New Zealander Robin Campbell was a volunteer on the Democratic campaign for a seat in the New York State Senate. He recounts his experience – from brutal debates to door-knocking with Ben Stiller – and points to the key to overcoming Trump and his politics of hate and division
I’ve never had to deal with neo-Nazis before. But my first task on a campaign to flip a New York State Senate seat from Republican to Democrat was to proof-read a press release calling out the Republican incumbent senator for links between his campaign staff and the neo-Nazi Proud Boys. His office manager had invited the Proud Boys’ leader to speak at a closed-doors meeting of the Metropolitan Republican Club in Manhattan the previous week, and violence had erupted in the street after the meeting. The press release demanded that the office manager be fired from the campaign. He wasn’t.
Over the next few weeks, as I helped out on a Democratic campaign in suburban southern Brooklyn, I often saw evidence that America is a divided nation. Both sides feel passionately that their values are under attack. One campaign volunteer, in joyful tears on election night, said to me, “I feel like tonight I got my community back.” Down the road at the Republican HQ, no doubt someone was saying the opposite, that tonight they’d lost their community.
I witnessed a rare moment of unity just before a candidates’ debate in a local high school hall when the politicians on the stage and the entire audience rose as one, put their hands on their hearts, turned to the flag hanging on the wall, and pledged allegiance in one voice. As a New Zealander who has never pledged allegiance to anything, I was caught by surprise. Sitting with the campaign team I didn’t want to look unpatriotic – or, worse, foreign – so my hand went to my heart and I did my best lip synching.
But no sooner had everyone sat down again, they started displaying the kind of vitriol that in New Zealand is reserved for parents standing on the sidelines of children’s Saturday morning rugby games. I have never heard the audience yelling like that at a community political debate, never seen candidates tear shreds off each other with such energy, not even in the Aro Valley.
Political rhetoric operates on another level in America. Helping out the communications team, I would draft understated, modest, Kiwi-style talking points and statements. They’d get edited to be much more, well, American. I guess I should have taken more inspiration from the hand-written West Wing quotes that adorned the walls of the campaign office.
Ultimately, we won. We flipped the seat. The Democratic challenger brought together a community coalition including labour unions, immigrant groups, and road safety advocates that mobilised a massive ground campaign. In 10 years of being involved in politics in New Zealand, I haven’t seen so many people go out door-knocking so enthusiastically. In the cold autumn rain. American liberals and progressives have heard the message of the Obama, Clinton, and Sanders campaigns: you have to knock doors (shy Kiwis take note).
I ran a phone bank in the final days of the campaign, calling people to get out the vote. When the rain set in, I expected to be inundated by people giving up on knocking doors, but many volunteers only stopped in to make some calls for as long as it took them to dry off and warm up. Then they grabbed another address list and headed back out to talk to people face to face. It was impressive – both their enthusiasm for door-knocking and their determination to beat a Trump-supporting Republican who in their eyes symbolised what is wrong with American politics.
The Democratic campaign in southern Brooklyn appeared to be based on a two-pronged strategy: highlight hyper-local issues like road safety outside schools, but also make firm commitments to headline progressive goals like affordable healthcare and closing the gender pay gap. The local issues attracted community activists – both seasoned and newly engaged – to the campaign. The unequivocal support for big picture progressive issues brought volunteers from all over the city, eager to help win the Democrats a majority in the State Senate. This is evidence that highlighting local issues that touch peoples lives, and weaving them into a broader message of inclusion and compassion, can overcome Trump and his politics of hate and division.
The Democratic candidate would often say that he wanted to represent a community where it doesn’t matter who someone is, what they do, where they’re from, when they arrived here, who they love, or what god they pray to. It’s a great line, the antithesis of Trumpism, and it worked. But it only just worked. He won with a two percent margin over the Republican candidate who was openly supportive of Trump. A lot of Americans don’t seem to want to be brought together. As neighbourhood demographics change and people see more of people who aren’t like them, they put up their own little walls. People fear that affordable healthcare for everyone will somehow reduce the quality of their own. Or that giving more rights to marginalised groups will somehow take away the rights of the majority. The politics of fear and hate is strong, even in a supposedly liberal city like New York. Democrats will need to find a truly inspirational leader to convince people across the country that reaching out is better than turning away and that quality of life is not a zero-sum game.
Also, anti-Trump sentiment is buoying the Democratic base and gradually winning back the middle, but the ground campaign relies on progressive activists. The party will need to deliver on progressive issues. In states like New York where Democrats now have a majority, they will need to deliver big changes to keep their activists engaged and mobilised. Healthcare, gender equality and reproductive rights, immigration, and climate change should top the priority list.
Activists in Republican-controlled states will look to states like New York and California for inspiration and policy blueprints. In Congress, Democrats will need to take some symbolic stands, even if Republicans and the president prevent policy change. The people I met who went out doorknocking in the rain will need to do it again in 2020, and they only will if they feel like elected Democrats have fought hard for what’s right.
Actually, maybe electoral reform should top of the priority list. Two weeks out from election day, a teenager showed up at the campaign office wanting to help. After a few hours of speaking eloquently to voters on the phone – in three different languages – she asked me how she could actually vote. She’d recently turned 18 and was excited to be able to participate in her democracy for the first time. But she’d missed the cut-off date for voter registration, so there was nothing we could do. This person was prevented from voting in her first election by a system that seems to do everything it can to exclude people. It was heartbreaking.
On election day we fielded calls from registered voters who had been turned away from polling sites. Broken voting machines meant lines of people stretched out the doors and around the block. Some genius thought they could speed things up by handing out ballot papers to everyone waiting in line, in the rain. The result was that by the time people got inside, their ballot papers were too wet to be fed into the voting machines. Democracy does not have to be this difficult.
It became clear in the final weeks of the campaign that the southern Brooklyn State Senate seat was truly winnable. The New York Democratic machine is vast and well-resourced. Other campaigns in safe seats sent their volunteers to help us. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo showed up to rallies, TV cameras hot on their heels. Ben Stiller popped by the campaign office to record a Facebook video and go out door-knocking. One of my final tasks was to write a robocall script for him urging people to go out and vote – an unexpected personal career peak (for me, probably not for Ben Stiller).
With the midterm election dust settling, I think the Democrats are moving closer to finding the recipe to beat Trump in 2020, and I think there are relevant lessons from suburban southern Brooklyn. Get in behind great candidates – genuine, relatable, connected in their communities. Focus on what matters to people every day. Build broad coalitions of support. Match local issues with bigger goals. Play a really good ground game. Preach compassion and inclusion. Rise above the smelly stuff when you can, but don’t shy away from calling out actual neo-Nazis in the strongest possible way. Appeal to people’s desire to do the right thing. Stand with people, not against them – but stand against hate. And knock on doors. All the doors. Many times. Then knock on them again. Sooner or later, they’ll open.
Robin Campbell worked for the Green Party in New Zealand and volunteered on the Andrew Gounardes for State Senate campaign in New York.
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