Our Candidates (might) Make History!

photo of Zekiah Wright, a Black nonbinary person with short twists and glasses, wearing a grey jacket, white shirt and bow tie. Photo of Stephanie Wade, a white trans woman in a blue patterned dress, sitting in a grey Adirondack chair on a brick patio with a palm tree behind her.
(l to r) Zekiah Wright and Stephanie Wade

You’ve heard all the election recaps right? Democrats did better than expected. Some races still too close to call. No red wave. Blah, blah, blah. Let’s move on. . .

. . . . to runoffs. No, not that runoff.

The Organizing to Win runoff!

In addition to working with clients on organizing structure, I worked with two candidates this cycle, both in local races.

Stephanie Wade – Seal Beach

Stephanie Wade is running for city council in the lovely, little beachside city of Seal Beach, CA. She made it to the runoff and will face her main opponent again in January. We’re confident that Stephanie’s lead (at press time) of 56 votes will hold up – if we do everything right.

If (when!) she wins, Stephanie will be the only veteran on the council in a city with a major Naval installation and the only surfer on the council in this surfer town. Her progress is historic, as she would be the first trans woman elected in Orange County.

Our biggest challenge is showing Stephanie’s deep commitment to a community where she’s lived for just a year. (She jokes that she’s so Seal Beach that she’s like a Soviet dissident who reminds us how much we love America.) With a side of transphobia. The good news is that she is a master at building relationships. With her charm, my strategy and a powerhouse team of volunteers, we’ve built a winning campaign.

Zekiah Wright – West Hollywood

I also worked with Zekiah Wright, a quiet star on the West Hollywood leadership scene. They take on issues with a values-first approach, accepting the challenge of talking about their bold, progressive views. They are one of the most authentic and uncompromising candidates with whom I’ve worked.

Z was one of 12 candidates running for 3 seats on the WeHo city council. For two weeks after election day, they were in 6th place and I thought “we ran a good race, but it wasn’t enough this time.”

But wait a minute now . . . .

In one day, they leapfrogged into fourth place! At press time, they are only 18 votes out of third place. And counting.

Z would make history as the first non-binary person and first Black person on the WeHo city council.

So how did these two relative newcomers make such an impact?

Relationships and communication.

Stephanie never met someone she didn’t want to get to know better. Zekiah never met a hard question they didn’t want to answer. Both candidates focused on building relationships – and the rest comes naturally. Win or not, they are both well-positioned to have impacts on their communities from now on.

Stay tuned to OTW social media for updates!

Someone Always Calls the Cops

photo of a middle-aged white police officer in uniform writing a ticket.
Photo by @KindelMedia

During every campaign I’ve ever worked, the field team faces a consistent problem:

Someone calls the cops on a canvasser of color, for nothing more than walking through the neighborhood with a clipboard and some door hangers.

Every. Single. Campaign. And it doesn’t happen to white canvassers.

Some resident, usually white (although not always), calls the cops about suspicious characters roaming the neighborhood. In the best case scenario, the cops roll their eyes at Karen or Chad, notify the canvassers that they’ve received a complaint and move on.

These cops are few and far between.

In my experience, most cops agree with Karen and Chad that Black and Latine people walking through a white neighborhood are up to no good. They track down those canvassers and demand that they leave (and not politely). Not wanting to cause trouble and following our instructions, the canvassers usually do.

By now, you may be thinking “What’s the big deal? The cops ask them to leave and they do. No harm. No foul.”

Lots of harm. Big foul.

There’s the pervasive belief that the cops only talk to someone if they’re doing something wrong. As soon as that person shows they’re not doing anything wrong, all is well, right? Wrong.

Any law abiding citizen who is stopped by the cops for no reason will feel a stigma. Pile on law enforcement’s terrible record of violence against people of color, and we have a recipe for lots of harm and a big foul against justice. Many people of color have lived a lifetime of “the talk;” getting stopped by the cops for no reason must be terrifying.

This throw-back to Jim Crow literally prevents you and the team from getting the work done. More importantly, it’s a manifestation of white supremacy culture that we, as progressives, are committed to disrupting.

Many of us who aren’t people of color automatically leap into “savior” mode and try to fight the power (the cops, the racist residents) right away, before considering the needs of the people who have been harmed.

Shout-out to Izzy Goodman of Better Outcomes Campaigns for her suggestion to call the local precinct at the beginning of the campaign. Let the leadership there know that canvassers will be in the neighborhoods exercising their first amendment rights to free speech and getting out the vote. If your campaign has a relationship with the union that represents officers in that jurisdiction, let them know too.

When it happens in your campaign anyway, there are three steps to take.

1: Protect the Well-Being of Canvassers

Your first priority is the well-being of the canvassers. If they don’t feel safe – both physically and emotionally – they can’t do their jobs, the campaign can’t get contacts and our equity values have been undermined. Talk with the canvassers to ask about their experience and how they feel about it. Ask what would make them feel safer, both physically and emotionally. (And remember, if you don’t share identity with the canvassers, their experience will be different than yours.)

2: Talk to the Cops

Next, call the local precinct to report the incident. Spoiler alert: they will get defensive. However, it’s important to talk to them about it anyway. The cops have to know you’re watching and it will send a message to the canvasser that you took them seriously. (Be careful not to identify the canvassers to the cops. Don’t make it worse.)

The cops will also probably insist that if a resident calls them, they have to respond. Really?!?! There are lots of residents “on the wrong side of the tracks” that might disagree.

If your campaign has a relationship with the appropriate law enforcement union, try asking a union staff person or leader to communicate with their members or counterparts in police management.

3: Report Back to Canvassers

Finally, report back to the canvasser. Tell them what you said to the cops and how you will protect their safety going forward.

Is this really hard?

Yes. Does it take time away from everything else you have to do? Yes. Will it give you anxiety to talk to the cops (on purpose)? Probably.

Not doing it undermines the campaign work, and even worse, our values of equity and inclusion. Disrupting white supremacy culture means disrupting it everywhere, including in our campaigns.

New Campaigns, New Candidates – Brights Spots in 2022

Seal Beach pier and blue ocean in the foreground. Beach and snow-capped mountains in the background

I won’t lie. June has been a hard month. January 6th Committee hearings that reveal just how close we are to losing our democracy. Supreme Court decisions that recognize more rights for guns than for women. Inflation and looming recession. It’s a lot.

With federal elections and policy in such turmoil, I’m inspired by action on the state and local levels. There are bright spots.

I’m so excited to work with Stephanie Wade in her campaign for Seal Beach City Council. A new resident of Seal Beach, she chose that city on purpose – for the surfing, for the community, for the small town feel in the middle of hyper-urban Orange County. Like a convert to a new religion, she is more Seal Beach than many long-time residents. 💯🏄‍♀️

Stephanie is part of what is turning into a wave of visible trans political leadership. See Virginia Del. Danica Roem, Palm Springs Mayor Lisa Middleton, Delaware State Senator Sarah McBride, Minneapolis City Council President Andrea Jenkins and many, many more.

She was inspired to run by needs she saw in her community.

“Seal Beach is a dynamic, beautiful community. To protect that special feel, we have to protect our beaches, keep our city safe and be strategic about housing,” Stephanie says.

The campaign will focus on the fundamentals – building relationships with voters, talking about issues and getting out the vote. Steph and I both believe that if we ask voters to vote for her, she might win. But if we build relationships with voters, she can win on the issues that inspired her to run in the first place.

Want to be part of this inspiring campaign? Donate to Stephanie Wade here.

Paid Field Teams: Three Red Flags You Can’t Ignore

Back in 2012, I was talking to a political consultant friend about checking nightly canvasser numbers to maintain the campaign data integrity. He didn’t know what I was talking about.

Wait. What? You don’t review every canvasser’s numbers every night? Total knocks? Dials? Contacts? Nope. He just looks at the totals.

Well, in that case, I can guarantee that those numbers are suspect. Someone is lying.

With planning underway for fall campaigns, it’s time to review the Three Red Flags You Can’t Ignore. The campaign is a race against time; ignoring these red flags could mean the difference between time well-spent in the field and time (and money) wasted.

Numbers are unrealistically high.

When a canvasser* reports that she had conversations with 50 voters at 100 doors knocked, she’s probably lying. How do I know? A good canvasser can knock on about 100 doors in a five-hour shift. Of those 100 doors, they will have conversations with 20-25 people. A canvasser who reports a conversation at more than 40 of those homes is making it up. 

If you suspect a canvasser’s numbers, call a few voters they claimed to talk to. It’s really important to call more than one or two and do it right away. Voters sometimes forget a legit conversation with a canvasser soon after they shut the door.

A canvasser once reported in with a yes, no or undecided for every single voter on whose door she knocked. And then she was indignant when I asked her how she found so many people at home. She was fired immediately.

*Volunteers lie too, but much, much less often and for different reasons.

High undecided or delete numbers.

As noted in Five Secrets to Better Field Campaigns, almost every conversation that doesn’t result in a yes or no is a Not Home. More than low-single-digit undecideds might mean that a canvasser is too timid. (It might also mean they’re trying to be clever about making up fake numbers.)

The script should include a standard Undecided section, so canvassers have an immediate resource to keep the conversation going. My guideline is that I don’t mark a voter undecided until I’ve asked the question “Can I count on you to vote for [candidate name]” at least twice. Also, to build canvasser’s confidence, conduct short drills on moving undecided voters. 

Locked gates, gated communities, broken doorbells or barking dogs should all be coded Not Home, at least for one round. Maybe the next canvasser is more comfortable following another resident through a gate. Maybe the next canvasser likes dogs (some even carry a few dog treats in their pocket!). 

Substance abuse

ICYMI, there’s an addiction crisis in the US. Most field directors find out about substance abuse on their campaigns because other canvassers tell them. (Once, I found out because a team lead found a packet of meth on the office floor.) 

The initial training should include an explicit spoken and written rule against alcohol or drugs at work. (Yes, there has to be a rule.) I usually say “Alcohol and drugs are prohibited here, inside your body or out.” Coming to work high, buzzed or otherwise under the influence is an immediate firing offense, as is carrying alcohol or drugs into the office or on a canvassing route. 

When you inevitably discover someone breaking that rule, the whole team needs the “come to Jesus” talk. Start by apologizing to the vast majority of the team for what you’re about to say; they work hard and obey the rules. Then read them the riot act. The message must be loud and clear that drugs and alcohol are not allowed. 

During this talk after the meth incident, I was touched when another canvasser said he appreciated my toughness because he was in recovery and struggling with his sobriety. He was working hard to win the election and his own health; he didn’t need to fight someone else’s addiction too.

Note: For many of us, this section probably sounds pretty harsh, for personal and systemic reasons. We believe that addiction is an illness that needs treatment, not isolation. But we’re not social workers and we’re here to win. Try including an offer of resources for addiction recovery in your come-to-Jesus talk. The national substance abuse referral and information hotline is 1-800-662-4357 (English and Spanish).

Most canvassers are a hard-working, honest, nice people.

Some do the work because it’s a job, but many do it because it also represents their values. It’s hard to talk to strangers for five hours a day if you don’t believe in the cause.

Unfortunately, there are exceptions. Even more unfortunately, those exceptions must be fired. Out of respect for everyone else. To maintain the integrity of your data. And because we’re here to win!

Need someone to design and run a strategic and rigorous field campaign this fall? Let’s talk!

Five Secrets to Better Field Campaigns

With the 2022 primaries in full swing (goodbye Madison Cawthorn!), many campaigns are in canvas mode. To kick that outreach into high gear, here are Five Secrets to Better Field Campaigns. Subscribe to the Organizing to Win monthly newsletter for more! If the sign up box didn’t appear on this page, just click into any other page.

  1. Save the paper until the end. The door-hanger or palm card should be a voter’s reminder of their conversation with a canvasser, not a replacement for it. If a volunteer hands over the paper at the beginning of the conversation, the voter may read it instead of listening, at best! At worst, they will accept the paper, say “oh thanks,” and close the door.
  2. A voter isn’t “undecided” until you’ve asked at least twice. In theory, an undecided voter will get another knock, phone call or text later in the campaign. In reality, how likely is it that a volunteer will ever find that voter at home again? Seize the opportunity of the face-to-face conversation by giving more information and asking again. The script should always have a special Undecided section for this exact purpose.
  3. I’ll give you the short version.” When a voter answers the door with “I’m in a hurry. I don’t have time right now,” the right response is “Ok. I’ll give you the quick version,” then launch into the regular script. Because the real script is still only about two minutes long. Besides, when are you ever going to find that person at home again? Seize the moment!
  4. What have you heard so far about this race?” Use this question in a script just after the introduction and before giving information about the candidate. It provides for a tiny bit of interaction before launching into a couple of uninterrupted sentences from the canvasser. Plus, the canvasser can get an idea of whether the voter knows something already or has a particular issue in mind. 
  5. Almost every answer except Yes or No is Not Home. The guiding rule is that if the canvasser does not get to ask the question “Can we count on you to vote for our guy/gal?,” it’s probably a Not Home. Unfriendly voter? Maybe they’ll be in a better mood next time. Locked gate? Maybe another canvasser can get in or call. Too busy (and Secret #3 doesn’t work)? Try again next time.  The point is, coding that voter as a Not Home will put them back in the universe to try again.

PS. Undecided Not Home. A voter who is marked Undecided will be removed from the outreach universe; if you’re lucky, they will get a follow-up knock, phone call or text. But a Not Home will forever stay on the outreach list until there’s an answer to the question. 

Bonus: Deletes are rare. Only mark a voter delete if they passed away (and there isn’t a deceased option) or are so rude and obnoxious that you can’t subject another volunteer to their abuse. Sometimes, people are just having a bad day and they’ll be better the next time. (See Secret #5.)

Parent Power in Education

Blue easel sign that reads Vote Here in white in English and 8 other languages

Originally published in March 2022

Recently, a friend and I were debating the rhetoric around parents’ control over their children’s education. He felt strongly that to give parents a say in curriculum, lesson plans or strategies would be untenable nonsense.

“Do you really want some [blowhard] dictating what teachers teach?” he asked.

“Of course not, but I do want parents to have a voice in their child’s education,” I countered. Aside from the kids themselves, parents know their kids best.

That’s why I’m so excited to help education activists in Oakland to prepare for their next campaign. They’ll be supporting a local ballot measure to enfranchise non-citizen parents of public school students to vote in school board elections.

We don’t want the loudest parents in the room to make decisions for the whole district and we can’t let those obstructionists shut out the voices of the majority. Most parents simply want policies that improve the quality of the education their kids receive at school.

They want a voice in the policies that govern their kids’ education. In America, we call that voting. It’s one way parents can build power.

For this project, we’ll build power by bringing people together using the opportunity of the ballot measure to do it.

Stay tuned for (more) great things out of Oakland.

Building Relationships from Six Feet Away

Who knew when I wrote Post It and They Will Come that a month later we’d be talking about all-virtual campaigns? (Actually, this guy knew.) Campaigns and organizations are in frantic mode, trying to figure out how to run field campaigns without being in the field.

Will canvassing become a thing of the past? Will anyone ever meet one-on-one again? Will every training be a webinar now?

I don’t know the answers. But I do know that we can’t simply ignore the need for personal interaction in campaigns. We can’t just not canvass and also not come up with a replacement. So, thinking creatively, not so creatively and somewhat unrealistically, I’ve compiled a few ideas.

Immediate and Obvious Solutions (aka not so creative ideas)

Use existing social networks. I listened to a podcast the other day that was a little embarrassing for me. The main point was that field campaigns can’t just be about volunteers talking to strangers. I should have known better already! 🤦🏽 The best messengers are the people that a voter already knows. To operationalize this concept, every campaign orientation should start by asking participants to write down the names of their contacts who live in the district. Then each person tells why they support the candidate and brainstorms how they would relate that story to their friend to ask them to vote. To let volunteers know they’re serious, campaigns should then ask volunteers for the names and follow-up to see how the conversations are going.

The trendy term for it is relational organizing. Candidates often ask supporters to talk to their friends and neighbors, but they don’t always make it a systematic part of the campaign. Now’s the time.

Most campaigns couldn’t win on the family-and-friends model alone, but it’s a good start.

More phonebanking and texting. Kind of a no-brainer. Who knows? Maybe social distancing will lead more people to actually answer the phone. #SilverLining

Could Be Done Quickly, At Least for Small Campaigns

Virtual House Parties What if the phone or text script included an invitation to a small-crowd conference call or video chat with the candidate? A candidate who isn’t shaking hands has more time! Lots of big campaigns have virtual town halls but they don’t replace the personal interaction at the door. A small conference call or video chat isn’t a perfect replacement, but it could approximate some face-to-face relationship building.

Send photos of the named volunteer/texter with the message on texting apps. This idea would mean sending smaller batches of initial texts in apps like GetThru or Hustle. If the text says “Hi! It’s Mira from Michelle Obama’s campaign. Have you received your vote by mail ballot yet?” my photo — with a “Hello, my name is” sticker and Michelle Obama button — should show up too. That way, the voter knows that there is a real volunteer/organizer at the other end of that text.

Oooh, Wouldn’t That Be Cool??? (aka somewhat unrealistic ideas)

You: Mira, if they’re unrealistic, why are you even including them here?

Me: just in case some ambitious (and venture-funded) app developer reads this post 😉

Integrating video call apps into predictive dialer or virtual phonebank technology. The idea is that when a campaign calls a voter, the caller/volunteer appears on the phone in addition to the caller ID. Just like when you call your bestie overseas on WhatsApp or FaceTime with grandma. It’s still a call in the middle of dinner, but at least the voter can see that it’s a real person calling.

You: Can I video call someone who doesn’t have the video chat app installed on their phone?

Me: Probably not. But those people could stay in the traditional phone or text bank.

You: How fast do you think someone could code an app like that?

Me: I have no idea. But probably not between now and August. Look out 2022!

Someone asked if a video call might be kind of intrusive. More intrusive than a stranger knocking on the door? #NewNormal

Some of these ideas are not original. I compiled them here because most of the discussions, webinars, blog posts or other pieces I’ve seen were a little theoretical. I tried to put some specific, actionable steps together here. Let me know what you think.

Post It and They Will Come.

My first campaign was in 1988 when I might have been the only person in America who thought that Michael Dukakis could win. (Spoiler alert: he couldn’t.) When I was assured that he was pro-choice, I agreed to knock on some doors.

Since then, my understanding of campaigns and the campaigns themselves have evolved. Do you know a [clears throat awkwardly] seasoned campaign person who insists that the only real organizing is in person and all that social media stuff is superficial? Do you know a [clears throat awkwardly] junior organizer who insists that social is the new organizing?

Trigger warning for organizing purists (like me): For simplicity’s sake, I refer here to campaign tactics as “organizing.” In our jargon-y, insider’s club, we might be more comfortable calling them “mobilizing.” But that’s a subject for a different post. (Hint: the difference has to do with consensus and ownership.) Please feel free to disagree in the comments.

Newsflash: they’re both right. As I work to adapt my pre-Internet campaign training to the digital era, I’ve come up with four “translations” between IRL organizing and digital.

First, through campaigns with feminists, union members, teachers and a lot of candidates, I’ve learned that if something is too easy, it probably won’t work. Tacking a flyer for a meeting on a bulletin board? Anyone can do it and no one will come. Knocking on a worker’s door, asking to come in and engaging in a conversation about her work and what she would change (read: start a relationship)? That’s different. Same with social media. The easy stuff rarely moves anyone. Building two-way engagement is hard, but it’s the only thing that works. In my friend’s race for the California Assembly, he’s followed up several Instagram follows with a DM. And every one of those followers said they filled out their vote-by-mail ballot for him.

Remember that flyer on the bulletin board? It’s part of what we call “creating the environment.” Social media is a great way to create the environment. If I want someone to come to a canvass, it’s unlikely they’ll do it from a Facebook post alone. But if they see a post, plus an Instagram story from the last canvass, plus an email from an organization they trust, then get a personal text or phone call, they might do it.

Next, people take action for lots of reasons, but one of the most important is a relationship. We build relationships through stories and video is the most effective one-way medium to tell a story. It’s the closest we get to a relationship on a passive platform. Some of the presidential campaigns have learned this lesson. Think about those videos of Elizabeth Warren making phone calls on camera to a supporter or taking hundreds of selfies with supporters. Do you feel like you know her just a little bit better than you would from reading her website? (Also, remember that part about if it’s too easy, it won’t work? Good video is hard.)

Also, volume. Back in the day when the only method of recruiting volunteers was to call and ask them, we had a formula:

10 live bodies = 20 confirmed = 100 asked = list of 400 names and numbers

It’s not that different with social media, except that the ask is a lot less personal, so the volume has to be that much greater. Instead of a direct personal ask of 100 people to get 20 yeses, any kind of digital ask has to reach exponentially more people to get the same result. The 2018 midterms were a good example. Many campaigns and organizations built tremendous lists of followers. When they posted volunteer opportunities, complete strangers showed up to canvass or phonebank from social media posts alone — partly because the pool of followers was so deep. Also, remember that part about creating the environment? It really helps.

When the senior and junior campaign organizers argue over tactics, you can be the peacemaker. They are both working at similar concepts with different applications. We can’t silo the organizing and digital (or anything else for that matter). The most successful progressive campaigns are based on building relationships with a combination of online visibility and personal communication.