The New Ward Heelers

An army of volunteers is sweeping swing states to find voters for John Kerry. Just don't call it a campaign.

Tom Fitzpatrick, 22, and Amalia Ellison, 24, are driving to The Quest, a Minneapolis club where D12, a band best known for collaborating with Eminem, is playing. Ellison is wearing a skull-and-crossbones black T-shirt and tiny barbells through the cartilage of each ear. She is sturdy and curvy with a pert upturned nose and shiny brown pigtails. Fitzpatrick is wearing khakis and a T-shirt. His hair is gelled into little spikes.

"You want to go?" he asks Ellison as they turn onto the freeway.

"Yeah," she says. She shifts in her seat and takes on a slightly awkward formality: "Hi, how are you today? My name is Amalia. I am with America Votes. We are trying to get young people to pledge to vote in the next election." She pauses. "Is that okay to say?"

"Yeah, it's okay," Fitzpatrick replies. "Want to do it again?"

"Hi, I am Amalia," Ellison says brightly.

"I'm on my way out right now," Fitzpatrick role-plays. "I'm going to catch dinner."

"Are you willing to sign a pledge to vote in the next election?"

"Well, I'm just gonna give you my email. You're not going to call me a lot or anything, right?"

"Only like 20 times!" Ellison giggles jubilantly, briefly breaking character. "Are you interested in volunteering?"

"No, I'm really busy," Fitzpatrick says.

After Ellison accepts this response, Fitzpatrick scolds her to "push harder!"

For the last week, Ellison and Fitzpatrick have been working in Minnesota for the Young Voter Project, a subset of one of the 32 progressive voter-outreach efforts that are operating under the America Votes coalition. It is late June, and the Young Voter Project (YVP) is still experimenting with the best way to acquire the names, addresses, instant message names, email addresses, and voting proclivities of 18- to 34-year-olds, one of a few demographics that for Democrats hold the elusive appeal of a rarely sighted bird.

The information they gather will be used to identify which young people are undecided or leaning toward Kerry, and what issues they care about. As the election draws near, YVP organizers will engage them on these issues—face-to-face, by email, and on the phone—register them, and make sure they turn out to the polls. YVP estimates that a 3 percent increase in the turnout of young Minnesotans is part of the equation Kerry needs to win the state.

Toward that end, organizers like Ellison and Fitzpatrick are stalking bars and restaurants and combing city listings for events that might yield flocks of young people. The approach is still being refined; the day before, the script they work from, which is vetted by lawyers and tested on trial audiences, was slightly altered. Ellison still needed to practice the new pitch.

Past elections wouldn't have found newly minted graduates like Ellison (University of Minnesota) and Fitzpatrick (College of William and Mary) pounding the pavement in Minnesota five months before November 2. For one thing, Minnesota had not previously been a swing state; its progressive votes could be counted on to deliver the state to the Democrats. No longer. The booming exurbs have been trending conservative. That, and the Nader factor, meant that Al Gore only narrowly won Minnesota in 2000.

With the bulk of likely voters deeply polarized, and most states safely red or blue, Minnesota is now one of 17-odd battleground states seen by each party as the key to victory. It's not just deep-think strategists who look on swing states with great anxiety—2000 reminded us all that the Electoral College, not the popular vote, wins the day, and that the choice of the next president can come down to a few hundred votes in Florida, New Mexico, or maybe Minnesota.

Not since Nixon has enmity toward a president provoked a sense of urgency on the left that can draw organizers from all over the country to, say, a club in Minneapolis. "There are lots of things I'd like to do," Ellison told me earnestly, "but I thought if I let this election go by, I would never forgive myself." Fitzpatrick put his plans to become a diplomat on hold because this election "is the most important one in my lifetime."

Such aggressive outreach this early in the election cycle is also a result of a peculiar type of nonprofit that has flourished under McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform.

Those reforms banned the unlimited "soft money" that donors could previously give to parties. Democrats were more reliant on soft money than the hard money (capped donations made directly to candidates) that Republicans excel at raising, so it wasn't long before a group of Democratic insiders, including former AFL-CIO political strategist Steve Rosenthal, figured out a loophole: soft money could still be given to nonparty political organizations. They founded two groups, America Coming Together (ACT), which is by far the biggest and best-known ground operation under the America Votes coalition, and the Media Fund, which advertises in swing states. These groups are called 527s, for the section of the tax code that permits them; they are legal as long as they are not explicitly affiliated with a party or candidate.

So liberal 527s advocate for "issues" and use euphemisms like "change" with a wink and a nod to mean "Kerry." As Adam Ebbin, the press director of 21st Century Democrats, which oversees YVP, explains, "We are not formally affiliated with the Democratic Party, but we are a democratic organization that supports Democrats."

Once at The Quest, Ellison and Fitzpatrick hook up with four other organizers and waste no time descending on the line of smoking, fidgety teens and twentysomethings waiting to gain admission to the D12 show. SUVs from radio stations are parked nearby, sub-woofer speakers blaring. At 101.3 KDWB's truck, three U. of M. student interns nod their ponytails to the beat and hand out drink cozies emblazoned with the station's name. One of them, 20-year-old Jenny Barter, says of the YVP organizers that she's glad "someone is taking advantage of these crowds other than radio stations."

At the end of the line, Nicole Switzer Barnum, 20, wearing a pink tank top over a black bra, moseys over to the organizers and inquires about what is going on, motivated, she says, by the fact that "we got to wait in line for a long-ass time." Presented with the YVP pitch, she responds gamely. "Sure, I'll vote. Who's running?"

"There are two guys," an organizer explains. "One is named Bush and one is Kerry." Barnum blows out a mouthful of smoke and reviews the list. "Bush. And what's that other guy you said? Jerry?"

The crowd gets significantly less receptive when the line starts moving. Kids scramble for their tickets and IDs, and the organizers begin to get a lot of brush-offs: "I never vote," a boy says emphatically; "I'm not voting. I don't feel like it," another says firmly. A blond girl done up in a goth outfit with ticket poised in a black-nailed hand icily offers,"I think at the end of the line people will be more interested in what you have to say."

"I just personally want to know who you're voting for," I hear one YVP volunteer pleading. "I don't think my parents let me vote," says an 18-year-old woman who's wearing a pink porkpie hat, a pink tube top, copious amounts of glitter, and a miniskirt with knee-high boots. If they did let her, she'd vote for Bush.

The Young Voter Project canvassers thank her and move on.

Earlier this year, the Republican National Committee and the Bush-Cheney campaign filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission saying 527s are effectively operations of the Democratic National Committee. Senators McCain and Feingold testified angrily at an FEC hearing against the 527s, but the commission voted to delay a decision for 90 days, and any ruling they make will not affect this election. That prompted the Republicans—who have been funneling soft money to less transparent 501(c) nonprofits, which often produce "issue ads"—to belatedly jump on the 527 bandwagon by activating their own, like the Progress for America Voter Fund.

This legal skirmish correlates with a larger tactical shift. With the unions behind them, Democrats historically have been better at getting out the vote. But the success of Karl Rove's "72-hour plan" of precinct-by-precinct organizing in the 2002 congressional elections has thrown the two parties into something of a grassroots arms race.

The Bush-Cheney campaign has reached out to at least 1,600 "friendly congregations," and it is encouraging volunteers to set up their own "precincts" of friends and family across the country, to which they then email registration and absentee voting information. "That's how they do ground organizing and reach into places parties and candidates can't get into," explains Robert Richman, the ACT director in Minnesota.

By law, 527s are prohibited from coordinating with the national parties. Nor can 527s simply give their databases to the DNC or RNC, though they can sell their lists, or trade them for something of equal value—such as other lists.

So for the time being, 527s are more or less writing their own playbooks. "The thing about all those 527s is they are kind of mysterious," says Steve Schier, a political science professor at Minnesota's Carleton College. "They're obviously having an effect on the election, but can't be held accountable the way a party could be. There's no way to cast a public verdict about these groups, and it makes politics more complicated and hard to figure out."

While the effectiveness and long-term legality of working on behalf of candidates without coordinating directly with campaigns is a great unknown, for Democrats the 527s' non-campaign status dovetails nicely with the emotional energy driving many liberals, which is less inspired by Kerry than by a desire to bring down Bush.

Swing-state organizing efforts draw on some of the same energy and technology that powered Howard Dean's "Perfect Storm." Websites like Driving Votes and Swing the State organize groups of volunteers who live in "safe states" to go to battleground states, and provide them with a network of organizations like ACT that they can hook up with once they arrive. And, in a program called SEIU Heroes, the Service Employees International Union is paying members to take time off to canvass for ACT—Minnesota has 18 "Heroes" from places like Atlanta and New York City.

But while Deaniacs hit Iowa cold and alienated many locals, these volunteers are plugged into an operation modeled on Rosenthal's successful efforts in getting the AFL-CIO to turn out the vote for Democrats in a big way. The campaign ACT is running is built on trusting the messenger, just as union get-out-the-vote efforts are. It uses young people to reach out to young people, steel workers to canvass the Iron Range, and Somali and Hmong organizers to speak to those communities.

Using Palm Pilots to download information into massive data- bases, the 527s move fast and think small, figuring out how much time elapses between when concertgoers line up at The Quest and the doors open, or keeping tabs on community papers like the Hmong Times and the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, or returning to ring the same broken buzzer a dozen times.

This is partly because the increasingly segmented media market makes it harder to reach the broader public with a single message. "There's a growing consensus among people who do this work that face-to-face is the best level of communication," says ACT's Richman. In some ways, he adds, it's a return to the organizing tactics of the old Democratic political machines.

So meet the new boss. Quincy Gamble, 28, has been in Minnesota only six weeks when I meet him in June, but he's already greeting barbers at the All Nations Barbershop by name. A leader of the SEIU Heroes, Gamble's been driving around the Twin Cities in a rented Trailblazer with his grandfather's Bible on the dashboard, meeting people in the African American community, evaluating their needs and how they can help ACT.

A debonair 6 feet 6 inches in his tan double-breasted suit, lavender shirt, and square-tipped shoes, Gamble explains that he goes to church twice on Sunday not out of piety (he goes once out of piety), but as an organizing tactic. He encourages his team to attend church as well. "It's an opportunity to get people involved, establish credibility with pastors, and get an audience with folks. If they get something [spiritual] out of it, great!" he says cheerfully. "I see myself as on the clock 24 hours a day. Everything is an opportunity."

Gamble is taking a year off law school because he wants desperately to affect the election. He worked for Dean's South Carolina operation, and when that ended, ACT seemed like the next logical choice.

Batting his hand on the stick shift to a gospel CD, Gamble makes his rounds of YWCAs, churches, and sorry strip malls. In the Midway neighborhood, he enters an Applebee's looking for Jemika Hayes, 29, whom Gamble had seen MCing a slam poetry night at the Soul City Supper Club. "There were about 200 people there. The poems were mad political," he says, "and I bet half those folks weren't registered." Gamble hopes to convince Hayes to co-sponsor a poetry event with ACT. As we get out of the car, he says, "We haven't broached this with them. I'm hoping this will go well. There's going to be some salesmanship happening."

Gamble settles into Applebee's with a chicken alfredo, extra sauce, and promptly puts away five 16-ounce refills of iced tea as we wait for Hayes to finish his shift as a server. When Hayes comes over with his own lunch, Gamble tells him he saw the poetry reading and thought it was "hot" and "tight." Hayes smiles shyly.

"We can turn out the media for you, and it would be a big thing for our credibility with certain groups," Gamble says. "Tell me what you need to make it happen."

Gamble's next meeting is with Winfred Payne, an ex-convict who runs an after-school program in a North Minneapolis church. Payne's office is in a room lined with karate trophies. Jeopardy hums on an ancient Zenith and a few kids hunt and peck on the program's computers.

Gamble makes his pitch, and Payne seems interested but has a bottom line—he wants 50 canvassing jobs in the community. Unlike a real ward boss, Gamble doesn't have those to offer.

In June, the Republicans made much hay of the fact that ACT had used ex-convicts to canvass in some states. Their calls for letter-writing campaigns about "crooks for Kerry" smacked of demagoguery, revealing some of the political difficulties of peer-to-peer organizing—in neighborhoods like North Minneapolis, it may mean engaging people with criminal records, if not hiring them directly.

"You can't ask someone starving on the corner, selling dope, to do what you get paid to do for free," Payne tells Gamble.

Gamble talks about ACT organizing unregistered Somalis who live in the Cedar- Riverside high-rises, and the need for black representation.

Payne doesn't budge."They're selling dope out there to eat. They're not out there dressed in top gear, they're hustling for food," he says.

"That's the environment I come from all my life," Gamble retorts.

"We can't keep giving away our labor and not being paid for it and not see the results for 20 years," Payne fires back. "That's the slave mentality."

The back-and-forth goes on for well over an hour. In the course of making his case, Payne cites a children's play called The Black Fairy and mentions the trouble he has writing grants. Gamble offers to help write grants and suggests that ACT could produce the play Payne likes so much. By the end of the meeting, the two are going through pictures of Payne's buddies.

Gamble is pleased with the meeting. "He knows so many people that I'm confident I'll be able to turn knowing him into something. On this level of organizing, it's a success if you get their story. I got it. I know that guy is going to spend time in the office to help us do the job we need."

On the way out of the neighborhood, which is full of "Chicago-style" chicken joints and police vans, Gamble eyes, with great interest, the Shiloh Temple Church, which is setting up for a barbecue. I ask if he thinks it'd be good for organizing or if he's just hungry again.

"Both," he grins.