Reflections on the Kerry Campaign in the City of Brotherly Love

by Benjamin Dangl


Upside Down World

Early morning on Election Day in Philadelphia crowds of Kerry supporters waved signs at every intersection in the city’s center. People leaned out of their car windows yelling, clapping, honking horns, and giving the sign-wavers thumbs up. At polling places, lines already stretched down the sidewalks. It seemed like a revolution was taking place. The months of campaigning were culminating in one day, one morning.

Yet, Philadelphia’s roar of enthusiasm for Kerry wasn’t heard in North Carolina, Kansas or Florida. In states across the nation another revolution was taking place, a revolution in reverse. People were lining up to vote for the privatization of health care, against gun control and a woman’s right to choose, and for a President who misled the country into a war in Iraq.

My friends and I organized a tragic “Victory Party” for the night of November 2nd. That evening, a couple dozen people sat around our living room, drank beer and watched as the election results came in. The red states went red and the blue states, blue. That was all to be expected. Then Bush won Florida, then…he was winning in Ohio. The loud talk and laughter died down. As the night wore on, a confused and fearful tone pervaded the room. Bush’s victory wasn’t final, but it seemed clear that Kerry was going to be defeated. The awareness of our loss didn’t come crashing down on me; it crept through my body slowly. I began to feel heavy, exhausted. The adrenalin of the recent weeks disappeared.

Around three in the morning I walked outside. The sky was dark. The city was quiet. In the distance, I thought I heard a cheer I recognized from the Republican National Convention, when thousands of well dressed citizens in Madison Square Garden shook their fists in support of their fearless leader: “Four more years! Four more years!”

The Ground War

Since the summer, battleground states across the country had been inundated with inspired citizens working to swing undecided voters to away from Bush. They canvassed door to door, made phone calls and talked to people in the streets about the negative effects of Bush’s policies. The connections that canvassers and volunteers made with each other during this election are integral to developing a progressive community of activists. I am optimistic that the sense of hope and momentum shared between people working with the Kerry campaign and other anti-Bush political groups will last beyond Election Day.

For months I had been involved with such groups as America Coming Together and MoveOn.org and closer to Election Day I worked primarily with the Kerry campaign. The Kerry volunteer headquarters in Philadelphia was one long room plastered with campaign signs for every Democratic contender running for office in PA. Piles of lawn signs were stacked along the walls and boxes of buttons, bumper stickers and pamphlets were being used as makeshift desks and chairs. Tables transformed the long room into a labyrinth cluttered with computer wires, telephone cables, canvassing clipboards and maps of the city. Each day, people crowded into the office, making signs, folding envelopes and calling voters. Legions of volunteers were regularly deployed to the streets to wave placards, hand out campaign pamphlets and alert bystanders of upcoming rallies or speeches.

While the Bush administration’s policies had divided much of the country, in the Kerry campaign office, disgust for the Bush agenda was uniting people from all walks of life. A wild array of volunteers came through the door regularly, some traveling from abroad to work with the campaign. One was a local politician from Scotland, another was a lawyer from Montreal and a number of people had flown in from England and New Zealand to volunteer. On a daily basis I saw volunteers in their seventies and eighties stuffing envelopes alongside teenagers, homeless people canvassing with surgeons and veterans making phone calls next to young mothers. There was a tireless enthusiasm among volunteers. Most were teeming with excitement as they translated into action their outrage with the Bush administration. Many would show up in the morning and not leave until late at night.

It was particularly heartening to see a number of high school students volunteer regularly. Though many weren’t yet old enough to vote, they were determined to help motivate other people to vote for Kerry. Some college students I talked to claimed that they didn’t vote in the last presidential election but believed this one was far too important to miss. Most young volunteers understood they would be bearing much of the burden of another four years of Bush. They will be the ones to pay back the outrageous national debt, get drafted to fight in a war they do not support, search for jobs in a rocky economy and try to stay healthy in a country where you just cannot afford to get sick.

What Now?

In the best case scenario, the interest in this year’s election will transform into a wave of community organizing to help elect progressive candidates in all levels of government and resist the policies of the Bush administration. What social change we create in our own home towns can have an impact that reaches beyond electoral politics. There are groups and causes all over the country just waiting for new recruits and organizers. A quick look around the community you live in will show where you are needed. For example, a coalition of citizens in Philadelphia is lobbying for funding to transform abandoned buildings into affordable housing, a group in rural New Jersey provides health support to undocumented migrant workers in the area, and an activist group in the Hudson Valley is working to stop the construction of a cement plant which will be an environmental disaster for the Hudson River. In most cities and towns, grassroots organizations already exist and operate regardless of whether it is an election year or not.

This is not to say that there is not a lot of work to be done. Now more than ever we need to create pockets of resistance to protect the environment and basic rights in our communities. The 2004 election was a big battle, but it was still just one battle in a larger war. After this loss, political activists and concerned citizens can mourn and wait for the next election to come around, or we can do what many in the Bush administration don’t want us to do – keep fighting.

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"If the world is upside down the way it is now, wouldn't we have to turn it over to get it to stand up straight?" ---Eduardo Galeano