Final push: Supporters woo undecideds for McGinn, Murray

Crews of unpaid supporters are dialing phones and ringing door bells as time runs out in the 2013 Seattle mayor's race.
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Volunteer snack station at McGinn headquarters.

Crews of unpaid supporters are dialing phones and ringing door bells as time runs out in the 2013 Seattle mayor's race.

In the Green Lake neighborhood on Wednesday, Michael McVicker was looking for undecided voters. He wanted to talk to them about why they should support state Sen. Ed Murray for mayor. Dressed in a black University of Washington soft-shell jacket, blue jeans and running shoes, McVicker was hoofing it over sidewalks covered in dead leaves, on a gray but dry afternoon, knocking on doors.

With only days remaining in the 2013 Seattle mayor’s race, Murray and Mayor Mike McGinn are relying heavily on carefully targeted volunteer efforts to squeeze every possible vote out of a stubbornly undecided chunk of the city's electorate.

Among the volunteers are recent college graduates, high school students, transportation engineers, community organizers, long-time Seattleites and newcomers to the city. There are phone bankers who’ve never been involved in politics and canvassers who are veterans of past referendums. Some of the volunteers are putting in a couple hours each week, while others are pulling consistent 10-plus hour days, fueled by snacks, coffee, pizza and late-game enthusiasm.

During the past week, volunteers have worked phones for McGinn at his International District headquarters, at union halls and from their homes. Murray’s camp, meanwhile, deployed canvassing teams in neighborhoods like Green Lake to "drop" campaign literature and talk to voters, while Murray himself is walking Capitol Hill and Georgetown. Murray’s campaign has also been holding nightly phone bank sessions at their headquarters on Pike Street and Summit Avenue and at the nearby Liberty Bar.

McGinn's operation seems more freewheeling and Murray's more buttoned-down. Volunteers for McGinn came and went from his headquarters throughout Thursday afternoon. At one point, a Jack White rock song played on an IPod near the entrance and the room was abuzz with multiple languages. In contrast, Murray's phone banking effort on Wednesday was a scheduled event, between 5:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. On a wall in Murray's shop were handmade posters outlining tips like, "Smile when you dial" and "Be Genuine."

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Photos by Bill Lucia

Since the two candidates emerged from the August primary, they’ve participated in three televised debates, more than a dozen joint forums, and together their campaigns have spent over $1.1 million. But according to the most recent polls, which were conducted in mid-October, many voters have remained uncertain about which of the two progressive Democrats to support. The polls showed Murray with a consistent lead over McGinn, but also indicated that between 15 and 38 percent of the electorate was still undecided.

McVicker and another volunteer, Angela Liu, were on a mission to knock on 110 doors and find some of these undecided voters. They each had a map with dots marking the Green Lake houses that the campaign consultants wanted them to hit. It was the day before Halloween and many front-porches were festooned with ghosts, cobwebs and jack-o-lanterns. 

“I was telling Angela, don’t take it personally if people look at you and don’t say a word,” said McVicker, who has also worked for City Council candidates in Washington D.C. and last year’s same-sex marriage campaign here. In his late 20s, McVicker quit his job in real estate finance last summer to take an unpaid, full-time position as Murray's deputy finance director. This fall he started a part-time public policy graduate program at Seattle University. “I really just enjoy this stuff,” he said.

Around 1:30 p.m. on Thursday, at McGinn’s campaign headquarters, about 20 volunteers were making calls. Some of the callers spoke in Spanish, others in Mandarin, Somali and Amharic — one of Ethiopia's main languages. A cluster of five bicycles leaned against a wall near the door and a tray of deli wraps, a bowl of oranges and containers of snack mix sat on a food table. Along one wall, phone-bankers manned 16 desktop computers, while others made calls sitting in front of laptops. The callers used CallFire, auto-dialing software that enables them to work through hundreds of voters in a couple hours.

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Mohamed Sultan makes a phone call

At one desk was Mohamed Sultan, who came to Seattle from Somalia with his parents when he was 4 years old and is taking prerequisites for the information systems graduate program at UW. Sultan first volunteered for a political campaign earlier this year, setting up tables at McGinn's Rally in the Valley fundraiser in south Seattle’s Rainier Valley. “I like how he’s connected with all the different groups in the electorate,” Sultan said.

Every few minutes a volunteer would shake a wooden rattle, which meant the person on the phone was a vote for McGinn. “It builds energy, it’s kind of fun when you get to shake the rattle,” said volunteer coordinator Will Hazzard, who graduated from Colgate University in May and is in his first campaign. “I started coming down here everyday just making calls and they asked me to do it full time,” he said. Hazzard said that there would also be supporters making calls from their homes in Ballard and Madrona on Thursday night.

McGinn stopped by the campaign office around 2:30 p.m., talking with volunteers, staff and two reporters. Some days, he said, he dials up voters to ask for support: “It’s been long days every day.”

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Long hours are the norm for Murray supporter McVicker as well. He said that he’s been working 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays and canvassing on weekends. At one of the first houses he goes to, a man answers the door. McVicker asks him if he’s planning to vote for Murray. “I’ll stick with the mayor,” the man said. At another house there’s the sound of a barking dog. A woman at the door said she didn’t want to talk, saying, “My kid’s sleeping.” 

As he walked between houses McVicker discussed why he’s backing Murray. “I like that he’s old school,” he said, relaying a story about how the candidate once invited a group of fellow state lawmakers to his house to hammer out a legislative deal. McVicker rang another doorbell. A woman answered, a knee-high boy in an Iron Man costume at her side. “I haven’t read enough about the candidates to make up my mind,” she said, her son trying to shut the house door behind her.

“My guess is that she’s a McGinn voter, that’s how I marked her down,” McVicker said as he moved to the next house.

Wherever the next house was located, it was probably somewhere on a map displayed prominently on a wall in McGinn’s headquarters. Colored pushpins showed where the campaign had distributed literature. “We’ve dropped all of our lit,” said campaign spokesman Aaron Pickus, looking at the map.

Nearby, at a computer terminal, is Jack Bolton, a Washington State Department of Transportation engineer who has worked on the I-90 bridge light rail project and has been volunteering two to three hours per day. “I’ve gotten people who say hell no at first,” he said. “Yesterday, when I came in I got on the undecided list and I got someone who said no, and I engaged them and they said yes.”

The night before, at Murray’s campaign headquarters, the office was filling up with volunteers around 5:30 p.m. They settled in around folding tables, with their laptops, ear-buds and cellphones as Field Director Tim Wolfe, and Katie McVicker — Michael’s sister, who also works as a campaign volunteer — gave a presentation about calling protocols. Trays of red velvet and white chocolate macadamia nut cookies sat alongside bags of potato chips and bottles of seltzer water on a counter near the callers. Dinner, which came around 7 p.m., included reheated pizza and Saran-wrapped ham sandwiches.

“When you come across a supporter,” Wolfe said, “if they have not turned in their ballot, you want to start kind of doing this mental mapping with them, and talking with them about, 'Have you filled in your ballot, do you have a stamp ready, do you know when you’re going to drop it off?' "

With undecided voters, he said, “This is a little more of a script. There are a few key endorsements that we really highlight, we found that it resonates really well with people that Ed has the backing of the firefighters and police officers union, the majority of city council and Gov. Gregoire.” Beyond the endorsements, though, he encouraged the volunteers to personalize their pitch.

Katie McVicker told the volunteers, “We have less than a week now before the election, we want to talk to as many voters as possible, we want to get Ed’s name in all their heads.”

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Each of the callers had a set of handouts that included a CallFire how-to sheet and talking points. Of the roughly 20 callers on hand on Wednesday night, Katie McVicker said, about 10 were high school students fulfilling volunteer requirements. One of the students, Adam Weld, a senior at the Northwest School in Capitol Hill, is 18 and will be voting for the first time this year. 

“I didn’t know that much about the race going into it,” he said, while eating Doritos during a 10-minute break from making phone calls. About 45 minutes into the night, he and a classmate had made 92 calls and only nine people had answered. Wolfe said the light response was probably because the phone-bankers were competing with a Sounders soccer game.

Another volunteer, Laura Braithwaite, who moved to Seattle from Salem, Oregon, said, “I was really proud of Murray for everything he has done civil rights wise." A professional recruiter, she said, “I personally really like talking on the phone.”

On Halloween night, as the calls continued at McGinn’s headquarters, there was also a satellite call center set up at the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers 751 district lodge in South Park, with a total of six Spanish-speaking volunteers. None of the volunteers were machinists. The union, which has endorsed McGinn, was simply providing the space.

Fernando Ramirez, who has worked six hours a week making calls for McGinn since August, was at the union lodge with his young son and his wife, who was also phoning voters. A building manager and community organizer, he said that McGinn "has been reaching out to all the different groups."

By 7:30 p.m., there were only four volunteers left and they weren't getting many takers. "Sometimes you can tell, they just don't want to talk," said Flor Alarcon Avendano, a West Seattle resident. She had never worked on a political campaign during 30 years in the city, but said of McGinn: "He really cares for every citizen." 

"Is this Humberto?" she asked someone on the other end of the line, "You're my neighbor, by the way." The call ends a few seconds later. Alarcon Avendano and another volunteer say that together they've only had about five conversations with undecided voters after 300 calls. They blame it on Halloween.

"Everybody's out," Ramirez said. By 8 p.m. they shut the operation down for the night.

Before McVicker’s day was over on Wednesday, he managed to have some luck. “I haven’t decided yet,” said Allison Huyk, when McVicker asked her how she would vote. Huyk is originally from Michigan and has lived in Green Lake for about three years. 

“His top priority is police department reform,” McVicker said, referring to Murray. “He’s a Seattle guy, he grew up in Alki.” 

“I like what I’m seeing,” said Huyk as she looked over a handout with Murray’s photo and his positions. “I’m down.” Murray's strong support of the same-sex marriage legislation was a big plus for Huyk, who said she wanted a mayor that would continue to focus on LGBTQ rights, especially for kids who are bullied in schools. 

Back at his car, McVicker met back up with Angela Liu and two other volunteers that he shuttled to the neighborhood. The other two volunteers, Chase Monti and Aaron Otto, said they’d come across McGinn supporters who were open to talking and had also dropped off stacks of campaign handouts at two businesses and a retirement home. Liu said that she’d encountered five undecided voters that she thought she’d swayed toward Murray.

Done ringing doorbells for the day, the volunteers left Green Lake, but Otto was at campaign headquarters later that evening helping out with the nightly phone bank session. McVicker had class, but the following day, around 3 p.m., he and six other volunteers were sitting around the folding tables at Murray headquarters firing off phone calls, in search of undecided voters.

The McGinn campaign also planned to keep up the full-court phone call press through the weekend. Pickus, McGinn's campaign spokesman said, “It’s hard to imagine, working in this world, that people are just now starting to pay attention.”


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