What Really Happened: Chapter 4
The 4th installment in my story from inside the 2016 election.
By August our quotas were getting so high that we needed more volunteers than we had time to meet with. We knew the campaign was only concerned with numbers, but which ones did they value most? Based on what they told us about our Get Out The Vote (GOTV) operation, the most important metrics were probably number of calls made, number of volunteers recruited, and number of voters registered. These were individual goals but as an office we decided to get more creative in how we went about reaching them.
Five organizers were based out of the Norristown field office but I was the only one conducting volunteer work within the city itself. The others were responsible for townships in the surrounding areas which were predominantly older, whiter, and more affluent. Locals informed us that towards the end of the 20th century, Norristown had undergone a drastic demographic shift. Black and Hispanic families moved in and white suburbanites fled to the surrounding areas. The city went from being a melanin-deficient, republican stronghold to having a majority black and brown population almost overnight.
Since most businesses required us to remain non partisan when soliciting voter registration, sometimes Harveen’s volunteers in King of Prussia would register more republicans than democrats. The same thing was happening to Nina. We decided that some of their volunteers should come to Norristown, placing more of an emphasis on collecting registrations in urban areas. It was an immediate success. We registered hundreds of new democratic voters and the number of republicans dwindled. We shared what we collected amongst ourselves so we could all meet our quotas and applied a similar method to our phone banks. If Nina was short on her call goal but Mike and Kelsey had already exceeded theirs, then they gave their volunteers call sheets from Nina’s turf and everyone’s quotas were met through collaboration. For the first time, we could feel good about something. We could feel good about this very specific part of our work. Some people referred to Norristown as the dumping ground for all of Montgomery County’s social programs, and while, as individual organizers we still spent every night making what had become a minimum of 300 phone calls, at least us thinking outside the box was getting more people registered to vote whose lives would be directly affected by the policies of the next president.
At first our boss was apprehensive and resistant to this new approach, but after we exceeded our goals every week during the month of August, she stopped micromanaging us so much and began to focus more on the personel drama at the other office in Ardmore. At one point, I heard that an organizer was managing their time so poorly that our boss’s boss put them on a 30 minute tracker. He had to check in every half hour so they could make sure he was being productive. We didn’t fully realize it at the time, but this was a blatant admission that even if we dramatically underperformed, the campaign desperately needed us and could not afford to lose an organizer this late in the game.
Our boss, a regional organizing director, was just one rung above us organizers, but she knew that numbers were really all that Brooklyn wanted to see. She was tired and worn thin just like us so when we began to consistently surpass our goals, she learned that we didn’t need supervision, that in fact we resented it. The new system was running so smoothly that sometimes we had exceeded our weekly goals with a full day to spare.
One such day was Sunday, August 28th: Norristown Community Day.
The celebrations ran all afternoon and into the evening. There were tents all over MLK park with vendors making food and merchants selling goods. We got there, our volunteers equipped with clipboards, pens, and blank registration forms, and began to register people to vote. Back at the office there was a poster on the wall called “Rules of the Road”. One of those rules said that “campaigns don’t happen in the office, they happen in the community”. This always struck me as a lie with regards to what we had been doing up until then but finally, after more than 40 days on the job, we were getting a chance to immerse ourselves in the neighborhood and connect with locals outside of the office. Live music, dance performances, and multiple barbecues brought hundreds of people out and we registered new voters at a steady pace.
After a few hours of mingling with the crowd, we reconvened at a bench along one of the walking paths to consolidate our forms. A ten year old kid named Jamari was hanging out with us and scratching a dog that one of our volunteers had on a leash. I coordinated voter registration tables at the Dekalb Thriftway and once, when I was first starting out, Jamari chilled with me while his mother used her food stamps to buy groceries. The 1st and the 15th were big registration days at the supermarket. Jamari and I had bonded over being black Spanish speakers and I was looking forward to meeting his mom at the park.
That’s when I got a call from our boss.
It was almost 4:30 and she wanted to make sure we would be back at the office in time to start making calls by 5. I told her that Norristown had already surpassed our goals for the week and asked if we could stay at the event, seeing as we were collecting a lot of registrations and actually interacting with the community. She said no and I expressed my dissatisfaction, trying hard no to sound as contemptuous as I felt. I told her that it seemed like our quotas were meaningless if surpassing them didn’t allow us to use our extra time as we saw fit, and that the Rules of the Road were bullshit too if she made us leave just to go make four hours of cold calls. She told me to hold on while she talked to her boss to see if an exception could be made.
Nina was still ranting about it when she called me back. She said that call-time was “mandatory” and, per the Deputy Organizing Director’s orders, we were to return to the office. Sadly, this wasn’t even surprising. If we were characters in a tragic novel then this is exactly what would happen. It was fitting. We left our volunteers with registration materials and headed back to the office.
Communication traveled in one direction on the Hillary campaign: down. When it came to questions of strategy, Brooklyn apparently had all the answers. However, from our spot at the bottom, the only explanations we ever heard were “Brooklyn says” or “Data shows”. Our inquiries up the chain yielded no adequate responses. Without their input, we were left to draw our own conclusions as to what was really driving our work. What happened at Norristown Community Day showed that data collection was more valuable than making real human connections with the people we were meant to serve. The verbalism of the campaign said one thing, but its activism said another. Praxis was rendered impossible.
We wondered if maybe Brooklyn’s real strategy was to assemble small groups of young people, put them under extreme pressure with very little freedom, and see what creative ideas came out. That’s what was happening in Norristown at least. Unfortunately, when those ideas were shown to be successful, we weren’t even allowed to pursue them.
Stay tuned. Chapter 5, coming soon. Click the subscribe button above if you want to be notified about coming chapters.