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Army of volunteers fans out across swing neighborhoods

by Jordan Green

Approaching the upscale New Irving Park home of Alan Duncan, a Greensboro lawyer who chairs the Guilford County School Board, Dr. Debbie Fields explained why she’s a Democrat.

“The middle class is disappearing in this country,” said the pediatrician, who has spent a significant part of career providing indigent care. “You can do a lot to shore up struggling people. Leveling the playing field a little bit, that’s the Democratic philosophy. In the long run, that benefits all of us: having education, having healthcare, having parents not having to work two jobs, so they’re not always stressed out.”

Fields said at least 75 percent of children receiving federal Medicaid benefits live in a household where at least one parent works. The parents of her patients clean houses and work in the fast-food industry. She said these parents — many of them working for minimum wage — can’t afford health insurance.

A passel of yapping canines greeted Fields at Duncan’s back door. The school board chairman nervously declined to disclose his preference in the presidential race because of the presence of a reporter.

On the first weekend of October, Fields was spending her fourth Saturday knocking on doors for the campaign of the Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois. She was teamed up with Dr. Bill Hickling, a pediatric neurologist. Working from a list of registered Democrats and unaffiliated voters generated by the campaign, they found household after household where residents attested with certainty borne of exasperation and hunger for change that they planned to cast their ballot for the Democratic candidate.

“I was against the war in Iraq from the start,” said one of Duncan’s neighbors, Melissa Joyce. “I was disappointed that so many Democrats and Republicans voted to give Bush the power to go to war. I just didn’t think it was the right thing to do. I felt like we all sort of knew what was coming down the pike.”

Joyce and other Democrats have credited Obama for speaking out against the invasion of Iraq as an Illinois state senator in 2002.

Another New Irving Park resident, Lisa Talley, said she and her boyfriend planned to vote for Obama, while her 18-year-old son, a registered Republican, planned to cast his ballot for McCain. Fields said it is common to find households split over the presidential election.

“I don’t ever run into undecided voters,” Talley said. “People seem pretty polarized.”

Obama and McCain signs jostle for attention in the yards of New Irving Park, part of a precinct that Bush carried by a 6.4-percent margin in 2004. The neighborhood is contested territory in Democratic-leaning Guilford County, the third most populous in the state. The preferences of New Irving Park residents and their ilk have taken on added importance in recent weeks, as Obama has pulled ahead of McCain in the polls in North Carolina — a state that has reliably handed its electoral votes to the Republican candidate in every election since 1976.

As the campaign progresses, the Obama campaign has necessarily developed an ever more sophisticated understanding of the state’s electorate. On her first canvassing round Fields said she encountered a significant number of McCain supporters and voters who hadn’t made up their minds. As the Obama campaign has systematically weeded McCain voters from its database database, the numbers have skewed more heavily towards the Democratic candidate. At the end of their Oct. 4 canvas, Fields and Hickling tallied 20 Obama supporters — 14 of whom said they would vote early — two undecided voters and two uncooperative respondents. No one one their list said they were planning to vote for McCain.

“A month ago, I would see a lot of people undecided,” Fields said. “I couldn’t tell: Are they really undecided or do they not want to say? Our purpose is identification and persuasion. We’re counting votes. We know how many votes are needed; we just don’t know where they are. So we concentrate our get-out-the-vote efforts on these folks.”

The Obama campaign has mobilized an impressive corps of volunteers across the state.

As a standing-room-only crowd emptied out of the Green Bean coffee house in Greensboro after a debate-viewing party hosted by the Obama campaign on Sept. 26, field organizer Daniel Gamer and handful of volunteers were ready with sheaves of fliers to recruit new canvassers.

The nominee and his running mate, Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, would be in Greensboro the next day. At 4 p.m., following the rally, the campaign organized volunteers to meet at six different locations concentrated in the northern and western portions of the city — affluent and predominantly white areas where residents traditionally vote in high numbers and range across the ideologically spectrum — to fan out through the neighborhoods.

The campaign would later boast that it deployed more than 3,000 volunteers from 460 canvassing locations across the state that weekend, and exceeded a goal of knocking on 100,000 doors.

A week later, on Oct. 4, about eight volunteers gathered in the late morning at the spacious home of Jennifer Riedlinger in the Kirkwood neighborhood to receive their marching orders from Marlene Goland, a volunteer crew captain for the Obama campaign. Come 3 p.m., the weary canvassers would return, and a second shift would assemble to take their place. Fields admired a framed picture of Obama with Riedlinger, who cut a $2,300 check to the campaign in March.

“I’ve been asked to get you thinking about a couple of things,” said Goland, who was dressed in faded blue jeans, walking shoes and a Carolina blue UNC-Chapel Hill sweatshirt. She said the Obama campaign needed to requisition a conference room to set up a phone bank four days before Election Day, and they would need a captain to greet volunteers. Returning to the immediate mission, Goland told the volunteers that the focus of the day’s canvass would be turning out the vote.

“We want to push: ‘Are you early voting? We’d really like you to early vote. Do you know the nearest early voting site?’” she said. “If they’re elderly or disabled, we want to get their names on a list. We can get them a ride to the polls.”

The state’s political terrain was decisively rearranged in Obama’s favor when the national financial crisis placed an exclamation point on the electorate’s distress about mounting home foreclosures, rising unemployment and unresolved health-insurance woes. Comments by McCain’s running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, in California on Sunday about Obama’s alleged links to former Weather Underground member Bill Ayers, whose group committed acts of sabotage and violence in the late 1960s in protest of the US military involvement in Vietnam, foretell an effort by the campaign to scare white, conservative voters in rural North Carolina away from supporting Obama. Guilford County Republican Party Chairman Bill Wright has also predicted that the McCain campain will play up Obama’s stated willingness to negotiate with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a way to alienate voters from the Democratic nominee.

Most recent polls give Obama a slight lead over McCain in North Carolina. For the Democratic nominee to carry the state — and secure its 15 electoral votes — he’ll need to win convincingly in Guilford and other urban counties with large African-American and student populations.

The numbers look good.

The Republican counteroffensive comes as the Democratic Party has registered almost a quarter-million new voters in North Carolina over the last nine months, an achievement that bests the GOP by a factor of four to one. Guilford County alone has added 15,334 new Democratic voters, while the Republican Party has picked up 21. Democratic rolls have expanded comparatively in Durham County, and in Mecklenburg and Wake counties the party has respectively registered 33,896 and 25,155 new voters.

The Obama campaign has not limited its efforts to affluent white neighborhoods whose liberal voters are fed up with the war in Iraq, or who are more inclined to vote from social conscience instead of their pocketbooks. The Democrats have committed resources towards registering new African-American voters and new voters on college campuses, and getting both groups to the polls.

New black voters have also been registering in record numbers. Registration among African Americans in Guilford County and neighboring Forsyth County has leapt 12.3 and 16.3 percent, respectively. Those numbers are roughly triple the increase in registration among whites, whose voting behavior tends to reflect more conservative viewpoints.

In late September, the campaign dispatched actor Jurnee Smollett, to college campuses in the Triad and Triangle to encourage voter registration. During stops at Winston-Salem State University, NC A&T University in Greensboro and NC Central University in Durham — all three historically black universities — she addressed an audience that combines the two key demographics. The 22-year-old Smollett — who plays a member of the Wiley College debate team in the 2007 movie The Great Debaters, dramatizing a small Southern black college’s triumph over a prestigious white university in the 1930s — displayed some of her rhetorical gifts at Winston-Salem State University on Sept. 27.

“There are eight-million unregistered African-Americans,” she told students in the cafeteria. “That’s a shame. I’m here to tell you they’re not expecting us to show up. In the last election, every state that Bush won, if the unregistered African-American voters had shown up, Bush would not have won.”

Then the actor tossed out another statistic — one echoed by former North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt in an e-mail distributed by the Obama campaign: “Thirty percent of manufacturing jobs in this state have been lost since Bush took office.”

Coordinator of Community Service Arthur Hardin said Smollett’s visit yielded 20-25 new registrations. Staff in the Office of Career Services have been encouraging students to register; they frequently visit the Forsyth County Board of Elections’ website to determine the students’ status. Hardin said about 225 have been registered since the beginning of the semester.

Senior Valencia Thomas, president of the Campus Activities Board, has worked both sides of the fence, helping out with the career services office’s nonpartisan registration drive and, since January, volunteering with the Obama campaign. She has canvassed for Obama in Virginia and Ohio, along with Winston-Salem. On Sept. 21, she was at Joel Coliseum registering new voters at a Ludacris concert.

Volunteer student organizers with the Obama campaign have also been registering new voters at A&T. Senior Gary Brown, a journalism student from Washington, DC, pledged to reactivate campus politics following abysmal turnout among students during the 2006 mid-term elections, in which only 67 students made it to the polls. He said roughly 2,000 students have registered this year.

Junior Syene Jasmine, another volunteer organizer, said he “fell in love with politics” when he traveled to South Carolina in January to campaign for Obama during the primaries.

“I never experienced so much diversity in my life,” he said. “White, Mexicans, black people working together for a common cause.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com.

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