Thoughts from a New type of Campaign Trail

I have never run into another campaigner on the East Side of Detroit. No candidates, no volunteers, no cards with faces tucked into door hinges and littered intermittently. I see mail sent by our opponents, yard signs planted off highway exits, but no evidence of real human contact. Strategically, it is faster to knock doors by visiting the densest areas; neighborhoods like the East Side, plagued by foreclosure and the targeted destruction of community, are inevitably less dense.

Last Saturday, I walked up to a porch where a handful of people were hanging out, and promised I’d be quick. I handed one person Michele’s card, and when I finished talking, he smiled and pointed across the street.

“This lady helped me save my house. I didn’t even know she was running.” He turned around to his friend, smoking a cigarette and sitting several steps up on the porch, “You recognize her? From the Housing Coalition?” His friend leaned down to take a look, smiled, and said, “Oh yeah. She’s real cool, real down to earth lady.” Some version of this conversation occurred almost every day that I canvassed in Detroit, and it’s hard to say what this campaign was really about after interactions like that. If this was only about putting someone in a decision-making role in our state government, we didn’t do that. But if this was about building and embodying and protecting community, about taking our activism seriously and convincing others to do the same because their voices and perspectives matter, we succeeded, and I am so incredibly proud of that fact.

When I met Michele Oberholtzer, one of the first things she said to me was, “I know how campaigns are run. I want to do things differently.” She knew that when she was at work counseling somebody’s mother or father or grandmother facing tax foreclosure, she “should” have been making fundraising calls. She knew that time spent going to protests against the water shutoffs in Detroit would not win her votes, but would certainly show solidarity. It is so rare, yet so fundamentally good that a candidate rejects the painful irony in this structure; why stop the work that makes you worth voting for in the first place? What better way to earn someone’s vote than by actually caring about their quality of life?

Michele had never run for office and I had never managed a campaign before. Our office was her living room and our funding came only from individuals. Volunteers and friends made our commercials and our literature, they managed our social media outreach, they knocked on doors and made thousands of phone calls, and they helped us strategize and laugh and remember why our work is important.

We were grassroots and we were creative. We planned a birthday party at a park, where Michele played pickup soccer with the neighborhood kids for almost two hours. We invited families involved in a forty year long housing discrimination lawsuit to Michele’s home, simply to discuss their options for justice.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s win in New York showed us what it looks like to politicize people and communities who are historically, systemically, and intentionally ignored. Our campaign was not only about talking to people who are most likely to vote, but reaching out to people who have been given every reason not to vote, and listening to their apathy or pain or disillusionment with an open mind and an empathetic heart. This is long-term change, far-reaching beyond the bounds of a two-year term as State Representative. Elections are a numbers game, and the numbers don’t convey what it means to be inspired, what it means to be listened to, what it means to be heard.

I’m not worried about what this election means, because every day it becomes clearer that we are chipping away just a little bit more at a machine that has controlled our politics for too long. We didn’t get the most votes, but we put care into our interactions with every voter. Michele was endorsed by the Free Press and named one of “15 People Making Moves in Michigan” by the Metro Times, and the work that got her there will, over time, translate into votes for people who share her values. One day, sooner than it was yesterday, we will create a politics that centers community, people, and empathy, and works with us rather than for or against us.