03 November 2014

Every Step of the Way

A few weeks ago, I reflected Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's attempts to suppress voter turnout through the agency of the oft-discredited "Voter ID" law, which was fortuitously overturned by US Federal Judge Lynn Adelman.  Judge Adelman pointed out that the law would disproportionately and unfairly single out the poor, the elderly, African Americans, Latinos and immigrants--many of whom are without a drivers license or the means of easily obtaining photo IDs.  Voter suppression has long been a strategy of conservatives seeking to move elections in their direction and with the assist from judges like Adelman and defenders of democracy like the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU, reasonable Americans are beginning to recognize that there is in fact negligible voter fraud in the United States and that the right to vote, while under attack, is one of American democracy's sacred secular rites.

I flew out to Milwaukee over the weekend with my friends Harriet and Lester Yassky to canvas in Milwaukee's Riverwest neighborhood, a gentrifying area near the Milwaukee River with an interesting mix of longtime African Americans and whites, immigrants and gentrifying hipsters.  It was a classic "get out the vote" effort, aimed at knocking on doors and engaging people in the conversation about why their voices needed to be heard.  Basic issues separate the Wisconsin governor from the candidate Mary Burke, who seeks to unseat him:  living wage; funding for the Milwaukee Public Schools; more than $100 million in federal aid for state health insurance for the elderly; and the fact that job growth in Milwaukee remains relatively low compared to elsewhere in the nation.

The campaign office out of which we worked was a perfect tapestry of lives from every segment of the spectrum of background and age.  There was a united sense of purpose, a cheerful optimism, a sense of adventure for the long road there is to travel to make things right.

One quick walk around a random block and it became apparent that many of these people were hurting.  For every few encounters with eager voters--especially those who had taken advantage of early voting (which is of enormous benefit to working people and the elderly)--there were those who had simply given up on the system and were not planning to vote.  Often these conversations hewed to racial lines.  African American citizens questioning the benefit of a governmental system that had regularly ignored, under-funded, or failed to engage them as equals was simply not worthy of their time.

Obviously, those were rich, complicated and powerful encounters.  The insidious trap of failed efforts--poorly funded schools; lack of adequate jobs; decreased governmental services and assistance--combined with broken families, drug abuse and violence--makes for an overwhelmingly potent challenge to overcome.  I was thrilled by how much hope and resilience I encountered from young and old, those who can see the horizon, however distant; and humbled by the challenge of being asked to defend a democratic system that had often left the poorest of the poor on the outside looking in.

One homeowner argued with me loudly, telling me the whole system was corrupt and not worthy of his time.  His wife disagreed, prodded him, asked me for help in getting him to vote.  I noticed a scar on her chest from a chemo stent and thinning hair and explained that during my mom's last summer, we had administrative hurdles placed in front of us by Governor Walker's decision to refuse federal aid for BadgerCare, the Wisconsin medicare program.  The husband rolled his eyes at me in exasperation and said, "Alright.  I'll do what my wife tells me to do."

On another block a man very politely answered the door, kept up his cellphone conversation, apologized and said quickly to me, "You'll forgive me if I don't vote.  I'm tired of it all."  And then he closed the door.

A crowd of Latino immigrants scrambled when I walked nearby, despite my attempts to assure them I wasn't there to report them to immigration authorities--just as another man approached with a wad of cash, waved it toward them, and recruited three guys for a job.  In the shared backyard of three row houses, chickens roamed, kale grew, and three beehives buzzed with activity next to a large compost pit.  Urban organic hipsters, fired up to save the planet.  They had already voted the prior week.

In one of the last blocks I walked, as the sun set on Saturday afternoon, I looked down at a list of five names all at the same address and all of voting age.  When I got the address, I saw the burnt out remains of a house and no door to knock on.  Upon closer examination, the upper floors were bore fresh beams--perhaps a slow comeback was in play.  It seemed like a metaphor for our democratic system.  Despite the persistence of millions in outside campaign money--anonymously infused into these elections--and a tiring and juvenile discourse lacking in thoughtful, intelligent debate, I saw a real hunger for making this country better.

I'm not sure if my candidate will win in Wisconsin--I certainly hope she does.  But either way, I came away from the weekend deeply moved by what I saw and heard, reminded that the road is long and hard but worth traveling, every step of the way.

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