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Front-Porch Campaign

Photo courtesy Kerry-Edwards
2004, Inc./Sharon Farmer

CANTON, Ohio — When Alice Carrington shuffles onto her front porch to answer Dave Leasure’s question — does she prefer Kerry, Bush, Nader or somebody else for president? — she’s cautious at first. “Nobody does us much good,” she mumbles. But as she warms to Leasure’s friendly manner and homeboy bona fides (he’s been a lifelong resident of Canton, except for his time, he notes, in Vietnam), she also warms to the topic of George W. Bush.

“I wouldn’t vote for Bush if you put a pistol to my head,” Carrington cackles. “I’m 88 years old, and he stole me blind over Social Security. This Kerry deserves a chance.”

Leasure, who’s the lead canvasser in Canton for America Coming Together, the largest of the “527s” waging independent campaigns for the Democrats this year, is holding a Palm Pilot that can display five 20-second minifilms on such issues as job loss and the cost of the Iraqi occupation, all customized to Ohio. The Palm Pilot films can be icebreakers on the front porch; already this afternoon there have been two truculent-looking guys who seemed about to slam the door, when Leasure showed them the film on job loss, after which they chatted with Leasure for several minutes about Bush and the collapse of the local economy.

And Alice Carrington initially seems like someone Leasure will need help breaking through to — he’s white, she’s black, and she’s spent her life in working-class Canton, where door-to-door political solicitations have been few and far between. But they connect, and after a few minutes, she invites Leasure into her living room, where he arranges absentee ballots for both her 90-year-old sister, who’s not up to coming to the door anymore, and herself. It’s warm and dark in the room — electricity costs money, after all — but Carrington lights it up with her zeal. “After Florida, nobody could trust Bush, even me,” she says. “I’d like to do what I can” to defeat him.

As sentiments go, that’s some distance from “Nobody does us much good.”

“There’s this ambivalence out there,” says Jeff Rechenbach, who heads up the Communications Workers of America’s industrial Midwest region from his Cleveland headquarters, “this rust-belt mentality: Nobody will really be able to help us. It plays into Bush’s hands. People are upset and say it doesn’t make a difference. But when they’re shoved, they fall our way.”

Between now and November 2, Ohio will be the shoving capital of the Western world, the Gettysburg of the battleground states. A state that George W. Bush carried in 2000 by a scant 3.5 percent of the vote, despite the fact that the cosmically inept Gore campaign gave up on the state in early October, a state that has seen the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs, chiefly good-paying manufacturing jobs, since Bush took office, Ohio is today home to a campaign whose scale and intensity are without parallel in modern American electoral history. The airwaves sag under the weight of the political commercials, but the air war pales alongside the field campaigns that the two sides are waging. Republicans are politicizing the churches right up to, and likely beyond, the limits of the law in a search for enough evangelical voters to keep the state in Bush’s column. They are working furiously to qualify an initiative to outlaw gay marriage, emboldened by the success of such a measure in the Missouri primary two weeks ago, an initiative that brought right-wing voters to the polls in record numbers.

On the Democratic side, the state party has long been one of American politics’ bad jokes — barely able to field statewide candidates. But Ohio has always been the number-one target for America Coming Together, the de facto ground campaign for Democrats this year now that campaign-finance reform has made it impossible for the national and state parties to raise soft money. Funded by huge contributions from the Service Employees International Union (over 2,000 of whose members will work full time for ACT as of Labor Day), George Soros and numerous other wealthy liberals, ACT will spend a breathtaking $15 million on its field campaign in Ohio alone, says Steve Rosenthal, the former political director of the national AFL-CIO who is now ACT’s national president.

To put that in some context, I doubt there’s ever been an election in California where the cost of the field campaign of one of the parties, plus those of its respective labor or business allies, came to more than $5 million. And California is three times as large as Ohio. (ACT is also planning to spend $12 million in Florida, and smaller amounts in the 15 other battleground states.)

In the field since February — though it took several months for political journalists to even pick up on its existence — Ohio ACT has already contacted close to half a million voters at their doors, 18,000 of them in Canton, according to Jesse Goode, its communications director. Leasure came onboard in February; like a number of ACT’s Canton canvassers, he used to work at the local Republic Steel plant, which at its height employed over 20,000 workers but which today is all but abandoned. Bob Fothergill, who heads ACT’s Canton office, worked at the plant until 2001, when it was purchased by an Indian-based conglomerate that paid Fothergill and his fellow workers to pack up the more usable equipment and ship it to China. (Both Fothergill and Leasure were union stewards in the plant, but this is their first political campaign, which conveys some sense of the decay of the United Steelworkers and the Ohio Democrats — at one time, both political powerhouses — over the past decade or two.)

The first thing that strikes a visitor to ACT’s Canton office — or, I daresay, to any ACT office — is that the walls are bare. In any normal political headquarters, the walls would be covered with pictures and posters of the candidates, but 527s such as ACT are not supposed to coordinate with specific candidates’ campaigns or do more at the doorstep than offer comparisons of the candidates’ positions, ascertain the residents’ political preferences and help get such residents as they wish to the polls. The smiling face of John Edwards and the sorta-smiling face of John Kerry, then, are nowhere to be seen, even if ACT is really the most indispensable element of the Kerry-Edwards operation.

Of the roughly 18 ACT canvassers who walk Canton’s sidewalks every weekday from 4 to 8 p.m., a majority are, like Leasure and Fothergill, former steelworkers. (In Columbus, says Goode, a majority are Ohio State students.) Canton is also home to factories of Timkin, Rubbermaid and Hoover Vacuum Cleaners, all of which have laid off thousands of workers during the past three years. Leasure and his canvassing partner, Sean McDaniel, often begin their front-porch raps by asking residents if they know somebody who’s been laid off and is looking for work. They are, of course, leading the witnesses.

 

On the stunning, beautiful afternoon when I walk with them — the temperature is in the low 70s, and the sky (perhaps because the steel mill and the other factories are largely shuttered now) is a brilliant blue — many of the residents express more concern over high drug prices than job loss or any other issue. Leasure and McDaniel have started one hour early, at 3 p.m., and they disproportionately are turning up widows, Alice Carrington among them. For a while, their walk looks like nothing so much as the Canton road show of The Producers.

ACT is not alone in Canton. The Kerry campaign has its own get-out-the-vote drive, as do the unions among their own members. (It’s not the industrial unions, now shrunk to a fraction of their former size, but the public-employees, teachers, health-care and communications unions that will wage the large-scale campaigns.) Thousands of union activists have been knocking on members’ doors since June; in past years, they didn’t get started until September.

When speaking of Ohio workers, Ohio evangelical Christians and Ohio gun enthusiasts, we are often talking about the very same people. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stood at the gates of the Ford plant and heard workers say that they’re voting their guns,” says Congressman Sherrod Brown, a progressive Democrat who has represented a largely working-class district just west of Cleveland since 1993. Over lunch in Donna’s Diner in Elyria — on a street that looks to have aged but not changed since the 1950s — Brown mentions that the last time he was there, he and his staff registered a notably reticent waitress. Her reticence, he surmises, was based on her conservative stance on social issues. “The Democrats don’t know how to talk to her,” he complains. “Democrats assume that working people know we’re better on the economy than the Republicans. I don’t think that many of them do. We have to talk about all those issues to her, to make crystal clear which side we’re on. If we don’t, she’ll vote on abortion, and the guys in the plants will vote their guns.”

Brown notes that he carried heavily Catholic, socially conservative Lorain County with 81 percent support in the last election despite his avowedly pro-choice politics. He attributes his success to the fact that his constituents know he’s been a leading opponent of NAFTA and a champion of Canadian drug importation and the like. In short, he’s been there on some issues where John Kerry has only recently arrived (trade), though on others (drug prices), Kerry’s record is the same as his. He also has a home-court advantage that Kerry lacks, of course, and the Republicans are gently endeavoring to convince Ohioans that Kerry is actually the Antichrist.

Nobody knows which operation will be more successful: Karl Rove’s mobilization of social conservatives or Steve Rosenthal’s — and Dave Leasure’s — mobilization of working-class voters. But the CWA’s Rechenbach is upbeat. “It’s not there for Bush,” he says. “The economy remains truly terrible. I can’t see the undecideds falling to Bush in the last week. In that environment, people will vote for a change — against the devil they know. All Kerry has to do is appear presidential down the stretch.”