The 33 canvassers from Seattle who arrived by bus in Bellingham Saturday, September 29, were met by a couple of photographers—including one from the Ken Mann campaign (who the volunteers were in town to help) and one who had been privately hired. Progressive Whatcom County Council candidate Mann suspects that his opponent, longtime incumbent Sam Crawford, hired the photographer—maybe to use as evidence of Mann's lack of local support.
Crawford denies hiring the photographer, although he did bring up the issue of the out-of-towners a week before in the Bellingham Herald, saying, "My concern is, does [Mann] really understand and reflect the values of the people that live here in Whatcom County?"
We rode up on the newly acquired 1989 MCI Coach bus owned by the Washington Bus Project. The Bus Project is a new nonprofit whose mission is to get young people involved in politics with energetic actions and outreach. It's based off of a similar organization in Oregon called, predictably, the Oregon Bus Project. This was the Bus's maiden voyage—take a load of urban twentysomethings up to Bellingham to knock on doors for Mann, who's running on a platform of smart, controlled growth for Whatcom County.
The executive director of the Bus, Thomas Goldstein, is in his late 30s and dressed in a blue windbreaker and khakis. He has high aspirations for the mission. "We drive new leaders by creating opportunities for the young and young at heart to do politically powerful things." They aren't actually endorsing Mann, which would be against their 501(c)(4) status, but they are supporting the issues he stands for, so the Bus and its $300,000 yearly budget has prioritized his campaign.
Bringing urban liberals to the suburbs and beyond to help progressive candidates isn't a new idea—Howard Dean famously tried it in the 2004 primary in Iowa. His young canvassers with their orange knit caps didn't go over well with the Iowans who voted in the caucuses, helping him to lose magnificently.
But the Oregon Bus Project has been succeeding since 2001 with its similar strategy. In 2002, four out of the five districts where the Bus had focused its energy elected the progressive candidates they supported, tying up the Oregon senate where the Republicans once dominated.
In Bellingham on this cloudy but thankfully dry day, each Bus passenger was paired with a local and given a list of homes to doorbell with a printed script of what to say when they knocked. My partner, Zach (who was from Seattle, actually), and I were sent to Lynden, a white conservative suburb that is considered Crawford country.
Four hours later, after we'd canvassed through a mix of small 50s-style homes and well-groomed dot-com manors with views of the mountains, Goldstein and Mann—who'd also been in Lynden as a team—came back to the group with wide grins. Goldstein proclaimed, "We really made the difference for the Mann campaign today." The 62 local and out-of-town canvassers knocked on 2,000 doors, he said. It's very possible the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed Washington Bus Project volunteers could tip the scales in a tight race for Mann. Crawford only won with 52 percent of the vote in 2003. But judging by my day, I'm actually hoping Zach and I didn't lose Mann any votes.
The residents of Lynden didn't seem enamored with us. The mostly elderly voters took one look at me, in a lime-green hoodie sweatshirt and tight jeans, and seemed to go into "Say whatever it takes to get her to go away" mode. Zach didn't fare much better in baggy camo pants and a snowboarding jacket. Some residents of a large housing development pretended not to be home when we knocked. Out of the 50 homes I went to, only one person seemed interested in learning more about Mann. I seemed to be experiencing the same disconnect that was prevalent in the Dean campaign—I was an obvious carpetbagger.
This is the issue that the Bus has to deal with in its mission to elect progressives in the exurbs: How can organizers tap the numbers and energy of urban liberals to impact races in more conservative turf without Dean syndrome? Goldstein's not worried. "If you're a fan of democracy, being in Whatcom County on Saturday was a special day. We helped out the good guys, and that's what matters."
The Washington Bus Project's next event, called "Trick or Vote," involves people canvassing their own King County neighborhoods in costume on Halloween to remind people to turn in their ballots.