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Road Diary:
Not-So-Straight-Talk Express 

Road Diary:
Not-So-Straight-Talk Express 


Writer Michael Joseph Gross joins a crew of 50 campaign volunteers from Boston (who traveled on a bus they dubbed "The Not-So-Straight-Talk Express") and about 100 Ohio volunteers to canvass for Obama throughout Columbus and finds that not all of the locals are receptive to Obama's promise of change.

Flying into Columbus, Ohio, on Saturday morning, I thought about how little I know about Columbus, Ohio. Televisions in the airport were tuned to John McCain's passive-aggressive shame-on-you to the Obama campaign for its "remarkable" criticism of poor Joe the Plumber, suggesting that there was something wrong with pointing out that he is not a plumber, not named Joe, and does not pay taxes. McCain boomed, "Joe didn't ask for that..."

I took a cab to the United Food and Commercial Workers local 1059 office on the south side of Columbus. This past weekend, UFCW was base camp for about 50 campaign volunteers from Boston (who came on a bus called "The Not-So-Straight-Talk Express") and about 100 Ohio volunteers who joined forces to canvass for Obama. Some of Barack and Michelle Obama's gay friends from Chicago were there to help too. One of them, Jane Saks, was very glamorous and real: She wore what looked like Prada and I bet she grows her own sprouts. In an interview with a local gay newspaper, she talked about Obama's curiosity. She said, "Learning starts with admitting that there's something you don't know."

After lunch we went canvassing. The campaign gave us lists of registered voters and addresses, along with maps of their neighborhoods, and we went out in pairs. I was in a neighborhood called Whitehall, where there are many small houses with dingy siding and "No Trespassing" signs, and you hear loud music and barking dogs through open screen doors from which the screens hang loose.

You knock on those doors and say you're with Senator Obama's campaign and ask if Obama can count on their votes. And if they say yes, you ask, "Would you like to vote early?" (Any Ohioan can vote early.) Most say yes; they want to avoid long lines on Election Day. That's good for the campaign, because each recorded early vote helps narrow down the list of undecided voters to be targeted as November 4 approaches.

But almost nobody I met knew where to go to vote early -- and since there are lots of newly registered voters for this election, especially in poorer neighborhoods like Whitehall and southeast Columbus, some people also wanted to talk about the mechanics of how voting works. "Do you write his name down on a piece of paper? Do you push a button?" asked a white woman who was accessorized like Lil' Kim, looked to be just shy of 30, and is about to vote for the first time in her life because, she said, "This one's important."

The most useful and effective moments of canvassing, I thought, were these nuts-and-bolts conversations. I met just a handful of undecided voters, and most of them were unreachable. A frowning, stooped woman in a pink sweater all but keened, "Neither one of them will keep their promises! They can't! I don't want anymore TV! I don't want anymore newspapers! I don't want anybody talking! I just have to decide!"

Another, a slurring skinny guy with a huge diamond earring, insisted (incorrectly) that he's ineligible to vote because he's an ex-felon, and said it doesn't matter who he supports anyway because "God, he's gonna elect who he wants to elect," and he went on like that for about three full minutes.

Most McCain supporters were polite but curt, except at the Catholic nursing home I visited. There, I had a long and friendly -- though chilling -- talk with the receptionist. She was in her 70s, blond, and wore a sky-blue wool turtleneck. "You won't find much support for that man here, because this is a Catholic institution," she said, pronouncing "Catholic" slowly, loudly, as if she were teaching me a foreign word. "What do any of us really know about Obama? We don't know who he really is. And he's promising paradise. He's promising things that no one ever gets on earth," she scoffed.

I was about to ask what exactly she meant, when she said, "I never trusted that man. I never trusted a word he said. I never trusted him. From the minute I laid eyes on him."

We knocked on almost 3,000 doors that day, and one of the Obama campaign's organizers of the event called our work "the largest LGBT canvass in the history of Ohio." Then he announced that in the morning we would meet at the "Giant Eagle off Neal Avenue" to go canvassing again. In a weekend full of learning opportunities, this was yet another.

Marc Solomon, the head of MassEquality, said, "What's a Great Eagle?"

"Giant Eagle. A grocery store," the guy said.

"Oh," Marc said. "I thought it sounded like a big statue."

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Michael Joseph Gross