“Look, folks, the air quality is in the red zone today. The EPA says that means people with lung or heart issues should avoid prolonged activity outdoors.”
That was J.R. de Vera, one of two directors of UNITE-HERE!’s independent expenditure campaign to elect Biden and Harris in Reno, Nev. UNITE-HERE! is a union representing 300,000 workers in the hospitality industry—that world of hotels and bars, restaurants and caterers. Ninety percent of its members are now laid off because of Donald Trump’s bungling of the Covid-19 pandemic and many are glad for the chance to help get him out of the White House.
“So some of you will want to stay in your hotel rooms and make phone calls today,” JR continues. Fifty faces fall in the 50 little Zoom boxes on my laptop screen. Canvassers would much rather be talking to voters at their doors than calling them on a phone bank. Still, here in the burning, smoking West, the union is as committed to its own people’s health and safety as it is to dragging Trump out of office. So, for many of them, phone calls it will be.
My own job doesn’t change much from day to day. Though I live in San Francisco, I’ve come to Reno to do back-room logistics work in the union campaign’s cavernous warehouse of an office: ordering supplies, processing reimbursements, and occasionally helping the data team make maps of the areas our canvassers will walk.
Our field campaign is just one of several the union is running in key states. We’re also in Arizona and Florida and, only last week, we began door-to-door canvassing in Philadelphia. Social media, TV ads, bulk mail, and phone calls are all crucial elements in any modern electoral campaign, but none of them is a substitute for face-to-face conversations with voters.
We’ve been in Reno since early August, building what was, until last week, the only field campaign in the state supporting Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. (Just recently, our success in campaigning safely has encouraged the Democratic Party to start its own ground game here and elsewhere.) We know exactly how many doors we have to knock on, how many Biden voters we have to identify, how many of them we have to convince to make a concrete voting plan, and how many we have to get out to vote during Nevada’s two-week early voting period to win here.
We’re running a much larger campaign in Clark County, where close to three-quarters of Nevada’s population lives (mostly in Las Vegas). Washoe County, home of the twin cities of Reno and Sparks, is the next-largest population center, with 16 percent of Nevadans. The remaining 14 counties, collectively known as “the Rurals,” account for the rest. Washoe and Clark are barely blue; the Rurals, decidedly red.
In 2018, UNITE-HERE!’s ground campaign helped ensure that Jacky Rosen would flip a previously Republican Senate seat, and we helped elect Democrat Steve Sisolak as governor. He’s proved a valuable union ally, signing the Adolfo Fernandez Act, a first-in-the-nation law protecting workers and businesses in Nevada from the worst effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Defying a threatened Trump campaign lawsuit (later dismissed by a judge), Sisolak also signed an election reform bill that allows every active Nevada voter to receive a mail-in ballot. Largely as a result of the union’s work in 2018, this state now boasts an all-female Democratic senatorial delegation, a Democratic governor, and a female and Democratic majority in the state legislature. Elections, as pundits of all stripes have been known to say, have consequences.
Door-to-Door on Planet A
“¿Se puede, o no se puede?”
“¡Sí, se puede!”
(“Can we do it?” “Yes, we can!”)
Each morning’s online canvass dispatch meeting starts with that call-and-response followed by a rousing handclap. Then we talk about where people will be walking that day and often listen to one of the canvassers’ personal stories, explaining why he or she is committed to this campaign. Next, we take a look at the day’s forecast for heat and air quality as vast parts of the West Coast burn, while smoke and ash travel enormous distances. Temperatures here were in the low 100s in August (often hovering around 115 degrees in Las Vegas). And the air? Let’s just say that there have been days when I’ve wished breathing were optional.
Climate-change activists rightly point out that “there’s no Planet B” for the human race, but some days it seems as if our canvassers are already working on a fiery Planet A that is rapidly becoming unlivable. California’s wildfires—including its first-ever “gigafire”—have consumed more than 4 million acres in the last two months, sending plumes of ash to record heights, and dumping a staggering amount of smoke into the Reno-Sparks basin. Things are a little better at the moment, but for weeks I couldn’t see the desert mountains that surround the area. Some days I couldn’t even make out the Grand Sierra Reno casino, a quarter-mile from the highway on which I drive to work each morning.
For our canvassers—almost every one a laid-off waiter, bartender, hotel housekeeper, or casino worker—the climate emergency and the Covid-19 pandemic are literally in their faces as they don their N95 masks to walk the streets of Reno. It’s the same for the voters they meet at their doors. Each evening, canvassers report (on Zoom, of course) what those voters are saying and, for the first time I can remember, they are now talking about the climate. They’re angry at a president who pulled the United States out of the Paris climate accord and they’re scared about what a potentially searing future holds for their children and grandchildren. They may not have read Joe Biden’s position on clean energy and environmental justice, but they know that Donald Trump has no such plan.
Braving Guns, Germs, and Smoke
In his classic book Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond suggested that the three variables in his title helped in large part to explain how European societies and the United States came to control much of the planet in the 20th century. As it happens, our door-to-door canvassers confront a similar triad of obstacles right here in Reno (if you replace that final “steel” with “smoke”).
Guns and other threats
Nevada is an open-carry state and gun ownership is common here. It’s not unusual to see someone walking around a supermarket with a holstered pistol on his hip. A 2015 state law ended most gun registration requirements and another allows people visiting from elsewhere to buy rifles without a permit. So gun sightings are everyday events.
Still, it can be startling, if you’re not used to it, to have a voter answer the door with a pistol all too visible, even if securely holstered. And occasionally, our canvassers have even watched those guns leave their holsters when the person at the door realizes why they’re there (which is when the campaign gets the police involved). Canvassers are trained to observe very clear protocols, including immediately leaving an area if they experience any kind of verbal or physical threat.
African American and Latinx canvassers who’ve campaigned before in Reno say that in 2020 Trump supporters seem even more emboldened than in the past to shout racist insults at them. More than once, neighbors have called the police on our folks, essentially accusing them of canvassing-while-Black-or-brown. Two days before I wrote this piece, the police pulled over one young Latino door-knocker because neighbors had called to complain that he was walking up and down the street waving a gun. (The “gun” in question was undoubtedly the electronic tablet he was carrying to record the results of conversations with voters.) The officer apologized.
Which reminds me of another apology offered recently. A woman approached an African American canvasser, demanding to know what in the world he was doing in her neighborhood. On learning his mission, she offered an apology as insulting as her original question. “We’re not used to seeing people like you around here,” she explained.
Until the pandemic, my partner and I had planned to work together with UNITE-HERE! in Reno during this election, as we did in 2018. But she’s five years older than I am, and her history of pneumonia means that catching Covid-19 could be especially devastating for her. So she’s stayed in San Francisco, helping out the union’s national phone bank effort instead.
In fact, we didn’t really expect that there would be a ground campaign this year, given the difficulties presented by the novel coronavirus. But the union was determined to eke out that small but genuine addition to the vote that a field campaign can produce. So they put in place stringent health protocols for all of us: masks and a minimum of six feet of distance between everyone at all times; no visits to bars, restaurants, or casinos, including during off hours; temperature checks for everyone entering the office; and the immediate reporting of any potential Covid-19 symptoms to our health and safety officer. Before the union rented blocks of rooms at two extended-stay hotels, our head of operations checked their mask protocols for employees and guests and examined their ventilation systems to make sure that the air conditioners vented directly outdoors and not into a common air system for the whole building.
To date, not one of our 57 canvassers has tested positive, a record we intend to maintain as we add another 17 full-timers to our team next week.
One other feature of our coronavirus protocol: We don’t talk to any voter who won’t put on a mask. I was skeptical that canvassers would be able to get voters to mask up, even with the individually wrapped surgical masks we’re offering anyone who doesn’t have one on or handy. However, it turns out that, in this bizarre election year, people are eager to talk, to vent their feelings and be heard. So many of the people we’re canvassing have suffered so much this year that they’re surprised and pleased when someone shows up at their door wondering how they’re doing.
And the answer to that question for so many potential voters is not well—with jobs lost, housing threatened, children struggling with online school, and hunger pangs an increasingly everyday part of life. So yes, a surprising number of people, either already masked or quite willing to put one on, want to talk to us about an election that they generally see as the most important of their lifetime.
And did I mention that it’s been smoky here? It can make your eyes water, your throat burn, and the urge to cough overwhelm you. In fact, the symptoms of smoke exposure are eerily similar to the ones for Covid-19. More than one smoke-affected canvasser has spent at least five days isolated in a hotel room, waiting for negative coronavirus test results.
The White House website proudly quotes the president on his administration’s testing record: “We do tremendous testing. We have the best testing in the world.” Washoe County health officials are doing what they can, but if this is the best in the world, then the world is in worse shape than we thought.
The Power of a Personal Story
So why, given the genuine risk and obstacles they face, do UNITE-HERE!’s canvassers knock on doors six days a week to elect Joe Biden and Kamala Harris? Their answers are a perfect embodiment of the feminist dictum “the personal is political.” Every one of them has a story about why she or he is here. More than one grew up homeless and never want another child to live that way. One is a DACA recipient who knows that a reelected Donald Trump will continue his crusade to end that amnesty for undocumented people brought to the United States as children. Through their participation in union activism, many have come to understand that workers really can beat the boss when they organize—and Trump, they say, is the biggest boss of all.
Through years of political campaigning, the union’s leaders have learned that voters may think about issues, but they’re moved to vote by what they feel about them. The goal of every conversation at those doors right now is to make a brief but profound personal connection with the voter, to get each of them to feel just how important it is to vote this year. Canvassers do this by asking how a voter is doing in these difficult times and listening—genuinely listening—and responding to whatever answer they get. And they do it by being vulnerable enough to share the personal stories that lie behind their presence at the voter’s front door.
One canvasser lost his home at the age of 7, when his parents separated. He and his mother ended up staying in shelters and camping for months in a garden shed on a friend’s property. One day recently, he knocked on a door and found a Trump supporter on the other side of it. He noticed a shed near the house, pointed to it, and told the man about living in something similar as a child. That Trumpster started to cry. He began talking about how he’d had just the same experience and the way, as a teenager, he’d had to hold his family together when his heroin-addicted parents couldn’t cope. He’d never talked to any of his present-day friends about how he grew up and, in the course of that conversation, came to agree with our canvasser that Donald Trump wasn’t likely to improve life for people like them. He was, he said, changing his vote to Biden right then and there. (And that canvasser will be back to make sure he actually votes.)
Harvard University Professor Marshall Ganz pioneered the “public narrative,” the practice of organizing by storytelling. It’s found at the heart of many organizing efforts these days. The 2008 Obama campaign, for example, trained thousands of volunteers to tell their stories to potential voters. The It Gets Better Project has collected more than 50,000 personal messages from older queer people to LGBTQ youth who might be considering suicide or other kinds of self-harm—assuring them that their own lives did, indeed, get better.
Being the sort of political junkie who devours the news daily, I was skeptical about the power of this approach, though I probably shouldn’t have been. After all, how many times did I ask my mother or father to “tell me a story” when I was a kid? What are our lives but stories? Human beings are narrative animals and, however rational, however versed in the issues we may sometimes be, we still live through stories.
Data can give me information on issues I care about, but it can’t tell me what issues I should care about. In the end, I’m concerned about racial and gender justice as well as the climate emergency because of the way each of them affects people and other creatures with whom I feel connected.
A Campaign Within a Campaign
Perhaps the most inspiring aspect of UNITE-HERE!’s electoral campaign is the union’s commitment to developing every canvasser’s leadership skills. The goal is more than winning what’s undoubtedly the most important election of our lifetime. It’s also to send back to every hotel, restaurant, casino, and airport catering service leaders who can continue to organize and advocate for their working-class sisters and brothers. This means implementing an individual development plan for each canvasser.
Team leaders work with all of them to hone their stories into tools that can be used in an honest and generous way to create a genuine connection with voters. They help those canvassers think about what else they want to learn to do, while developing opportunities for them to master technical tools like computer spreadsheets and databases.
There’s a special emphasis on offering such opportunities to women and people of color who make up the vast majority of the union’s membership. Precious hours of campaign time are also devoted to workshops on how to understand and confront systemic racism and combat sexual harassment, subjects President Trump is acquainted with in the most repulsively personal way. The union believes its success depends as much on fostering a culture of respect as on the hard-nosed negotiating it’s also famous for.
After months of pandemic lockdown and almost four years of what has objectively been the worst, most corrupt, most incompetent, and possibly even most destructive presidency in the nation’s history, it’s a relief to be able to do something useful again. And sentimental as it may sound, it’s an honor to be able to do it with this particular group of brave and committed people. Sí, se puede. Yes, we can.