June 4, 2020

Topangans Get Out the Vote in Nevada


At 6:30 a.m. on Election Day Billy Portman and I were rolling under the gates of a gated community in Henderson, Nevada, about a half hour outside of Las Vegas. We drove and walked the streets of a dozen identical tract house neighborhoods from dawn to dusk with one purpose in mind: to remind identified Obama voters to cast their votes. Like many hundreds and probably thousands of other Californians, including fellow Topangans Debra Silbar, Catherine McClenahan, Neil Shaw, and Eric Lynn, we were foot soldiers in the battle to change the course of history. Most of the homes we went to were empty most of the time, but if a thousand of us could help get two votes each into the ballot box that day, that would mean we made an overall contribution of 2,000 votes, more than enough to tip the balance in a close race.

Topangans Get Out the Vote in Nevada

Henderson appeared at first to be a city populated entirely by angry, undersized dogs living alone in identical oversized dog houses—beige stucco, three bedrooms, two-and-half baths in 1700 square feet. Gradually we discovered that this was not the case: the Obama supporters we met were old, young, and in-between, of every conceivable race and background, all of them eager to cast their votes for change. People of color seemed especially happy to see us; though it was not our intention, I believe that our efforts—pounding the pavement to get a black man elected to the most powerful position on the planet —demonstrated acceptance much more powerfully than any word or symbol could ever do. I felt that the smiles, handshakes and words we shared in a few moments through open doorways had a warmth and connection that was entirely new and wonderful—as in, “Hey, we really are all in this together!”

Other highlights included one of the young women running our staging area, a recent college grad from southwestern England. She had been volunteering in Nevada for over a month, because, she said, “the president of the United States is a global figurehead. Eight years of Bush have been disastrous for the U.K., Europe, and the rest of the world. I believe Barack Obama can engage people on the international level the same way he has done domestically, and so even though I can’t vote here, I want to do whatever I can to help move things forward.”

The staging area was in the home of Bill and Margie Quiett. If I had seen them on the Promenade I would have instantly pegged them as Republicans from the Midwest and I would have been dead wrong. Bill is a retired electrician and a proud member of IBEW #357. He and Margie worked phone banks for the AFL-CIO in 2000, 2004, and 2008, donated to the Union PAC, and “threw open (our) doors and adopted these (campaign workers) from Obama.” Why? Because “in all his years in the Senate John McCain never, ever, not even once voted in support of labor.” Thank you, Quietts, for your outstanding hospitality.

Elsewhere in Clark County fellow volunteers convinced a convicted felon (he’d lost his right to vote) to participate by canvassing. Poor kids in North Las Vegas grabbed up Obama stickers and buttons as if Obama were a rock star, and an extended Indian family of 52 went to the polls en masse. Justin McMillan, a black teen, told Debra and Catherine to remember his name, because he’d be running for president, too, one day.

Billy and I finished our third and last round of door knocking at 5:30 p.m. and raced back to the Sahara to watch the returns with our comrades. The Westside Democrats, who had rented the bus that brought us to Vegas from Santa Monica, hosted a party in the hotel’s Presidential Suite. Our group included, among others, an artist from Mount Washington, a hair stylist from Hollywood, a producer from Venice, an 18-year-old Hispanic girl, and a 75-year-old Jewish veteran of 50 years of political activism. Watching the returns together was thrilling. The early returns were positive, then the CNN anchor worked out the calculations and let us know that a McCain win was highly unlikely, and then Ohio put Obama over the top and victory was ours. In the nervous, cynical years and months leading up to that moment not once did I let myself imagine what victory would feel like, and even if I had, my fantasy could not have come close to the reality. This was truly the dawning of a new world, a world in which people power is real, and dreams can come true. The cheers, hugs and kisses were spontaneous and heartfelt. Elated, our small group of Topangans flew off to the Rio to catch Obama’s acceptance speech in a giant ballroom filled with thousands upon thousands of fellow volunteers and supporters.

Listening to Obama’s great speech in that room packed with people of every color, religion, age, sexual orientation, and economic level was one of the highlights of my life. We were all crying, cheering, and chanting and, most of all, embracing one another and the great new possibilities of our future. We were marveling together at the realization of something that good people have been fighting and dying over for centuries, a major triumph of the best qualities of human nature over our selfishness and fear. Audacious Barack Obama created an opportunity for us—for me—to let go of my cynicism, to believe that working together we truly can succeed in making the world what we want it to be. This was my conversion moment, and though I can’t say that I am completely assured of our continued success, I can say with all my heart and soul, God bless Barack Obama for believing that his vision of a better world could be made real, and for encouraging the rest of us to do the same .