A precocious child who devoured three newspapers a day, when I was seventeen I decided that I should get involved with politics. Although I read the papers, I didn’t have strong opinions on who should be my local alderman in Chicago’s 43rd Ward. Edwin Eisendrath was up for reelection in 1991, and I didn’t know much about him. But his challenger’s campaign office was a couple blocks from my house, so I trudged through the January snow to the Mary Baim office, and declared that I wanted to volunteer.
Too young to vote or register new voters, and a nobody nobody sent, the campaign staff sent me off to knock doors in random snow clogged precincts, with a message to encourage votes for Baim. Hoping to gain access to what I imagined “the real politics” of the campaign’s smoke filled back room, I set out in freezing Chicago winter weather, knocking on doors and meeting hundreds of people who miraculously had patience for a kid that wanted to talk ward politics.
Yes, hundreds. From the start I knocked doors like a fiend, plowing through precincts with a zeal that impressed the grizzled campaign staff. Once, earning, “Wow, kid, you just keep going at it, don’t you?” was the most exciting thing I’d heard, ever.
Even though I did the typical volunteer thing – I faded out when life got in the way – that campaign was the beginning of a life-long obsession with politics. It really didn’t matter that I had no idea what Mary Baim’s policies were, nor did I know much about Edwin Eisendrath’s. I was hooked by knocking doors, turning out votes and excitement of a democratic process empowering a clueless teenager.
Even though it was freezing cold, I’ll never forget the people I met at those first doors I knocked. The woman charmed by a teenager asking for a vote, and then quizzing me for ten minutes at the door about the candidates. The guy with a hothouse jungle just inside that invited me in from the cold to warm up a bit. Did I turn their votes? I’m not sure. But I sure liked meeting them: my world got bigger and richer knowing they existed.
Of course, Mary Baim lost 58% to 42%. Eisendrath served one more term, and recently came back to Chicago politics by leading a group to purchase the Chicago Sun Times. David Axelrod was then-Alderman Eisendrath’s political consultant, and we know how things turned out for him. Funny how the world turns, isn’t it?
When I think back to that January 1991 Chicago election, things seemed so tame in comparison to the political heat of today. The Cold War was ending, Mayor Richard M. Daley was promising a peaceful and efficient city government, the drums of the first Gulf War were yet to rumble.
Bringing us to the present, it seems as if the stakes for this November’s national election get higher every day. Ignoring the Omarosa sideshow and the tension of whether or not Robert Muller will indict President Donald Trump for collusion, there’s plenty of policies to sicken your stomach: From ICE stopping and detaining a man while he drives his wife to a hospital deliver their baby, to the failing economic tariffs against China, Europe, Canada and Mexico, to a new plan to give America’s wealthiest a tax cut by presidential order.
Planning to vote is not enough. America needs you to put some skin in the game for your local election for Congress, Senate, governor, or state legislature. If you‘ve never knocked a door or made calls for a candidate before, like that teenager in 1991, I guarantee you’ll discover a kind of magic available to Americans every election cycle.
For each jerk at the door or on the phone, you’ll meet five sweethearts, genuinely interested people and charming oddballs that make up your community. You’ll marvel that you spent so much time in their proximity, but never met them before. You’ll discover a legion of like-minded citizens who want to make a positive change for a better America.
If you’ve volunteered before, you know about the magic, but also the confusion of campaigns and how silly and rudderless they can seem. But you also know the power you, as a volunteer have to change your world.
Get down to your local candidate’s campaign. America needs you to to just keep going at it.