It’s July of 2008. I’ve been outside for several hours, knocking on doors. After a few failed attempts, I finally get someone to open the door. I put on my best “I’m-not-a-telemarketer-politics-is-different” smile and begin to ask them the door-to-door questions. After reassuring them that it will only take about a minute of their time, I ask where they stand on a few issues, like health care and legislation regarding online predators. Finally, I get to the important questions:
“Are you voting in November? Oh, you are! Great! Whom, may I ask, are you supporting for Congress? You’re undecided? Oh, okay, well thanks for your time, and here’s some literature from our campaign if you want to check it out!”
I sigh as I circle a “U” on a data sheet and trudge off to the next house.
I don’t mean for this to sound like I’m complaining, though. I’ve always wanted to “get my feet wet” in politics, even if I don’t want to do it as a career. Instead of cooking hot dogs around a campfire or tanning, I spent two summers in a summer program at Georgetown packing as much politics and history as I could into my 16- and 17-year-old brain.
But this summer, I was finally excited to get some practical, grassroots experience. I chose to work for Congressman Mark Kirk because, cheesy as it sounds, I agree with his policies and respect the type of politician that he is. For example, one day Kirk biked over to the campaign headquarters and sat around the fold-up tables in the middle of the office with us. By “us,” though, I don’t mean his cadre of top advisers. No, a group of unpaid interns sat with our congressman and talked about his campaign – what was working, what was not, what other people thought and so on. I was surprised that a man commuting between Washington and the Chicago suburbs to do his job while campaigning for a hotly contested office was happy to take time with his interns just to hear our input.
The people I worked with were fun and interesting and we got to know each other well, usually over midday Panera or Baja Fresh. Most were college students, but there were also many enthusiastic high-schoolers and one boy who was entering eighth grade. We’d exchange sympathetic glances if we didn’t get a call to go our way, but usually when we’d relate stories about less-than-diplomatic people we’d wind up laughing and just move on. I also enjoyed getting to know a co-worker who wound up being my current next-door neighbor at NU. Talk about coincidences.
Unlike going door-to-door, working the phones at least had the benefit of air conditioning. I was still working during the day, so I didn’t get too many “live wires.” This meant that I was constantly leaving messages instead of having more spontaneous discussions – though I would actually deliver exactly the same Door-to-Door Spiel over the phone. Instead, I gave my Answering Machine Spiel. It’s long and could drive you insane by your 200th recitation, but it gets the job done and it’s worth it to bring just one more person over to our side.
Doing phone calls left me with plenty of stories to tell people in and out of the office, like the one time I panicked after hearing “Hablas espanol?” on the other end of the call. I stalled and managed to tell her in horrible “Spanish” that gracias, I would call back later (once I could cobble together something comprehensible). Or the time when a Kirk loyalist called me “honey” and told me how much she appreciated what I was doing. Meaningless as that might sound, it was much needed. Trust me, you begin to lose sight of that after a few angry hang-ups. Maybe the best, though, was the 30-minute call when I listened to a very old woman tell me her detailed views on nearly every issue of the election. I barely got in a word edgewise, aside from the respectful “Oh, yeah,” or “Mhm, I understand.” Oh, and she wound up undecided.
Mark Kirk has represented the 10th district of Illinois, which encompasses many Chicago suburbs and the North Shore, since 2001. Although the area is fairly liberal, Kirk is a Republican with more moderate issue stances. While some say that Kirk votes in lock-step with the Bush administration, many news sourceshave refuted this claim. Out of 435 representatives, Kirk has been named among the most moderate in the House, not an easy task. Being a moderate myself, his willingness to “reach across the aisle” really resonates with me. Kirk is the opposite of an extremist. Certainly, Planned Parenthood and the League of Conservation Voters seemed to think so when they endorsed him over his Democratic challenger. But I wasn’t willing to be complacent during this election given what happened two years ago. Despite Kirk’s moderate stances and storied career in the House, his current opponent, Dan Seals, captured a sizeable amount of the vote when he ran against him in 2006. Reelection wasn’t a given this year.
In the seemingly infinite swaths of time between all of my friends leaving and New Student Week, I was able to keep working for my representative. But when I got back to campus, schoolwork swallowed my time and I couldn’t manage the suburbs-Evanston shuffle anymore. On election night, though, I made the commute to Wheeling for the victory party. I kept asking people for the results. We watched big-screen TVs, cheering every time Kirk’s winning percentage showed up at the bottom of the screen, though his numbers hardly changed throughout the night.
Recalling how close the last election was, and the current antipathy toward Republicans, I wasn’t going to be overconfident. Even when Kirk was leading with 54 percent, I reminded myself that only 33 percent of precincts were reporting (and mine, one of the most anti-Kirk in the district, hadn’t reported yet). Elections, just like McCain’s campaign, can undergo sudden and permanent changes when one least expects it. I went back to campus when 40 percent of precincts were reporting similar results. As I sat in my dorm room and attempted to get some work done in between constantly refreshing cnn.com, more precincts started turning in their results. My sense of assurance grew as Kirk maintained his numbers.
As we know, 2008 has not been a good year for Republicans, so Kirk’s victory is especially significant. Even Republican stalwarts like Elizabeth Dole found themselves jobless, although I’d like to hope that we ran a better campaign than she did. In light of the anti-Republican sentiment around the country, Kirk’s ability to win over an increasingly liberal congressional district is no small feat, so I was understandably happy as the results poured in.
Moreover, I was proud of what I had done this summer. Had Kirk lost, I’m sure I still would have been proud, but his re-election is a bonus. I know that my actions weren’t exactly monumental on their own, but I feel like his election carries a more personal tone than it did in, say, 2006, when I didn’t work for him and couldn’t vote for him. I had no idea how tiring but ultimately rewarding canvassing would be, or how much fun I’d have discussing politics with people around the office. Being a “foot soldier,” as my mom liked to describe it (ostensibly to motivate me), in the larger battle is a great place to start because it exposed me to local, grassroots politics, and provided a necessary foundation for me to learn about politics firsthand. It may not be glamorous work, but it is enlightening and rewarding. Even though I’m probably not going to be involved in politics later down the road, at least I now feel involved.