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CAMPAIGN 2000: ON THE RAZOR'S EDGE | IN MICHIGAN

Behind Every Victory Is an Army of Volunteers

Campaign: In a year where every vote does count, supporters are working hard to get people to the polls.

November 05, 2000|SCOTT MARTELLE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FARMINGTON, Mich. — For the moment, the seat of political power is a folding chair in a former aerobics studio about 20 miles northwest of Detroit, where phone bank volunteer Leonard Bertagnolli methodically makes his way through a list of likely Republican voters.

It's tedious work, but in the past week, Bertagnolli, a freelance computer consultant, had made more than 1,000 calls. By election day, he could be up to 1,500.

"I believe in the governor [Texas' George W. Bush]," Bertagnolli, 59, explained during a brief break in the mirror-lined former exercise room. "I think he has the programs that are right for America."

This--in an expression apt for Detroit--is where the rubber meets the road in the race for the White House. Years of plotting and months of campaigning by presidential candidates mean nothing if the voters don't vote. And this year, longtime analysts agree, every vote really does count.

"We have about 14 states that are totally unpredictable," said Washington, D.C., political analyst Bill McInturff. "This is the most expensive and sophisticated effort both parties have made in 20 years to mobilize and turn out votes."

The fighting is fierce. Combined, the two major parties are spending more than $100 million to try to get their candidate--Democrat Al Gore or Republican Bush--elected president. By the time the polls close, the parties will have made more than 100 million calls to likely voters, sent out nearly 300 million letters and e-mails and anchored almost 2 million signs in supporters' yards.

Political Volunteers Working for Victory

The results of this political tug of war most likely will rest in the hands of tens of thousands of volunteers from across the political spectrum.

In Pennsylvania, the hardest battles are being fought in swing areas around Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Allentown, where both pro-labor and pro-business forces are wrestling to get voters to the polls.

By the time election day rolls around, Pennsylvania AFL-CIO activists will have made more than a half-million phone calls encouraging rank-and-file union members in those areas to vote, said Paul Lemmon, a state director of the national AFL-CIO.

"The basic program really doesn't change; it just becomes more intensified," Lemmon said. "Leafletting work sites, precinct walks through neighborhoods, going from union house to union house, running phone banks. The days will be longer and the work more intense."

On the other end of the political spectrum, the National Federation of Independent Business has been urging its members to engage themselves in local legislative races for pro-business candidates and to entice colleagues to join them at the polls.

"We've been walking door to door with some of the candidates in districts," said James Welty, director of the Pennsylvania NFIB, which is trying to counter the AFL-CIO's efforts in that state. "We're hoping it's going to turn the election around in favor of our candidates."

Nationwide, the NFIB expects to spend about $8 million making nearly 6 million "voter contacts"--phone calls, mailings and e-mails--reaching 1.1 million potential voters, nearly double the contacts made during the off-year congressional elections in 1998, spokeswoman Angela Jones said.

Yet the scope of such groups' efforts can't be measured accurately in dollars. The AFL-CIO, for instance, estimates it will have spent $40 million by election day in a two-year effort to register and educate voters and then get them to the polls, said Lane Windham, a union spokeswoman in Washington, D.C.

Activists Helping to Get the Word Out

But thousands of activists nationwide are also volunteering for phone banks and to put together mass mailings that augment "worker-to-worker" programs in which activists buttonhole colleagues in and around job sites.

"That's the most effective way for members to get the information on where the candidates stand, when they hear from another union member," Windham said.

About 70 million voter guides by the conservative Christian Coalition are being handed out by street volunteers and at Christian bookstores and Christian radio stations, including one Latino-format station distributing Spanish-language guides, said Terry Kemple, state director for the coalition in Florida.

Newspapers in some rural areas also have published the guide, while supporters in other areas have bought advertising space to run the material, he said.

"A significant percentage of the work is being done by a volunteer distribution network," Kemple said.

And in Oregon, legions of volunteers are similarly helping the pro-Gore National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League in its efforts to draw supporters to the polls for candidates who favor abortion rights, said Suzannah Porter, NARAL's Oregon field director.

Oregon is the first state in the nation in which residents vote entirely by mail or by dropping off completed ballots at designated sites up to election day.

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