Pennsylvania Primary Day: What I Learned From Working the Phones for the Barack Obama Campaign

Election Day
by William Carlos Williams, from The Collected Poems, Volume II, 1939-1962)
Warm sun, quiet air
an old man sits

in the doorway of
a broken house–

boards for windows
plaster falling

from between the stones
and strokes the head

of a spotted dog

By this time tomorrow, the PA Primary will be over, and whether or not the candidate we like wins, many in Pennsylvania will be glad when its finally over. This is an unusual kind of election that has invaded every fabric of everything. Yes, the small towns we live in and around us have got enough of the national coverage, but one must admit that something is usually lost in this sort of scrutiny. The TVs are blaring throughout the day about who’s leading who, who said what about who and whether or not this candidate likes people in PA. It should be wonderful when the politics moves on to another state anyway.

Hillary and Barack working at their friendship– I like this one best.

Now let me tell you what I learned volunteering at the Blair County Barack Obama campaign office downtown Altoona, Pennsylvania. I did not volunteer as much as I wanted because half of the time I needed to help out, I was at home ill. As soon as my five week struggle with my health was controlled, I got up and went to work the phones at an office where others had spent hundreds of hours making phone calls, knocking on doors, registering voters, etc.

Doing the little I did taught me a whole lot about the dedication of ordinary and very important people, about the young high school kids who gave up their time for weeks to serve their country by volunteering for the very dynamic Obama, about elderly women who gave up so much, and about the very dynamic coordinator, Melissa and her team who never stopped challenging volunteers to give more of themselves. I felt proud of the small part I played, the opportunity to give back to America for all it has given to me, and to help out in support of Barack, a candidate who inspires so much in me, in my students, in the small children I saw serving, and in the elderly, in everyone. This is a beautiful world and country.

Yesterday, April 20, I knew that if I needed to spend a few hours wisely, it had to be at that office on 6th Avenue where volunteers were already working the phones. I was due to attend church services at 1:pm so I drove up to Barack for President campaign office after 10:30, and was given a pile of sheets with the names of the “Undecideds.” I was intimidated by that list. I would have rather called the general list of voters who had not yet been called, those who probably, were Obama supporters, but hey, I had to call these folks on a Sunday morning. So I began calling.

My most wonderful moments were when I would call voters who had changed their minds in favor of Barack, voters who were previously undecided, but now were Obama supporters, and voters who had switched parties just to support Obama. Of course, there were those who hung up rudely, moments when someone would actually dash the phone in my ear or there was this woman who yelled, “No Way!” in my ear before dropping the phone. There were also others too old to speak to me, but took the time anyway to say something to me.

There were the great moments when someone actually wanted a friend to speak with and told me all of their problems. I listened to a story about the medical bills being much higher than in the past or the emergency room that now charges an extra fifty dollars each time or another man who said that his wife was due for a checkup on her heart, and that he would be letting me know how it goes. It is wonderful when the very elderly feel a connection even though they may not really understand why in the world you’re calling them.

I discovered that with such elderly people, I needed to be as clear as I could be since many had never met an African before or talked to one before, and since my message to get them out to vote was so important, I worked hard at making myself clear. And yet no one reminded me of my accent.

The most wonderful moment was when a young teenager, a nineteen year old took the liberty to tell me that his entire family had been converted by him to vote for Obama, that his parents and all of them would be voting for Obama.

There was something in the voices of both the newly decided voters or those who were actually Obama’s supporters. They were excited, fascinating, sometimes hilarious, happy, and fired up, ready to go. They wanted me to know that my job was done; they were now on my side. All through that, I was smiling and trying to be upbeat, trying to inspire even the cynical. Like the woman who told me that she was waiting for a flash of light to shine from the sky to convince her which of the candidates to vote for.

At that, I told her that I was the flash of lightning. I was the light from Heaven she was waiting for. I told her that I, an immigrant, who came to this country a refugee, one who had no reason to be calling her was indeed the lightning. That people like me don’t make these calls unless something outside the ordinary draws us. In all of this, she listened even after I had read my script from the paper, she continued to listen. I believe that as she walks into the booth tomorrow, she may see that flash of lightning that will convince her to vote for Obama.

Around 2:40, I stood in the crowd as US Senator from Pennsylvania, Bob Casey spoke to our team of volunteers and the citizens who had gathered to hear him speak. It was a wonderful experience for me who was too ill to be out when Barack came through last month. Bob was led through the crowd, shaking hands until it was my turn. I am not a big fan of government officials, and never was in my home country of Liberia. I am always distrusting of government officials, something that is not always a good thing, but knowing myself, I come from a place where government officials were always corrupt and selfish and evil. But yesterday, I was proud to shake the hand of a government official, someone whose courage I have admired in this Pennsylvania primary season.

As Bob walked towards my end of the room where I stood, a friend of mine, Lynn who used to be my student last semester tried to give me a very generous introduction, telling him about my poetry, my past, and so on. I shook Bob’s hand and thanked him for supporting Barack as though Barack were my son. I guess the African culture in me often gets in the way. Bob instead, told me that I needed to be thanked, but I could not say for what.

Now as this day arrives tomorrow, please go to the booths and vote right. Vote for my candidate so we can all go back to our hard jobs as the primary moves on to those other states.

The Poor Voter on Election Day
by John Greenleaf Whittier (1852)
clr gif
The proudest now is but my peer,
The highest not more high;
To-day, of all the weary year,
A king of men am I.
To-day alike are great and small,
The nameless and the known
My palace is the people’s hall,
The ballot-box my throne!

Who serves to-day upon the list
Beside the served shall stand;
Alike the brown and wrinkled fist,
The gloved and dainty hand!
The rich is level with the poor,
The weak is strong to-day;
And sleekest broadcloth counts no more
Than homespun frock of gray.

To-day let pomp and vain pretence
My stubborn right abide;
I set a plain man’s common sense
Against the pedant’s pride.
To-day shall simple manhood try
The strength of gold and land
The wide world has not wealth to buy
The power in my right hand!

While there’s a grief to seek redress,
Or balance to adjust,
Where weighs our living manhood less
Than Mammon’s vilest dust, —
While there’s a right to need my vote
A wrong to sweep away,
Up! clouted knee and ragged coat!
A man’s a man to-day!


One Response to “Pennsylvania Primary Day: What I Learned From Working the Phones for the Barack Obama Campaign”

  1. laudu Says:

    Wow, Patricia…this was so uplifting to read about your experience. I can understand your relief about the primary moving on to another state. In Michigan, we remain is suspension as the battle continues regarding the decision to hold the primary early. It’s discomforting to think that in trying to be First, we may inadvertently find ourselves along with Florida being last as they come back here to “create a vote” which was never truly taken. May God help us all…

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