Kathleen Warnock, a writer and longtime lesbian activist, found a way to help the right candidate win in Alabama. | COURTESY: KATHLEEN WARNOCK
I don’t want to say “I told you so.” But I told you so: that Doug Jones was going to win the special election for the US Senate in Alabama.
I knew this about a week before the election, because I looked at what I saw in front of me and made an educated guess based on strong indications that Jones would win by three or four points. So, I was a little off there.
During the run-up to the primaries for Jeff Sessions’ vacant seat, I looked to see who the Democratic candidates were. I lived in Alabama for a while and still keep an eye on the politics there.
An activist pitches into Alabama Senate race by following Alabamians’ lead
I could find little coverage of who was running, except on AL.com, where I started following some of the writers on politics and parsing the comments sections. There were lively debates between hard-core Republicans and ornery, independent folks who called a terrible candidate (Roy Moore) a terrible candidate. Also, remember for every foaming-at-the-mouth lunatic in the comments section, there are at least 10 reasonable people out there making their own decisions.
Then I looked up Doug Jones and thought: this guy is an excellent candidate. He’s put away KKK terrorists and has had a long and distinguished career. After Moore won the GOP primary, I looked at the polls and thought: Jones is within striking distance.
Then the horrid candidate turned toxic, and I knew that a lot of people weren’t going to say it publicly, but they weren’t going to vote for him. I thought: if Jones plays it just right, he will win. (I also suspect that Coach Nick Saban was the selected protest candidate for Alabama Republicans who couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Moore or Jones. That is, Alabama football is indirectly responsible for a Democratic senator. Roll Tide.)
As I was fretting about how I could get involved, a friend of mine, like me a resident of Queens, added me to a private group made up of people who wanted to help Jones win. And so I joined a crowd that stretched across the country, with a core of blue Alabamians. The group grew to over 4,000 people. Our goal: to flip Alabama blue.
There was some shuffling back and forth at first, and the Yankees figured out real quick that we had to listen to what the Alabamians were telling us and find ways to help from where we were. Making contributions to the campaign was just the beginning.
I was reluctant to phone-bank, because I felt like my accent would be more of a hindrance than a help. So I did other things.
The actions our group took also included postcard-writing (hundreds of thousands were sent to Alabama from all over the country), connecting groups on the ground with each other, passing along important news, anticipating and planning for voter suppression, sending coffee and donuts to people rallying in Montgomery, renting dozens of vans to drive voters to the polls, making sure people knew where and by when to register, posting, tweeting, and sharing information everywhere, and using our social media skills to micro-target voters and create sharable memes and videos.
I was thrilled to keep discovering more of the many well-organized grassroots groups in Alabama taking charge of things. Just like in the rest of the country, there are people on the ground in Alabama fighting hard for their lives, and our group buzzed with activity. As we all communicated with one another, sharing strategies and actions, I became aware of a huge knowledge gap between the people working on the campaign and the journalists who were covering it.
There were relatively few stories about Jones in the mainstream media, though AL.com covered him. The pundits and concern trolls were still certain that Jones wasn’t a good enough candidate, that he didn’t “appeal” to the African-American voters (a POV offered almost exclusively by white commentators), that the turnout would be low — with an unmistakable subtext that basically the people of Alabama were too stupid to vote for Jones.
I saw every day how smart and dedicated the leaders of our group were. The Alabamians knew their people and how to reach them. The legal and internet experts answered questions and created tools. They were black and white, expats posting from afar, other Southerners pulling for their fellows south of the Mason-Dixon line. And I became convinced that Jones not just could, but would win.
I didn’t see this reflected at all in the media and realized that when Jones did win, the pundits would all have to backtrack and Yankeesplain how it happened. (I was given kudos for my coining of the term “Yankeesplain.”)
Some commenters on AL.com indicated that they didn’t just despise Moore, but they liked what Jones had to say, his platform, the things he wanted to bring to Alabama.
Around me, I saw friends lamenting that Moore would surely win, with some wishing they could do more. (And so I added them to the group.) In the days just before the election, I pronounced publically that I thought it would be a Democratic win. When some people scoffed, I made a bet with a good friend of mine. We will gladly toast the winner when she treats me to dinner.
On Election Day, I woke feeling confident. A friend of mine posted that she needed something to do… I hooked her up with a phone b
Kathleen Warnock’s souvenir Doug Jones button sent along by her Alabama ally Ashleigh A. White. | CARA STALLMAN
ank, and she spent the day calling people. When I got home, I found a Doug Jones button in the mail, sent to me by one of my new Alabama friends. I spent the evening refreshing the browser and in our group we alternately freaked out, cheered, supported each other, and burst into happy dances, memes, and then pandemonium when the race was finally called.
There are some damn fine people in Alabama. And they changed things.
The next day I proudly wore my “Doug Jones for Senate” button, and our group was filled with more celebration, but also discussion of what happens next. People posted links to other groups, making lists of other seats that could be flipped, women running for office, plans to hold Jones to his promises.
One member suggested that everyone make a donation to a group that helped Jones win, and I made a contribution to Equality Alabama, “in memory of Roy Moore’s Senate campaign.” Because revenge is a dish best eaten cold.
I’m already in a group that’s working to flip another Southern state I used to live in. I’ve added some of my high school classmates and expats, and I am checking out the races. Primaries start next month there.
My state of worry and despair — based on real world happenings — has eased. I guess you could say activism is self-care. And winning is a cure for hopelessness.
Roll Blue Tide.