Last week I saw the sun rise and set while on the road almost every day; red and pink clouds striping the sky and crystal blue lakes with fog sitting above them. I’ve always loved road trips and while some people commiserated with me over the hours spent on the road I secretly enjoyed most of the time listening to music, getting to know good friends even better, seeing the state. The last days before the election we whirl around the state at an even more dizzying pace, a grand orchestration involving dozens of people setting up and breaking down up to 10 events a day, calling contacts, getting rooms, scheduling the staffing, printing maps, calculating drive times, coordinating resources. We drive through yellowing farmland with old and new silos, the sweet smell of sugar beet processing plants, trees red leaved mixed with the barren feather like branches of those already defoliated. We drive circles around the state seeing small town and college campus, bakery and elderly home. Every room is filled with people looking for change, looking to hear something that resonates with their hearts, looking for someone who is going to care for them. I’ve finally met some of those ever-elusive undecided voters. I’ve driven along the mississippi river for miles at dusk hearing stories about Al and laughing hysterically at nothing so much as sleep deprivation and the long hauls. I watched late night television from a hotel room in Rochester and flipped pancakes with Al hours later.
I want to say I met simple folk, but simple folk is a condescending term used for people who are concerned with the needs of their community more than that of another, for those who don’t deign to bow to the larger forces conspiring against them. More to the point I met a lot of real people, and I also got to look in their eyes and listen, even if only between slapping up signs and breaking down tables. Nostalgia aside I really enjoy these meetings, in spite of vast differences between our ideals and political understandings. Change comes, but I can’t help but feel for their all too human desire for stability and to maintain the lives they love.
I think campaign work is necessarily a passionate work driven by the belief in change for the better and individual sacrifice to a greater victory of community. It is also of course a game played for individual gain. I’ve never felt that strongly about the politicians we have in California, but here I feel the power of an interested citizenry. Minnesota seems to demand more of its politicians than other places, seems to say again and again that regardless of what party you are, we’ve got to like who you are as a person. It’s not enough to have the right ideas about policy. It’s important, but I continually hear about the groups who demand an audience to ensure their vote. They want to meet you, relate to you, they want a buddy, an ally and a friend. Of course, not every place is like this and certainly not all of the politcians live up to this ideal, but when they do match up, interested, passionate, committed citizenry to a similarly attributed candidate, oh what a glorious meeting it is. This was Paul Wellstone, this is Tim Walz who I’ve now met and seen speak a few times, this is Rick Nolan, Collin Peterson, Amy Klobuchar, and many others who have earned the loyalty and love of their constituents. Naïve as it may sound, their pleasure seems truly to be to serve.
In spite of all this I can’t help but wonder what went wrong or where the ball was dropped such that there were 300,000 people who voted in presidential race but not in the Senatorial race. And who are all of the people who voted for Barack Obama and Norm Coleman?
There is power here in this state and I have begun to feel the excitement coursing through my body, in my skin and in my chest. Momentous change is roiling up to the serface and it truly feels as glorious as a day about to begin. I see the sky beginning to lighten, the sovereignty of the day, of hope, unity and love over fear, division and hate as Rick Nolan said time and again to the joyful cheers of crowds all over the state. An affirmative act of life to commit to this world, our country, to fulfill our obligation to change any government we find too corrupt, too unjust, too egregious in its decision making.
On the morning of election day as usual I didn’t know what I was going to be doing. We rose well before dawn, went on to pick up the others and to help fix some of the shortcomings of the local organziers. On the way from their houses to the office we came over the crest of a hill and watched Lake Superior below, the houses and trees on either side of the street silhoetted by the lightening sky, it was clear and the colors were literally of the rainbbow. I remember clearly seeing the blue of the evening fading through yellow to pink. We drove down the hill toward the labor temple where all of the doorknockers and phone bankers, union workers and volunteers would be filtering through in waves and surges throughout the day; all coming to do their part to get out the vote, all coming because thay believe that they are making a difference. I could feel the cool morning air between my fingers as we drove down in this northern corner of the US. I’d never felt so truly American as I did at this moment. I had these flashbacks to driving on the morning before election day through downtown Duluth, the sky was cloudy and foggy, obscured thickly in a perfect preface to the clarity of election morning. I saw yellow leaves wafting down in a curtain and I felt the change, the life and death tumbling over each other in every moment, I saw my granfather and those other’s who’ve passed away, I saw those being born and those who’ve come into my life, I saw political and human systems rising up, disintegrating, changing, destruction and creation. I saw the moment of true silent beauty while everything for our future was up in the air. I saw transcendence, I felt liberated, free, floating, riding, moving. It wasn’t a stodgy or academic understanding. As the leaves fell in front of me from a tree in an old church yard I felt inside of the change, awake and aware in it, part of it, felt life moving through me with sorrow and joy.
We left Duluth that night high on the poles being closed, we knocked til the last minute. I remember walking with a young art student from Duluth, through the neighborhoods at 7 oclock that night. The ground was wet from some rain earlier, it was dark, we saw three other teams going door to door too. The weather was nice, I wasn’t wearing too many clothes, everybody had voted that I spoke with and I wondered how strange it was to have such an intense few weeks end in such a calm way. We went up and down the streets alternating houses and chatting in the cool air that smelled like cut grass and wet asphault. We got back to the car after finishing our blocks, and it was just before 8. Though many times during that last two hours I had wondered if I was making any difference, I knew that I had no desire to stop until the job was done. There was something so satisfying about finishing that last piece of turf to the last house. Back at the office we hastily packed and left the people we’d spent the last few days getting to know, working in the trenches with, and drove for two hours back to the twin cities.
Obama was announced before the poles closed in California. Mike the ozzie came in to the convenience store and we jumped up and down together amidst candy bars, cans of pringles and cracker sandwiches. I ran out to where Carl was sleeping, I pinched his arm and told him we had a new president. He smiled groggily and I ran out of the car feeling I couldn’t contain it. In the black and silent stars I felt all this deep longing had been answered. Everything felt better. I know this is only the beginning of the work we have to do, but every day is only the beginning of all the work we have to do, in a very real way we never arrive. The work we do is the accomplishment too, and Barack Obama won because of hard, hard work, and the determination and will of many millions of people to begin to take part. This victory was different, this victory was won, I believe, in the longing set in motion by the hearts of those who so desperately needed something to believe in. I drove and Mike and Carl slept in the car. Driving through the dark there was lightening all around, rain drenching the road in torrents. We drove straight to the Crown Plaza in downtown Saint Paul where the DFL had rented out the hotel and it was absolute pandemonium. People yelling and screaming and jumping and dancing, the hotel was packed, every square inch of it. Scotch and bewilderment take over from here and though I have many memories, they are murmurs in ears.