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Walking the Walk in Central Florida

Friday, October 22, 2004

After jetting into Central Florida to help rouse registered voters, I found the people were quite ready to talk. Beyond politics, one man wondered how I felt about adding a birdbath to the picture he was painting of his house.

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After jetting into Central Florida to help rouse registered voters, I found the people were quite ready to talk. Beyond politics, one man wondered how I felt about adding a birdbath to the picture he was painting of his house.
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ACT van

ORLANDO, Florida (WOMENSENEWS)--"Iraq," she said decidedly, bobbing her chin-length blond-streaked hair, her bare feet almost dancing, as she paced on the tiled floor. "I feel I should say education, since I teach college, but the war in Iraq comes from my gut."

I don't remember her name (nor could I even publish it since she didn't speak to me on the record). She was just one of the people who answered the 80 or so doors I knocked on while roaming the neighborhoods here for two days on a voter-education push.

Like so many of the people I met, her response to me was so strong that she left a lasting impression.

"They're sending kids to Iraq to die needlessly," she told me. With her eyes beginning to fill with tears, she said the soldiers she watched on the news could easily be her students. "I lived through Vietnam, and those kids have no place being there," she added, wiping her tears.

I was helping America Coming Together, a grassroots group based in Washington, D.C., that is working in 17 battleground states to get out the vote. Their aim: to get progressive candidates into office.

She apologized half embarrassedly for her strong reaction to the question I had asked her, "What is the most important issue in the upcoming election?" Then she grabbed me in a big hug and kissed me on the cheek. "Thank you for doing this," she said.


Central Florida Focus

ACT, the group I was volunteering for, is focusing its energy on places such as Central Florida, where voters are unpredictable.

The northern part of the state tends to vote Republican and the southern part usually votes Democratic, according to Alex Rodriguez-Heuer, an ACT coordinator. But this central part, around Orlando, he said, is mixed.

"It's almost like when you're scuba diving and leaving the salt water to enter fresh water," Rodriguez-Heuer told another volunteer and me. "There's a mixture and meeting, and things are murky. That's Central Florida."

The last presidential election was determined by only 537 votes in Florida, so ACT is trying to track down every single voter.

They are targeting undecided and registered voters who don't always get to the polls. Palm Pilots are programmed to supply volunteers with a specific address and the name of specific voter once they reach the front door.

The office walls are papered with neighborhood maps in every size and color.

Despite their preparation, their efforts have been severely handicapped. Three hurricanes in rapid succession have meant that they had to pack and unpack their storefront office in a downtown Orlando shopping plaza three times, according to Rodriguez-Heuer.

Now, as the election nears, the group is working at full tilt.

When I was there in mid-October, a cluster of other volunteers were sitting in a corner calling registered voters. The 50-odd Palm Pilot cradles lay empty as canvassers headed out the door in groups, seven people cramming into each of the seven minivans. Once they were dropped off in their assigned neighborhood they headed off, usually in pairs. The plan each day for the teams is to knock on another 1,500 doors.


Sluggish Start

On my first day, my partner and I walked around our assigned downtown neighborhood. It was very humid and I felt sluggish, having just gotten off a plane after only three hours of sleep the night before. I was armed with a Palm Pilot, a map and my two-question survey: "What is the most important issue in the upcoming election," and "Who do you support?"

I was a bit apprehensive. Being Canadian, I can only participate in this election from the sidelines. How would people respond to me knocking on their doors when I just arrived from New York and am not even American?

But as I walked past boarded up windows, pastel-colored homes with palm trees and Bush-Cheney or Kerry-Edward signs, broken tree branches and stumps piled on the side of the road, my fears subsided.

Even those who refused to answer my questions were never rude. Call it Floridian courtesy or genuine appreciation, I have no idea.

One 94-year-old white-haired woman wouldn't comment on my questions but thanked me for doing this work.

A man in his 30s or 40s sat on a stool at the edge of his driveway painting a picture of his house.

Amid his responses to my scripted questions--he said Bush was the No. 1 issue
--he asked whether he should or shouldn't include the birdbath in his painting.

I helped clarify how he could vote since he'd lost his voter card. He was delighted, thanked me and returned his attention to his canvas.


Rain Ponchos

On the second day it rained. Like the other volunteers, my partner and I had to trade in our water-sensitive Palm Pilots for paper and a clipboard. ACT outfitted us in bright red rain ponchos with the word "VOTE" emblazoned in huge black lettering front and back

I had a new partner on this second day. She had come all the way from Los Angeles, despite a bad back and her husband's view that this was immature. But the gesture, she told me, garnered the respect of her 28-year-old daughter, who thought it was cool.

I was convinced that between our hard-to-miss raingear and increasingly soggy appearance, we'd put off people in the upscale neighborhood to which we had been assigned.

But one woman even stopped her minivan in the middle of the street to find out what we were up to and wound up talking to us for a few minutes. Another woman, in her 20s, wouldn't open the door after we knocked. Instead she called out to us that she couldn't come to the door just then, but asked what we wanted. After we told her, we yelled our questions through the door. She assured us that she would vote and said her No. 1 issue was the economy.

Only one person over those two days said she wouldn't vote; a Hispanic woman who came to the door with her four grandchildren.

She said she was so frustrated with the candidates. Growing tearful, she said she did not have any health insurance and that neither candidate would make a real difference in her life. She was thankful that at least her grandchildren had some coverage, she added, as she wiped tears from her eyes.

She told us that if she did vote, if would be for Bush.

We offered her a flyer about the respective healthcare positions of Bush and Kerry and said good-bye.

Juhie Bhatia is a writer based in New York City.

For more information:

America Coming Together:
http://actforvictory.org/

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