doesn’t leave a house until everyone’s fallen in love with him and they’ve paid him to leave. This was the first copy of Harper’s he’s picked up and he authoritatively turns from his front-seat position to recommend it to his charges. As we head into the suburban blandness of the Peninsula and the talk turns from right-wing conspiracies to No Child Left Behind to Iraq, I am struck by how under-informed all of my colleagues are. Not misinformed, not a lack of nuance, thanks to the outrage industry spawned by the administration and manifest in best-sellers by Al Franken, Michael Moore, and Amy Goodman, but simply under-informed. The details of platforms, the minutiae of policy, are uninteresting. What motivates is a seemingly vague anti-authoritarianism, as if defeating Bush is akin to stealing your parents’ car to go buy cigarettes.

We arrive in Hillsborough as Walker supplies us with maps outlined to detail which houses we are to visit. Every doorbell rung must be logged, as must whether the residents were home, whether they gave money, and how much. This is partially to comply with campaign finance laws that limit how much a donor can give to a national political party and partially so that no doorbell is rung twice, at least not unintentionally. Janice, a divorcee in her mid 40’s who just took her son up to his freshman orientation at the University of Oregon, is dropped off first. She’ll go door to door for the next five hours, and we make arrangements to pick her up on the corner at nine p.m, when everyone is finished. We head up the hill where the houses get a little larger and drop Tim off. He’s new on the job, and nervous. He just moved to San Francisco from the panhandle of Florida, where he was a veterinarian’s assistant, and thought canvassing would be a good way to see the neighborhood. Dyed hair, slightly overweight, with a high Southern lilt, he seems profoundly uncomfortable in his own skin. Another member of the group is Roy. It’s his third time out and he hasn’t yet collected the minimum to be hired on for good.

Walker gets dropped off a little further up as Noah and I drive to the top of the hill, where the houses all resemble Mc versions of San Simeon. We look for a place to park. We checked with the police before beginning the operation, since often in the wealthier climes nuisances such as us are reported to the cops. If so threatened, we are instructed to give them the name and phone number of the office that gave us the go-ahead and not to be intimidated.

We can’t get close to our first couple of houses; they are gated off and we ring little intercom buzzers at the end of the driveway to no avail. We finally come to an unfettered driveway, where a guy who is dressed like Steven Segal is getting out of his Jaguar.

“Hello, Sir,” Noah calls out. He approaches us warily. Noah starts in on the rap. He interrupts to say he’s a Green. Noah listens empathetically, then starts in on the Bush bit and all the money he’s raising. Segal says that he and his wife have already contributed.

That’s great, Noah says. Wonderful. Perhaps, though, he wouldn’t mind making even a symbolic contribution to the cause. Segal asks if we accept credit cards. We do. He signs over 500 bucks on his Visa. This astounds me. I never give to canvassers on the street, no matter how worthy their cause, and usually resent their interruption. And I couldn’t imagine even opening the door if someone knocked looking for a contribution. Send me something, and I’ll think about it.

Our next house is undergoing some kind of remodeling — no furniture, plastic sheets up. The owner is in the garage and welcomes us as if he’d just been waiting all day to give to the Democratic Party. He invites us in to the kitchen and we remark on what a wonderful job he is doing in his home repair. He offers us water and writes a check for $250. We leave, somehow disappointed.

We walk up and down the hills of the neighborhood and do fairly well. It is the second day of the Republican convention and this is helpful. We meet a few housewives who look around nervously and say they can't do anything until their husbands get home, a couple of Republicans who slam the door after Noah says something rude, a few old ladies thrilled to have young people to talk with, and a couple who question our right to walk their streets. We stand in doorways for what seem like intolerably long periods, until people either give us money to go away or close the door in our faces. We interrupt family dinners, cocktail parties, and who knows what else behind those gilded doors of Hillsborough.

I mostly watch Noah and try to look purposeful. I try to look at him when he is giving his spiel the way Hillary would look at Bill when he was speaking, as if the content of his rap is the work of a true visionary, every word more crucial and masterful than the last. I try a couple of houses on my own and do ok. I mostly get sympathetic old ladies and get into long policy discussions with them about Cuba or the New Deal. Even with the Republicans who have made very clear that they ARE NOT INTERESTED I stay and chat for a while, about economics or terrorism. This springs from a belief that I can convince anyone of left-wing positions. Not because I particularly believe in my powers of persuasion, but because I believe as the rallying cry goes, that our ideas are actually better, that no matter what your issue — health care, education, foreign policy, even so-called “family values” — unless you are a member of the elite so rarefied that a guy like me would never be able to approach your front door, the Democrats are better for you.

Having collected around $700, Noah and I knock off early and go to sit in his car while waiting for the others to finish up. We eat sandwiches and listen to the baseball game on the radio in the stillness of his car as the evening comes down over the hills. He tells me about how he passed the bar two years ago and spent the past year as a lawyer before quitting to work on the Kerry campaign. Now he sleeps on his dad’s couch in Oakland and doesn’t know what he’ll do after the election season ends. He asks me about a couple of the things I was talking about with some of the people whose doors we knocked on, and I tell him what I know of politics and policy. He’s interested but not to the point where he actually wants to know. These guys aren’t interested in convincing people of anything. That’s for other people, I suppose, people who do the same work in Ohio or Florida or any of the other swing states. The job here is to extract money, as much and as quickly as possible, and to move on to the next house. If someone is uninterested, fuck’em and double your pitch over at the next house.

At nine we go to pick up the others at their designated corners in the now-gathered darkness. Walker is ecstatic. He got a $1,000 check from an elderly couple, which puts him into an elite club among canvassers (and the commission that goes with it to boot.) Janice did okay too, getting nearly $1,000 total, and meeting someone she swears played the chief on “CHIPS.” Tim did miserably. He got one check for $25 and one guy told him he would “blow your faggety-ass head off” if he didn’t get off his property immediately. We head back to the office, trading stories of the people we met. Back on Polk, Walker is treated as the new star, and Tim is consoled. It is by now almost 11:00. We finish up the paperwork and head out into the bright lights of the San Francisco night, separately.