Thursday, September 3, 2009

Politics in the Rain

I wrote this back in the spring, shortly after the primary elections in Philadelphia.

On the morning of Sunday, May 3, I was standing on the Marine Parade Ground in Philadelphia’s old Navy Yard. It was raining.

I was handing out political flyers for Michael Turner, who was running for District Attorney. The recipients were among the 23,000 runners who had just completed the Broad Street Run, a ten-miler that starts in the northern part of the city, at Central High School, and runs pretty much in a straight, flat line south on Broad Street, scooting around City Hall about halfway, and finishing in the Navy Yard.

It’s a great race. I’ve run it a bunch of times, and it’s always been a thrill.

After about an hour, I was quite thoroughly wet, and I started to wonder why I was there. I could be at home, dry, eating a nice breakfast cooked by my wife (she likes to do that on weekends), and reading the Sunday paper. I didn’t stay with that thought very long, because right underneath it was what I really wanted to be doing. I wanted to be running the race.

Every time I talked to a runner, this feeling got stronger. I’d approach them as they were crossing the parade ground to go back to their cars, or the subway. They’d already had the chance to eat a little something and recover a bit, but they were still in that marvelous afterglow that lasts until the leg muscles start to stiffen. I’d congratulate them on their run, and be rewarded with the most beatific smiles. Then I’d talk to them a bit about Michael. They didn’t mind the switch. Quite a few of them thanked me for coming out and offering the information. And then they’d be off, some of them already starting to limp, and I’d be on to the next runner.

Afterwards I took the subway to my home stop at Broad and South, and as I came up from the rabbit hole I found myself looking at the Arts Bank. It’s a small, very nice performance space in an old bank building. And I remembered the Russians. A few years ago I had been in almost the same spot when a young man handed me a flyer. It was for a performance later that day at the Arts Bank by a troupe of Russian circus artists.

My wife and daughter and I weren’t doing anything else, so we went. The Russians were quite good, and we were a large part of the audience. As I recall, there were more performers than spectators.

Sometimes flyers aren’t enough. On Tuesday, May 19, they weren’t enough. Not only did Michael Turner lose, but the election came close to setting a new record for low turnout in Philadelphia.

Think of it. There are 1.1 million registered voters in Philadelphia. Nearly 900,000 of them are Democrats. The winner in the Democratic primary attracted a little more than 40,000 votes. (There is a general election in November, but it is widely considered to be a formality.)

This is not my idea of majority rule.

My wife and I volunteered on the Obama campaign. We registered voters, made phone calls, handed out flyers, made buttons. And we put up campaign workers in our home. One of them, whom I came to call The Mighty Quinn (not his real name), showed up after the primary, but months before the general election. I have never seen anybody, including my daughter, use a cell phone more.

I had no idea what he was doing, but my wife employed the expedient of conversation and soon knew what was going on. As she put it, “They’re identifying every vote in Pennsylvania, and then figuring out how to get it.”

The Obama campaign has come to be known for its novelties – the use of the Internet for fund raising, the enormous crowds that appeared, seemingly at the drop of a hat. But the real secret was they did it all – from mass communication on TV through one-on-one community organizing. And they were very methodical.

I have two thoughts about all this. First, the Obama people are a lot smarter and tougher than I realized during the presidential campaign. Second, the rest of us have a lot of catching up to do.


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  2. Nice post, Dad, but what's with calling me out as a cell phone abuser? Be grateful-- mostly I am calling you and mom.