What Really Happened: Chapter 3
The third installment in my story on the 2016 election.
As we move into the body of this story, I’m low key nervous the feds are watching me while I write this. But anyway...
On July 15th, 2016, I deferred from school for the fall semester and took off for Pennsylvania. My parents, who are both public school teachers let me take one of the two family cars, leaving them to either share or borrow one from my grandparents who live nearby. I had instructions to go to an address in Lansdale, PA where I had been placed in what was called “supporter housing”. This meant that democratic supporters offered to provide organizers with a room to sleep in while they worked on the campaign. This particular couple who I would be staying with had hosted organizers before and there were pictures scattered around the house of the two of them with Hillary and Bill from back in college. They kept a big blue Hillary flag on the pole out front so there would be no confusion as to their loyalty, and during a conversation that evening while discussing how best to unite the party, they referred to Bernie as a cult leader. Scenes from Dave Chappelle’s “When Keeping it Real Goes Wrong” darted across mind and for a moment I considered saying exactly what I was thinking. But I decided to let it slide, probably best not to clash on my first night.
Over the next three days I had my onboarding training. Three full days of orientation which took place in a sprawling Philadelphia office with low ceilings, intense fluorescent lights, and muted gray carpeting. Half of the room was filled with empty cubicles, also gray. There were 40 or 50 of us and we sat through training sessions that started in the morning and went until well after dinner. This was very much a crash course. The lecturers made it abundantly clear that the work ahead of us was critical to the survival of the country as we knew it, that there would be times when we wanted to rest or maybe even to quit but we simply could not. That’s when I started to really conceive of what it would mean to work seven days a week, nonstop until the elections in November. Over those four months we had a total of three vacation days that we needed to take before Labor Day, after that it was heads down and grind through until election day. This all seemed over the top but the people leading the sessions were adamant that the work they were taking just three days to train us on was also the work vital to saving the world from moral depravity. Those three days of training coincided with the Republican convention which, from what I could discern, appeared to be little more than Rudy Giuliani and Black Sheriff Man shouting and franticly adding kerosine to an already raging dumpster fire. Shit was at a 10 from day one.
As I found out, being a field organizer is a fundamentally stressful job. When politicians and activists tell people to “go make calls, go knock doors, get involved”, organizers are the ones who coordinate all of that. The work is divided primarily into two parts: 1) recruiting and training volunteers and 2) registering new voters. On the Clinton campaign, what recruitment looked like was using data provided by the campaign to cold call people in hopes that we could get them to donate their time and energy. Every single night (Every. Single. Night.) from 5pm to 9pm we were required to make a minimum of 250 phone calls to people in the communities we had been assigned to. This was known as call-time. Every night from July to November for no less than four hours a night, I sat and dialed numbers that appeared on my computer screen, trying to sell Hillary Clinton over the phone. The vast majority of people didn’t bother to pick up. Among those who did, most weren’t interested. I was a telemarketer soliciting an opportunity to donate free labor in a community where everyone was already working for a living.
If I was running a phone bank with a bunch of volunteers and got caught up for even 15 minutes, I would get a text from my boss, the Regional Organizing Director (ROD), asking why I hadn’t been making calls. RODs monitored our numbers in real time and got on our cases if we looked to be slacking. Every now and then I stumbled upon someone who thought favorably enough of the Clintons that they were willing to meet with me to discuss ways in which they could contribute. The idea was that we would get to know them as people but really, what we needed was for them to sign up for a volunteer shift. This initial meeting was called a 1-on-1 and during call-time I tried to schedule as many of them as I could. We had weekly goals for things like that, quotas for volume of calls dialed, 1-on-1’s scheduled, number of shifts scheduled, number of new voter registrations, et cetera. Failure to reach these goals was unacceptable and if your call-time numbers were low then you’d hear about it during the morning check-in call. The morning check-in call was one of three daily Google hangouts we had to take part in. There was the morning conference call, the pre call-time call, and the post call-time call. Conference call #1 consisted of organizers checking in with the ROD and we each took turns saying how we were feeling, what we were thinking, and most importantly, what we planned to do with our day that would enable us to complete our goals.
A typical work day started at 10am and routinely ran between 11 and 14 hours. I usually fixed myself breakfast but if I was running late I would pick something up along the thirty minute drive to the office in Norristown. I arrived by 9:45 so I could open up the building and settle in for the check-in call at 10am. The bulk of the day from 10:30 to 4:30 was for three things: conducting 1-on-1s with potential volunteers, scheduling shifts, and doing voter registration. Since I was brought in to replace someone who had already been organizing in Norristown before me, I had a small network of preexisting volunteers to draw from, as well as access to the Norristown public library where we had permission to set up a table for voter registration as long as we remained non partisan. Eventually I would add registration shifts at two grocery stores and the transportation center, which had incoming and outgoing SEPTA trains and busses and was a prime location for registering new voters.
Theoretically, I could have bought groceries and brought my own meals from supporter housing, but the office didn’t have a refrigerator, let alone a kitchen, so my options for what would make it through the day and still be okay for lunch and dinner were limited. Besides, I had no life outside of the campaign so part of my salary became my meal stipend. If I picked up dinner I had to do so by 4:30 because conference call #2 happened every day at 4:45. During the pre call-time call we took turns telling the ROD what we had accomplished during the day and she told us what we needed to focus on for call-time. Then, for the next four hours, we were making phone calls. At some point we’d get hungry or just want a break from the monotony, so we unpackaged whatever it was we had bought for dinner, often a Wawa sandwich, and started taking bites between calls. There was no time allotted for dinner and if you planned on reaching the 250 call minimum, your time management had to be tight. Towards the end, after months of call-times, I found myself finishing meals and not remembering if I had tasted anything.
After call-time, we entered our numbers for the night into a spreadsheet and around 9:15 came the post call-time call, in which we recapped what happened during our time on the phones and reflected on the day as a whole. The conference call ended around 9:45 and we began to enter all the data collected from that night’s volunteer phone banks and voter registration drives. Once all the information had been logged, we cleaned the office, closed up the building, and parted ways for the night. I drove the half hour back to my supporter housing and was usually home between 10:30 and 11, though it wasn’t uncommon to have to stay much later because we were inundated with data entry or needed to prepare for an event the next morning that we had only just learned about in the conference call.
Our region, Region 21, consisted of two offices, one in Norristown and the other in Ardmore. Norristown is like a more diverse, more densely populated Claremont and Ardmore is like Norwich, just as white but significantly less progressive. By fate alone, the other organizers working out of the Norristown office were also dissidents and we got along naturally. There was Nina, who joined in August and hailed from DC but was living with friends in Philly. She’s an artist and would scribble out elaborate and often foreboding doodles as a way to channel anxiety. Harveen had driven her parents’ car from Cleveland and lived at supporter housing in a nearby town called King of Prussia. During her first month on the job she was finishing her masters in public health concentrating in biostatistics and used two of her three days off to fly back to Kent State to give her practicum. Mike had grown up nearby, served in the navy, and oftentimes was the voice of realism and discipline that we needed to hear, plus he looked out for us and covered our asses when we needed help. We watched his Obama ‘08 documentary upwards of 2,000 times. Kelsey was known for her morose sense of humor and was able to cleverly put into words the the disconcerting mix of numbness and frustration that comes with working under such bizarre conditions. She was the only one in our office who was actually from Norristown. Together we formed a team that would attempt to triumph despite the creative desert that inflexible bureaucracy creates. It’s now my understanding that the campaign was doomed to be change resistant upon its conception.
The organizational structure of the campaign itself was rigidly vertical, which meant that everyone answered to someone else all the way up until Hillary. Drawn on paper it would resemble a pyramid. Organizers made up the bottom rung of paid campaign staff, below us were the volunteer networks we were building, and above us was a smaller group of Regional Organizing Directors. They oversaw organizers and made sure we were hitting our numbers. Up the chain from the RODs was an even smaller group: the DODs, or Deputy Organizing Directors, who made sure the RODs were hitting their numbers, while reporting up the chain presumably to the state director. It became clear that all the campaign really cared about was hitting the quotas that came down in the form of mandates from headquarters in Brooklyn. “Brooklyn says” passed as a valid answer to legitimate questions we asked about the campaign’s strategies.
It didn’t take long to see that many aspects of the campaign were actually hindering us as we tried to hit our numbers. I wondered if despite my best efforts, I had indeed sold out and voluntarily enlisted myself as a pawn for big politics. Would this project I was taking part in still have a net positive effect on the world regardless of how backwards some of the details seemed? It only took six days on the job for something to push the needle even further.
During the evening on July 22nd we received an email from DNC higher ups telling all staff to suspend voter outreach activities such as phone banking and call-time. The news came after more than an hour of wrestling with Votebuilder, the online database we used to generate phone lists. The email also directed us not to investigate and not to contact anyone outside of the campaign about what was happening. Naturally, we took to Twitter where we found links to stories about a cyber attack against the DNC, leaking nearly 20,000 emails, and exposing collusion against Bernie Sanders by people within the democratic party. Our software had been malfunctioning and call-time was cancelled because we were under attack and had to shut everything down to prevent further damage. But it was too late. It’s a good thing call-time was cancelled too because there was no way we were doing any more work for Hillary that night.
I stewed in my anger. I knew they were corrupt all along but now it was too late to do anything about it. It filled me with a rage that in its truest sense was borne out of despair. Not only was it a lie that Bernie couldn’t win but now we had proof, obtained illegally, showing that the people running the party decided to act against him and against the direction in which the democratic base has always wanted to move.
We got another email from up the chain. Hillary had just announced Tim Kaine as her running mate, a plain as hell white male senator from Virginia who I had never heard of. Whatever. I called my mom and relayed to her the situation. She told me I could quit if I wanted to and that there would be no shame in deciding I couldn’t reconcile this with my principles. I told her I that I felt my cynicism was taking new forms the more reality reinforced it. I needed to wait until I wasn’t so close to the ledge to make a decision. Soon after, Debbie Wasserman-Schultz stepped down from her place atop the DNC and was immediately hired by the Clinton campaign. My ROD was so smug in her condolences I couldn’t stand it.
It turned out despair wasn’t all that was left. Fear remained, along with the knowledge that there was still a duty to be performed, to prevent Donald Trump from becoming President of the United States. Had this email leak really changed anything? My suspicions were confirmed but I had already been working under the assumption that my suspicions were correct all along. I hoped that in my position, Angela Davis would have stayed. She knew full well that the US government can be easily weaponized and, given the available options, it was imperative that such a weapon be kept out of the hands of the candidate who had shown the more disturbing lack of correspondence with reality. She would approach the campaign honestly, acknowledging it for what it was and thus liberating herself from having to pretend that what needed to be done was righteous. The work simply needed to be done, and by cutting out the bullshit it could be done more effectively. So I stayed, out of a concern for those who would be vulnerable to predation if I didn’t. That’s what I can hide behind when a child who was kept in a cage asks me what I did to resist.Chapter 4 coming soon.