By Mark R. Day
Like many Americans, I have grown weary of the squabbling pundits on cable television, and tired of fulminating at the latest gaffes and missteps from the man in the White House.
So when a neighbor suggested I get out the vote for the June 5 California primary, I joined the Democrat’s effort in North San Diego County to flip the 49th Congressional District — the seat left vacant by Republican, Darrell Issa.
When I told the recruiter that my first canvassing job was with Bobby Kennedy’s 1968 California primary, his jaw dropped.
“That’s awesome,” he said. ”You made history.”
In ’68 I joined fellow volunteers from the United Farm Workers union. We focused on the Mexican American community in East Los Angeles. And yes, I was in the Ambassador Hotel the tragic night Bobby was murdered.
This time I worked with 10 other canvassers. Our instructions: Urge people to vote. Ask them if they had a preferred candidate for the 49th. Don’t push any candidate. And register voters, if possible.
The multi-racial canvassing team consisted of housewives, students, and retirees. At 78, I was the oldest.
We had no illusions about the task before us. Midterm elections don’t draw voters in big numbers. A large field of Democrat candidates could split the vote in the “jungle primary,” and the 49th District is heavily Republican.
Getting out the vote has changed a lot since 1968. No more Thomas Guides or paper maps. Everything is on smartphones with detailed maps, voter’s names and a script: Voter home or not? Click. Preferred candidate for the 49th? Click. Absentee vote or go to the polls? Click.
“Thank you.” Next house.
The first target was a working-class multicultural neighborhood in Oceanside. Homeowners were friendly, but many were confused and undecided on their ballot choices: a retired Marine colonel, tainted by allegations of spousal abuse? A so-called “environmentalist” who has served as a lobbyist for oil companies? Or a 29-year-old wealthy newcomer with no real background in politics.
We made no suggestions. We just urged them to vote Democrat.
My Spanish fluency helped, having reported several years from Latin America. When I approached an extended immigrant family preparing a birthday party in their Oceanside garage, I learned that grandpa had just received his citizenship. He and one of his daughters registered to vote on the spot. I felt elated.
Most Republicans I met were friendly, though one slammed his door on me. Another was a burly fellow blowing leaves from his driveway. “Hope the best candidate wins,” I said. He smiled and gave me a fist bump.
A few days later it got really nasty at an apartment building.
An elderly man overheard me tell someone I was canvassing for the Democrats. He grabbed and shoved me against a wall, yelling at me to leave.
“Sir, you have just assaulted me,” I said.
Recalling non-violence training I took years ago at Mission San Luis Rey, I backed down. He followed me down four flights of stairs shouting the F-bomb several times.
Shaken, I thought of bailing for the day, but I took a few deep breaths and moved on. The residents were friendly. One lady offered me a glass of water and said, “Thank you for doing what you are doing.”
On election eve the canvassers were increasingly worried that the crowded field of Democrat candidates could split the vote and a Republican could lock us out. But we soldiered on, hoping that a blue wave might materialize.
Our recruiter emailed us, reminding us that this was the 50th anniversary of the Bobby Kennedy assassination.
“We, too, are struggling for a better society just as they did,” he wrote. We don’t know what will happen next, but you worked through all the closed doors and grumpy people wanting to get back to their TVs. Win or lose, you believed and fought. Be proud. You inspired.”
He concluded: “As Robert Kennedy paraphrased George Bernard Shaw, ‘Some men see things as they are and say, why? I dream of things that never were and say, ‘Why not?’”
Election Day came and went. At least we elected a Democrat to face off a Trumpster in the 49th district. Let’s hope he wins.
The big disappointment was voter apathy. Only a small percent of the electorate showed up to vote. What a shame that we have become a nation of observers and moaners, not active participants in our so-called democracy.
I’m glad I walked my precincts for 50 hours. I’ll do it again in November if I can.
Mark Day is a filmmaker and journalist. He is the author of Forty Acres; Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers. He lives in Vista, Calif.