VOLUME 3, ISSUE 344 | November 4 – November11, 2004
Stunned By A Sudden Loss
Gay Kerry volunteers working the swing states saw their day-long hopes dashed by dark
Just as polls in San Francisco were closing on Tuesday, at 8 p.m. Pacific Time, a two-story inflatable doll of Pres. George W. Bush, with a four-foot Pinocchio nose, that its creator calls “Bushocchio” rose on the sidewalk at the corner of 18th and Castro. In the street in front of the doll, at the intersection which the organizers of a demonstration there called the “town square of gay America,” about ten volunteers scrambled to set up a big-screen TV, internet hookups, and satellite dishes off the back of a rented flat-bed truck to watch the election results that would, they said, determine the future of gay rights in the U.S.
Bushocchio’s creator, John Lawler, has made a small business this election season of selling much smaller versions of the doll, about two-feet tall, that are complete with a painted on “realistic grimacing smirk,” “macho flight suit,” and a sign on the back that says, “impeach me.” Lawler said the small versions are easily deflated and fit in a briefcase. He said he was hoping that the doll’s namesake would meet the same end that night—and he had good reason to believe Bush might.
Earlier in the afternoon, Kerry campaign higher-ups had put out mid-afternoon exit poll figures, also available to many in the media, saying that Kerry would carry all the swing states by comfortable margins—Florida by four percent, Ohio by five percent and Pennsylvania by 16. California Sen. Dianne Feinstein hosted a lunch for 150 Tuesday where she talked up the numbers she was hearing.
A little later that afternoon, gay California Assemblyman Mark Leno, who had been at Feinstein’s lunch, was ebullient.
“People don’t stand in line for four hours to vote for the status quo,” he said smiling about the long lines at polling places in Ohio, Florida and other places. “I’m very optimistic.”
Reporters on Kerry’s campaign plane say the mood there was similar early on election day.
So as a crowd of about 100 gathered, at the same intersection where they had cheered and decorated the electric bus lines with toilet paper when Bill Clinton defeated the first Pres. Bush in 1992, there was hooting and yelling while local drag queens filled in the gaps between election returns with performances on the back of the flat-bed truck. Some of San Francisco’s Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence milled among the crowd in their whiteface and nun’s habits, and a marriage equality advocate stood in the intersection dressed as the Statue of Liberty, and directed traffic with her torch on the cool clear night.
San Francisco is the most Democratic of Democratic strongholds. Almost 83 percent voted for John Kerry on Tuesday, about the same percentage as Manhattan, and supporters of Bush were hard to find. So when California’s 55 electoral votes went on the screen for Kerry, Steve Gibson, who runs a gay men’s health clinic in the Castro, smiled broadly and said he voted for the senator that afternoon because “he’s not George Bush.”
His companion that night, friend Jay Harcourt, seconded that one. He said he was afraid, first of all, what a second-term Bush might do to the makeup of the Supreme Court, which, said National Gay and Lesbian Task Force leader Matt Foreman, is sure to ultimately decide on gay marriage in the US. Harcourt also said he said he was concerned that Bush had, “rejected science” about stem-cell research and HIV prevention, but said he too hadn’t gone to the polls so much for Kerry that day as against Bush.
“When Kerry said marriage is between a man and a woman,” Gibson chimed in, “I said fuck you.”
Not only is San Francisco the darkest blue dot in a blue state, it is also one of the most politically engaged. More people watched the presidential debates this fall than most Super Bowls. And San Francisco, like other Democratic strongholds including New York, Washington and Chicago, exported thousands of volunteers and hundreds of thousands of dollars to the swing states. One San Francisco steering committee alone pulled in $350,000 from the city’s gays and lesbians.
A leader of that committee, Jeff Anderson, started working for Kerry nearly two years ago. When, on Wednesday, Kerry talked about how he had visited Americans in their homes and community halls and had come to know America in a way he hadn’t before—“I know your hopes. I know your struggles. They are part of me now,” he said—at least in part he meant Anderson, who hosted Kerry in his San Francisco home for a largely gay crowd.
Anderson said the optimistic exit polls started surfacing at about 10 a.m. in Arizona.
“It made for an emotional roller coaster,” he said
In a small suburban town near Phoenix, Anderson said he had about 150 volunteers working with him in the last two days of the campaign, “doing classic get out the vote stuff,” walking precincts, handing out literature and calling voters. They worked the suburb from the headquarters, in a firefighters union hall, and from three satellite sites at volunteers’ homes.
By the last day of the campaign, Anderson said he had more volunteers than he could use; but about 60 percent of them, he guessed, were not from Phoenix, or even Arizona, but from New York, the San Francisco Bay Area and as far away as London. And they, like an invading army, were not only on the offense, trying to get Democratic voters out for Kerry, but on the defense too, working against what Anderson called, “voter intimidation,” like chasing away Kerry supporters outside of the 75 yard “no campaigning” limit at polling places that were often in the basements and church meeting halls.
“It was a massive operation,” said Anderson. It was a massive, volunteer-driven operation that stretched across the country, but like an invading army it arrived without an invitation from the invaded.
Sam Ritchie and his husband Kevin Muir, who married in Massachusetts this summer, went to Palm Beach County, Florida in the last days of the campaign from their home, at 19th Street and Eighth Avenue, in the heart of Chelsea. On Tuesday Ritchie, 27, was riding in one of about 25 six-passenger vans into the Democratic stronghold of Lake Worth, about 60 miles north of Miami on Florida’s Atlantic coast.
Armed with a list of likely Kerry voters, they were going to knock on doors and get people to the polls. While lots were at home in this community of retirees, many told Ritchie, dripping in the 80 degree heat with 90 plus percent humidity, that they had already voted. About 30 percent of Florida voted early.
But even with early voting, as Ritchie’s van passed the polls, not long after he started work at 5 a.m., lines had started to form. That was supposed to be good. Pundits had predicted that more voters meant more Kerry voters.
Ritchie’s assigned neighborhoods were predominately African American. While he was assigned to knock on doors—each volunteer managed about 1000 in their time in Florida—rather than meet people in the street, he said one of the moments he remembers most was being challenged by about five black youth, “19 or 20,” he said, playing basketball across the street from a row of houses. They asked what he was doing. “Kerry’s the man, Kerry’s the man,” he said one of them shouted after his explanation. “I’m going to go get my vote on.”
“They were all up on it. They were all registered, and ready to go. A white middle class boy from Chelsea wouldn’t have expected it,” Ritchie said. “The area was hugely Kerry. We didn’t see a Bush sign the entire time we were there.”
By the end of the day as the polls closed, Ritchie, armed with the exit polling numbers, was riding high.
“It was great to be a part of this, the satisfaction — and living in a country I want to live in again.”
But on Wednesday morning, Ritchie and Muir were hunting for a coffee shop where they could get a copy of the New York Times on their way to the airport.
“The states where the exit polls were incorrect were the ones where electronic voting machines didn’t have paper trails,” Muir said, with a hint of conspiracy theories in his voice. “The exit polls were dramatically off. It certainly is something to look at.”
Muir, similar to Anderson in Phoenix, said that in all the trips he made in the vans around Palm Beach, three times a day, five or six people per van—about 95 percent of the volunteers he worked with were not from Florida.
“They had come to Florida to try to make a difference with Kerry,” Muir said.
But being there, he said, has been “almost as though we’re living in a foreign country. We’ll be happy to get back to New York.”
Muir said the reason he went, “was all the reasons people are against Bush. The number one thing that’s been consistently on my mind is the Supreme Court,” Muir said. “This is freaking me out. If he’s able to appoint three or four judges, we are in a deep load of shit.”
“It seems to me that this country has gone into a religious fervor – it’s threatening people’s individual rights. We’re not able to be who we are… ‘Freedom’s on the march,’” he said, echoing one of Bush’s rallying cries in the campaign’s final days. “It doesn’t look like freedom’s on the march to me.”
Despite all of his work, Muir said that he has never really supported the Democratic Party
“So I guess I don’t support Kerry in that sense,” he said. “They don’t take on the Republican Party. They don’t provide enough differences for them to take on somebody like Bush.”
“Oh, and somebody put a Bush/Cheney sticker on our rental,” he added. “Were peeling it off now.”
On Wednesday morning in Phoenix, Anderson was taking down signs, cleaning out the district office, so the firefighters could have their union hall back. Even after Kerry’s concession, the New Mexico race was still too close to call. Volunteers stopped by on their way out of town.
“Two or three at a time…one woman was crying,” Anderson said. “and we had a group hug.”
Anderson said that on the drive home, he’d have, “a nice long think, and take the lessons learned.” He’s not sure if he’ll go back to the consulting business he left when he started volunteering full time for Kerry.
“It wasn’t just one election to fight. You don’t teach people to hope in a single election,” he said. Then, lightheartedly, “As we’re cleaning up, we’re finding things we couldn’t find in the last six days.”
Anderson’s group of volunteers is circulating questionnaires, so they can keep together after they’ve all gone home.
“You don’t spend 20 hours a day together without sharing things,” he said.
But the group in the Castro gave up early. By 10 o’clock the police had told them to move the truck and the TV and the satellite dish out of the street. Bushocchio had gone. A few dozen people were milling around.
Brian McConnell, a computer business owner who had been running the video and Internet feeds, wasn’t too upset about being shut down.
“We kinda knew what was going on,” he said. “But we didn’t want to bum everybody out.”
Mike Ryan, a 43-year-old who makes his living as a massage therapist, was slumped, sitting on the sidewalk, in front of a bar on the corner.
“I feel a little nauseous,” he said. “It turned red really, really fast.”
Did he think another four years of a Bush presidency would change his life?
“Queers in San Francisco will be just fine,” he said. “But poor people in San Francisco are fucked.”
A few yards away a protester with a four foot sign pushed out into corner as the traffic started to speed by.
“9/11?” the sign asked, and then answered its own question, with a conspiratorial suggestion nearly unthinkable: “Inside Job.”
Larry Kramer appears at Cooper Union’s Great Hall on Sunday, November 7 from 7 to 9 p.m. in an event hosted by John Cameron Mitchell and produced by the HIV Forum.