With text messages, phone calls and boots on the ground, west county progressives campaigned across California and the nation
For the last several months, west county progressives have been gathering in pizza parlors and each other’s homes — text banking, postcarding and phone banking — and in some cases canvassing in far-flung places like Georgia, Texas, Arizona and in red districts in central and southern California, hoping to break the Republicans’ lock on Congress and on state houses around the nation.
Organizations like Swing Left, Sister District and Resistance Labs are making it easier than ever to campaign in distant districts, and they are leveraging the organizing power of larger groups like Indivisible to mobilize volunteers to get out the vote for this year’s mid-term election.
“It’s all about turnout,” said Indivisible Sonoma County’s out-of-district coordinator Larry Martin, who lives in Sebastopol. “In midterms, the number of voters tends to be maybe 40 percent of what it is in a presidential general election.” Democrats and their allies hope that by turning out voters in much larger numbers, they can flip the House of Representatives, as well as state houses.
Here are a few of the ways that west county volunteers are making their voices heard beyond the borders of Sonoma County.
Let your fingers do the texting
“I have sent literally thousands of texts to people all around the country through Resistance Labs,” said Sebastopol’s Janine Sternlieb. “You choose what campaigns you want to work on, and people’s names and phone numbers and a pre-written message come up on your phone in batches of 50. All you have to do is hit send over and over again. So in one minute, you can reach 50 people.”
“I’ve done different campaigns — Georgia early voting, Nevada get out the vote, Black Voters Matter in various states, and lots more — through Resistance Labs, Mobilize America, Stand Up America, Democratic Party and Georgia Blue Wave.”
Sternlieb said her motivation has shifted over the months. “When I first got involved, I didn’t want to tell people how to vote,” she said. “Instead, I wanted to help people, especially people of color, to ensure they still had the right to vote. In Ohio, for example, many voters had been thrown off the rolls. Early texting was about urging people to check if they were actually registered.”
“Now I am unapologetic about urging people to vote for Democrats. Look at all the ways voting rights are being curtailed: closed polls, machines that switch votes, throwing people off the rolls for punctuation — to name a few. It’s not the Democrats who are involved in these shenanigans. We all must be involved and protect our right to vote.”
Nothing says vote like a hand-written note
In addition to texting, Sternlieb has written a lot of postcards over the last several months. She began writing them on her own, then started going to a postcard-writing group at Round Table Pizza, organized by Santa Rosa resident Gloria Bealer, a retired beautician who is known in some circles as “the postcard queen of Sonoma County.”
Bealer said she likes campaigning via postcard because “It’s non-invasive and grassroots, colorful and eye catching.”
She has organized postcard campaigns for some of the hottest races in California, including District 48 — Orange County (Republican incumbent Dana Rohrabacher versus Democrat Harley Rouda); District 45 — Orange County (Republican incumbent Mimi Rodgers versus Democrat Katie Porter); District 49 — a coastal district between LA and San Diego (Republican Young Kim versus Democrat Gil Cisneros); District 22 — Central Valley east of Fresno (Republican Devin Nunes versus Andrew Janz); District 10 — Central Valley around Modesto (Republican incumbent Jeff Denham versus Democrat Josh Harder). She’s also done some work for Democrats in Texas, Wisconsin, Florida and North Dakota.
In addition to running her own postcard-writing group, Bealer delivers supplies to other postcard parties around the county. “She arrives with a big box of everything you need to run a postcard party,” said Carey Wheaton, who has hosted four postcard parties at her home in Sebastopol.
Bealer delivers pre-stamped postcards, suggested scripts, lists of voter addresses and colorful pens. “I ask that the writers pay me back for the cost of the stamps and cards, et cetera,” she said.
Her motivation is simple: “Elect Democrats to stop Trump’s agenda.”
Calls of duty
If Bealer is the postcard queen of Sonoma County, then Wheaton deserves the title of “phone bank maven of west county.” In addition to postcard parties, she and her husband Jim have hosted 10 phone banks in their home, including one for Reclaim Your Vote on her birthday. Earlier this year, Wheaton started doing phone banks for the Democratic Party with the help of Democratic organizer Val Hinshaw, but then she switched to working with Swing Left, for which she’s done six phone banks, including one on Monday night just before Election Day.
Wheaton is a longtime phone banker, having started back in the days when people used pencil and paper to keep track of voter lists and responses.
“Now it’s all electronic,” she said. “Everyone brings a mobile phone, a laptop or tablet, chargers and headphones. We set them up in different rooms of the house, and they just go to work.”
“The data that’s out there says that the most effective campaign strategy is canvassing, that direct human-to-human contact,” Wheaton said, “but the second best is phone, where you at least have voice contact.”
Wheaton, who has a master’s in social work, manages the logistics and plays mother hen at her phone-bank parties, making sure everyone has what they need — not just the right script, but also food and hydration. But she also makes calls, putting her therapeutic skills to work.
Although everyone has a script, experienced phone bankers say it’s important to make the message your own, otherwise it sounds like you’re, well, reading from a script.
“Practicing compassionate listening is part of it,” Wheaton said, “saying like ‘What are the issues that you are concerned about?’ And then you can say, ‘These are the issues I’m concerned about.’ When it’s human to human in that way, an alchemy can happen, and it’s possible to have a change.”
Even so, she doesn’t love calling strangers. “Who does?” she said. “Nobody loves phone banking. It’s like flossing. You don’t like it, but you do it, and it helps.”
“I happen to like flossing better,” said Janet Zangoria, a longtime phone banker and political activist from Forestville, who organized a phone bank for Gil Cisneros in District 47 on Saturday through Swing Left.
Zagoria said there’s an arc in phone banking. “At the beginning of a campaign, you get a lot of wrong numbers as the organizations refine their lists; midway through, there are a lot of undecided voters, which makes it interesting. Then late in the election, especially in hotly contested districts, residents are pretty tired of talking politics.”
“Phone banking can be boring, especially nowadays when you get people not answering the phone,” she said. “People in areas where there’s really a contest, like in Nunes’ or Dana Rohrabacher’s district, are getting a lot of calls, and they’re getting a lot of canvassers. And some people are really sick of it. But others are still really eager to talk and that makes it really rewarding.”
Raising money from afar
Karen Walker of Forestville is co-coordinator of the Sister District Project for west county, and she and her compatriots have been concentrating on three close state-house races in Arizona. They are volunteering for Arizona candidates Sean Bowie, Felicia French and Bobby Tyler.
While Swing Left concentrates on congressional seats, the Sister District Project is committed to flipping state houses around the country from red to blue, concentrating on what it considers “winnable” races. Once the national organization identifies a viable candidate, it assigns that candidate to a Sister District group, usually in a bluer part of the country then asks the candidates what kind of help they need.
“This year they asked for phone banking and postcarding, which we did, but they also wanted help with fundraising.”
Walker and friends were happy to oblige.
“Through various events, including a clothing exchange, we raised $21,000 — just in our own little area,” Walker said. “We split it up evenly between the three candidates. Seven thousand dollars would be a drop in a bucket in a big race, but in a state house race, it can make a real difference,” Walker said.
Boots (and Birkenstocks) on the ground
Sebastopol resident Julie Kawahara said she’s been laying pretty low this election — funding a few candidates in distant districts, but not doing any phone banking or text banking. She was feeling a little guilty about that, so she was glad when a friend in Marin County organized a trip to Modesto to get out the vote for Democratic challenger Josh Harder.
Kawahara, who had never canvassed before, enjoyed the experience.
“It was a long day, but it was great,” she said. “It was amazing — there were so many people there. During orientation they asked for a show of hands of people who had traveled 50 miles or more to help out, and about a quarter of us were from out of town.”
Out in the field, Kawahara, who works as an organizational consultant, found most people friendly and approachable — even the Trump supporters.
“Not everybody was super chatty, but there were a few who wanted to talk about who they were voting for, but most people just listened politely.”
“If they were supporting the opposition, we just said thank you and moved on. You know, it was really the undecided voters and the voters that were registered Democrats that we were looking to contact.”
Sebastopol therapists Mary and Carl Culberson traveled down to Fresno to campaign for Andrew Janz in his battle against Devin Nunes.
“Andrew is a really exciting candidate,” Mary Culberson said. “There were 200 people from out of the district there to canvas, people from all over California. There was a lot of enthusiasm, and the campaign office was really bustling.”
Their experience in the field was less inspiring: “We were wandering around this big rural district where hardly anyone was home,” Carl Culberson said. They did manage to convince their waiter at dinner to register to vote.
Still, they were glad they went.
“It’s a six-hour drive down and a six-hour drive back, but we were glad to do it. It was inspiring just being there,” Mary Culberson said. “Andrew thanked everybody, all these out of district canvassers, and said ‘You are making the difference in this district.’”
Indivisible Sonoma County’s Larry Martin hopes Janz is right and that the work of all these west county volunteers will put Democrats in office in California and around the country. He doesn’t want to think about how he’ll feel if it doesn’t work, but he knows what he’ll do. “We’ll have to start thinking about 2020,” he said.