So I’ve been hitting the doors, by which I mean I’ve knocked my way out of the blocks around my house and am now in the ward proper. One of the key things about running for local office in Montana is that it’s all “small-town” politics, it’s all grassroots. Here’s why: in my ward only 3,500 voted in the last City Council election.
That’s a pretty narrow pool, all things considered. It’s not an impossible number of hands to shake. It’s not an impossible number of doors to knock. People often say that elections in Montana are “won or lost at the doors” and this seems absolutely true on the local level—the people I talk to remember the Montana Senator who visited, they remember the campaigning house rep. They remember the City Councilperson who “walked the whole ward. Twice.” And since I’ve started meeting my neighbors in huge gulps like this, a few trends have emerged:
(1) Literally everyone has a public safety story. Everyone.The planter that was burglarized, the house where two trucks were stolen in the last year, the man in line at the post office who told me someone is going around town stealing trailer hitches off the backs of vehicles. “Can you do anything about that?” he said.
After my name, the first thing out of my mouth is usually “public safety” because it’s the issue all others fold into. While it’s one thing to see crime stats on a spreadsheet, or to read an op-ed about the meth and opioid epidemics, it’s another to hear about the the fall-out on the ground from people whose houses’ I’ve walked by for years. Abandoned cars and graffiti, needles in alleys, gun violence, (typically) women saying, “But I don’t feel safe walking alone at night.”
Talk about large, systemic problems. Going door-to-door is probably the best crash course I could ever have in the broadest definition of “public safety” and how it matters to different people, on different streets, living different schedules.
(2) People are shockingly generous to those who show up unannounced at their door. Some offer water, some offer articles; I have yet to have a door slammed in my face. I interrupt people cold from whatever they’re doing (parties, family dinner, watching tv), and most people still respond, “Nice to meet you, too.” Not only that, but many invite me inside.
Obviously I exercise caution, but if a woman asks me into her living room in broad daylight and the hair on the back of my arm isn’t prickling, I might step inside for a minute. We chat, about how we’re reading the same novel and what the city was like in the 70’s and 80’s. “How are you doing this with two little kids at home?” one woman asked me this morning, and I answered something like, “Well, I don’t want them to grow up thinking that the [lack of adequate] representation we have now is okay, so how can I not?
“Then I have something you need,” she said. She rummaged around and produced a book about a woman waging hell in a time period where women were forbidden from reading, and this bookmark to go with it:
The woman said her friend had seen the bookmark and said, “I don’t get it,” and the woman replied, “Then it’s not for you.” To think that if I’d never filed for this race I’d never have met this woman, never have sat in her living room and shared with her this moment. The realization of how far we’ve come from the historical pole of the “Pope Joan” world, and how we have to keep pushing onward to the page where the “Madam President” bookmark resides. One election at a time. I walked off down the street with all that hope freshly-stowed in my backpack.
(3) At any given time, only 20% of people are home. I’ve knocked weekends, mornings, afternoons, early evenings, in multiple neighborhoods, and the ratio of people home is always about 20-25%. (I should say that’s the ratio of people who open their doors, more might be sitting quietly in their dark living rooms waiting impatiently until I leave.) I think this number says more about the ways our economy has changed in the last 20 years than anything else—how many more people are reliant upon freelance or shift work that keeps them away at odd hours, how many families have two working parents etc.
It’s a strange thing to campaign for yourself, to walk up to a stranger’s door, knock. Hand them a card and say, “Will give me your one and precious vote?” But it’s also some of the most fun I’ve had applying for a job, probably ever—yesterday I caught an escaped dog, this morning I talked to a woman who meter-maided the city during the 60’s. I ate cookie dough at the house of a friend when they randomly popped up on my list. And now, and now, I have a new book to read.
And thus concludes my update of canvassing: week one! Stay tuned for future installments.