23 September 2011

Campaigning Where the Sidewalk Ends


The sky roars overhead as a passenger jet slowly tumbles downward towards the runway with all the grace of a flying Greyhound bus. It’s Saturday morning at Mark Poloncarz for Erie County HQ, a massive vacant storefront chosen for its acreage of windows facing a busy section of Harlem Road in the Town of Cheektowaga. Volunteer coordinator Ben Swanekamp is there in a t-shirt, ball cap, and black-frame glasses. He cuts a diminutive figure and is the youngest person I’ve seen at a campaign event all season. Mark Poloncarz, at a previous event, announced to us all that Ben was the numbers guy, the guy not only responsible for volunteers, but ultimately responsible for where to volunteer and to whom volunteers should reach.
 
This morning he’s sending out volunteers to go door-to-door in targeted areas to talk to “non-prime” Democrats—registered Democrats who typically eschew primaries and are thus viewed as potentially undecided. He hands me a folder full of printouts, maps, and directions. On most sheets there are names, ages, gender, and addresses of the fair-weather Democrats with little boxes to check based on how they respond to my suggestion they vote for Poloncarz. There’s even a box to check for the politically disillusioned. “You know, if they say all politicians are crooks,” Ben explains, “and I’m not voting for anybody. We see more and more of that each year.”

Included in the packet is a stump question to pose to voters: “Are you sick of politicians making promises they break or cannot grant once they are elected? Me too…” Here’s where I overestimate my charisma and make up my mind not to follow the script, expecting to win people over by being a good guy and smiling, a decision I would second-guess all day. But I see the wisdom of the prescribed hook, and that it’s based on what most be a common objection to political campaigns, the kind of thing your Aunt Shirley is always complaining about.

Campaigning is never about history, and it’s even less about facts. Most people are either confused by the facts, or they realize that both sides of the debate seem to invent the facts to their advantage. More than anything, politics is about emotion: Can the candidate give the voter a good feeling? One elderly woman revealed this to me perfectly, when I asked her where she came down on the two candidates. “I don’t know,” she said. “I like both.”

Many voters frankly don’t care enough about politics (to be fair, politics doesn’t always give folks reasons to care) to know that the current Erie County Executive Chris Collins has pursued a series of ill-fated and taxpayer-funded lawsuits against any entity that would dare oppose him; that he cut back on county attorneys to funnel money to an outside law firm that contributes to his campaign and called it a win for taxpayers; that he self-aborted his own campaign for governor by making anti-Semitic and sexist remarks; that the Erie County Holding Center has been fatally deficient in recognizing mental illness and drug withdrawal symptoms, leading to an unprecedented rash of suicide and a subsequent lawsuit by the Department of Justice; and that, when Collins finally agreed to terms to improve conditions and settle the case, he declared victory in a press conference, proudly declaring that the taxpayer had persevered a menacing attack by the feds. And he looked good doing it.

He also thought he looked good making cuts to cultural institutions and libraries, but the first person I talked to was particularly galvanized by this action. “I’m here to see if you’re considering voting for Mark Poloncarz?” I asked.

“Oh, you mean anti-Collins? I talked to some Poloncarz people at the Elmwood Arts Festival and told them the only way I’m not voting for Poloncarz is if he kills somebody between now and the election.”

It was a good start to the day, but it was not an indicator of any success to come. As I combed through the names and addresses and knocked on doors to palatial and pedestrian homes alike, I was usually met with silence. No one home, no one coming to the door, and almost no neighborhood noise. Suburban quiet: only the dim hum of the Youngmann Expressway and the occasional jet heading into the same airport, but on a different flight path, than those blessing the airspace over Poloncarz HQ.
I knock on strange doors as part of my day job at times, but it never really gets any easier, and the unease, I soon find out, is completely reciprocal. Out of the 40 doors I knocked on, I was lucky to talk to 15 people, often not even the apostate Democrat on my list. And out of those 15, half of them were flustered, angry, or just couldn’t be bothered.

In the internet age, going door-to-door is going the way of snail mail correspondence: a lost but somehow still valid art. It’s hard for me not to feel solidarity with the postman I see doing Saturday delivery, and I was tempted to hand him one of my handsome Mark Poloncarz placards. But at least he wears a government uniform. I’m dressed in a button-down shirt and jeans, but I feel like a media criminal stereotype: as in the smooth con man. I talked to one woman who nervously told me from behind her screen door she would probably vote for Poloncarz, but I think she would have said anything to get me off her porch. I know from my own childhood that unexpected knocks on the door either meant Jehovah’s Witnesses or one of the last American door-to-door salesmen. Even as a well-mannered white man, I found out Saturday that even selling nothing was a hard sell. I passed three men doing yard work within feet of me and they all avoided eye contact entirely, as if a pedestrian carrying a clipboard was an everyday occurrence in those parts. Pedestrians are a rare breed to begin with out here; I traversed one residential street in Amherst where the sidewalk was inexplicably absent for sections on both sides of the street.

When I returned to Poloncarz HQ, Ben Swanekamp told me what I had seen is normal. That the contact rate is generally around 25 percent, the same chance of flipping a coin twice and getting heads both times. An older man intercepted me on one driveway while his adult son mowed the lawn. He told me he didn’t know how his son was voting and that he himself had moved to Florida. I told him that was too bad as another jet lumbered overhead. “No it’s not,” he said, smiling.

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