I am hereby declaring war on insomnia.
Pharmaceuticals, take me away.
I’ve been thinking a lot about electoral politics for obvious reasons. It’s not just the presidential campaign that captured most of us all year, or the backlash against black folks since Prop 8 passed.
This year began with my signing up, unwittingly, to be the press secretary for a doomed congressional campaign. With little sense of what that would require, and finding myself the default campaign manager, and canvasser, and strategist, I quickly realized how much work goes into such a campaign–and that one person cannot do it. During this time, I was also participating in my first electoral field work with Just Cause Oakland, walking precincts encouraging people to vote in the primary and conducting a survey about their concerns. This work wasn’t tied to any particular campaign; there were no ballot measures to vote on, the organization’s tax status forbids backing any candidate, and JCO’s understandably cynical when it comes to candidates anyway. The point was to do outreach to our base, let them know about the organization, and gauge their willingness to participate in the electoral process at all.
One thing that was striking to me back in January and February was that I had a far easier time getting infrequent black and Latino voters in West Oakland to talk to me for ten minutes about their city council rep than getting the mostly-white voters I approached in the Sunset District to sign a petition to get a congressional candidate on the ballot. I quickly chocked this up to election fatigue, which points to a couple of things. First, the presidential campaign, even by January, had been going on for so long that folks were sick of hearing about it. Second, the people I spoke to in San Francisco were fatigued because they’d been approached so often by so many campaigns. Not true of the voters in Oakland I talked to; no one bothers to ask them who they’re voting for, much less what issues they care about. This isn’t surprising. Why should anyone care about talking to poor and working-class people of color living in blighted neighborhoods, and especially the ones who rarely vote?
Fast-forward to April, when I joined the Just Cause staff full-time as a volunteer organizer and campaign spokesperson for the campaign to defeat Prop 98, the ballot initiative that aimed to end rent control in the state of California. I spent a lot of time on the phone talking to would-be volunteers, trying to get them to care enough to give us a few hours of their time or, at the very least, to write a check. I spoke to hundreds of people and wrangled well over a hundred to commit to phone-banking after work or coming out early on a Saturday morning to knock doors in the precincts. We were effective. We moved people to vote in a June election, which usually gets 30% turnout and much of that from conservative whites.
One of the things I’d realized way back in January while working on the JLJ campaign was that winning a campaign has little do with the righteousness of one’s position. It has to do with the effectiveness of one’s message and with the dissemination of that message. People need to feel that something is at stake for them, or their families, or their community for them to vote the way you want them to. Or at all. If they don’t have a personal stake in the outcome of an election, they may not even bother showing up.
Lost in the noise about Barack Obama and Prop 8 were other measures on the November ballot here in California. Though I didn’t participate nearly as much this time around, the bulk of my time went to Just Cause’s efforts to defeat Propositions 6 and 9, two ballot measures that sought to further expand police forces across the state and the prison industrial complex. Prop 6 was particularly heinous, calling for minors aged 14 to be charged and incarcerated as adults, extending sentences for “gang-related” crimes like car theft, requiring police and sheriff departments to report the arrests of undocumented folks to ICE, and subjecting public and subsidized housing residents and their families to stringent criminal background checks. Prop 9, supposedly a “victims’ rights” bill that would have done nothing to expand victims’ rights, was written by the same folks who wrote 6, and would have lengthened sentences and made it harder for inmates to get parole hearings.
It wasn’t hard to know that lots of people would be voting in this election; eight years of Bush had nearly the entire state crying out for change. Way back in January and February, people automatically assumed I was knocking on their doors to talk about Obama even though I wasn’t. But I’d be lying if I said that folks doing electoral work in those neighborhoods weren’t capitalizing on the excitement about him while educating people on other issues that would affect them and their families more immediately than anything that may happen when President-Elect Obama becomes President Obama on January 20, 2009. Any campaign that didn’t use his popularity to its best advantage to attempt to sway voters made a huge tactical, or perhaps, strategic error. In the case of Prop 8, a lot of us who chose to throw our efforts towards campaigns that, in comparison, got very little attention instead now suffer for the hubris and naivete of No on 8’s leadership, which decided to avoid talking to our folks. Which intentionally left the children of LGBTQ folks–and hell, LGBTQ folks themselves–out of their campaign materials and television ads. Which assumed that it–we–would win just because we were right.
What they just didn’t seem to understand is that when it comes to political campaigns, it’s not about being right. It’s about convincing other people, people with no personal stake in your issue, that you’re right. But, mostly, when it comes to political campaigns, it’s about winning.