Washington caucuses: Neck and neck, door to door

Third in a series: Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are just about even in the delegate count as Super Tuesday results continue to trickle in after record turnout. Last weekend, Obama's supporters hit the sidewalks in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood, as optimistic as ever. This Saturday's caucuses in Washington will be key in the pitched battle between the two Democratic candidates.
Crosscut archive image.
Third in a series: Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are just about even in the delegate count as Super Tuesday results continue to trickle in after record turnout. Last weekend, Obama's supporters hit the sidewalks in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood, as optimistic as ever. This Saturday's caucuses in Washington will be key in the pitched battle between the two Democratic candidates.

Editor's note: This is third in a series about Washington's role in choosing the next president.

Chiara Zaratkiewicz and her 17-year-old son, Tony Sueiro, may not agree on most things these days, but they agree on this: Barack Obama should be the next U.S. president. The mother-and-son canvassing team hit the streets last weekend to talk to their neighbors about voting in the caucus on Feb. 9.

Canvassing together is something of a tradition in Zaratkiewicz's family. One of her earliest memories is of sitting in a stroller as her mother went door to door to talk to her neighbors. "When I was little, I thought she just liked visiting with people," says Zaratkiewicz. "Later, I realized she was canvassing." Zaratkiewicz says she started participating in phone banks when she was the age her son is now and has continued to participate as a volunteer in grassroots organizing efforts all her life. She credits her mother with making her realize it's good to care about what happens in the world instead of just looking out for oneself.

Sueiro supported Obama long before Zaratkiewicz came around. "He told me, 'Mom, the world is going to change, and Obama is the one who will make the change.'" Even though he's only 17 now, he's allowed to participate in the caucus because he'll be 18 before the general election. He will also earn service learning credit through Nova Alternative High School for his canvassing activity.

Zaratkiewicz initially supported Hillary Clinton, owing in no small part to Clinton's strong stance on health care. "I remember how people lobbied against her, especially the insurance companies," she says. "Under a lot of strain, she put up a good fight." She admired Clinton's intelligence and stamina but regretted the way Hillary let her own career in politics take a back seat to Bill's ambitions.

That may have been forgiven, but the turning point for Zaratkiewicz came with Clinton's stance on Iran. "She said she would be willing to walk into Iran on the assumption that they were building a nuclear arsenal," says Zaratkiewicz. To her, Clinton's response was no different than President Bush's. Clinton's reaction "made me think she was trying to impress the voters or other politicians, that she could stand up with the big boys, like she had to impress them because she's a woman. If she feels like she has to impress people like that, what would she do in office as president? What are her real convictions?"

By contrast, Obama speaks to a need for diplomacy in the world, she says. She sees Obama as the leader for our times, especially as one of the few people who spoke out against the war. "Obama talks about principles, and people don't necessarily talk about principles anymore," she says. In her opinion, platforms are easy; principles are harder. She admires Obama's efforts to bring people together, to bridge across divisive lines. "We're supposed to be working on compromises," she says. "That's what this country is all about."

Her conviction fuels her volunteer work despite pressing things to do at home, keeping up with her son's busy schedule, and working full-time herself. Knocking on stranger's doors isn't easy, especially on a cold, overcast Saturday, when most people don't seem to be home and the most fervent Obama supporters are probably across town, at an Obama rally. Zaratkiewicz knocked on one door, and when no one answered, she thought the occupants weren't home — until she heard someone turn the lock in the door. As she walked off the porch, she heard the sound of the mail being dragged out of its slot.

The people she did speak with were welcoming, and many professed to be Obama supporters. There was the Brewster family, who tumbled out the door and onto the porch to talk with her. They'd just moved into Ballard from neighboring Fremont and were happy to get the information about where, when, and how to caucus. Even the ones who wouldn't state a candidate preference or didn't want to support Obama were enjoyable, says Zaratkiewicz. "I always just like to talk to people; I take a long time at the door because I really like people; I like to get to know them."

Zaratkiewicz was armed with a canvass script, which she chose to ignore, preferring to chat with her neighbors about their preferences, using the opportunity to encourage them to participate in the caucus no matter who their candidate is. She insisted on canvassing her own precinct. "I like to tell them I'll see them at the caucus on Saturday," she says. "People don't like to go by themselves, so if I say I'll see them there, they realize at least one other person they know will be there."

She says she loves canvassing with her son and is thrilled that he gets to see that people can change their minds about candidates, as she did. She hopes he will make it all the way to the national convention as a delegate. "No, that wouldn't be cool," her son says. "I have too much to do!"

Another person with too much to do these days is Dave Morehouse, 36th precinct district captain and chief orchestrator of Team Ballard's efforts. Morehouse was pleased with Saturday's turnout of 16 people, who broke into seven teams to cover precincts in the vicinity of Morehouse's condo.

On the Friday evening before canvass day, Morehouse had so much on his mind that he got into a fender-bender that threatened to derail his preparations that evening — not to mention caused damage to his car. "There's a few thousand more dollars for Obama," he thought. The meeting preparation back on track but his spirits derailed, he found himself up still at 1 a.m. and feeling tired. Then he received an e-mail from someone with a link to the Black-Eyed Peas' Obama tribute, "Yes, We Can." "It gave me the lift I needed," he says.

Car damage and workload aside, Morehouse, who recently moved to Ballard, says his grassroots experience has been very good. "It's my way of trying to get in touch with people in the community. I don't have expectations that any longer term relationships will come out of it, but it makes me feel grounded where I am and that I can contribute to something."

With volunteers like Morehouse, it's easy to see why Obama's organization is making a difference in the quest for a nomination. Morehouse could simply send donations to Obama's campaign online and say he's done his part, but instead, he opens his house up to strangers every weekend. He puts in extra hours creating spreadsheets and divvying up precinct territory. He sends out inspirational e-mail messages and organizes each event with the help of the social networking tools at barackobama.com. He prepares ahead of time with handouts and visual aids, and when the meetings commence, he feeds his volunteers well, serves them wine. "When people come over, I want them to feel like their basic needs are taken care of so they can concentrate on the work at hand," he says.

He's been impressed that even though 30 percent to 40 percent of the people who initially signed up are no longer active, by mainly word of mouth there has been a steady flow of volunteers, new blood taking over when others max out their capacity. One woman took it upon herself to organize a group of canvassers for Ballard Sunday Market — on Super Bowl Sunday, no less.

Morehouse estimates that the weekend canvass knocked on nearly 1,000 doors, with conversations occurring at 100-150 of those. The next step is for everyone to enter their results at Votebuilder.com — a records tool that the Democratic Party uses — and to keep calling and going door-to-door whenever they can throughout the week. The rest is up to voters.


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