Super Tuesday: Confessions of A Political Tourist
PHOTO: Terry Bergeron and her daughter Gillian on the campaign trail. (All photos courtesy of Terry Bergeron)
Today is Super Tuesday – and right now in 11 states (and American Samoa, if you’re a Democrat) a virtual Delta Force of volunteers are working to secure a victory for their candidate. And tomorrow morning those volunteers will wake up either elated from a hard-fought victory - or depressed (angry? hurt?) that their efforts didn’t have a better outcome. Winners and losers alike will vow to continue the battle as the race moves on to other primaries.
But move on it does (and for some it will end), leaving behind hundreds – perhaps thousands – of committed volunteers who suddenly find themselves with nothing to do. Many will return to their normal lives - back to a job, college, carpool, golf. Basically whatever they were doing before they got involved. Others will find ways to stay engaged from home (perhaps making calls into other primary states).
But there are always a few who will follow the campaign. Some will get paid jobs, others will take time off to go to another state and volunteer, and some, like me, will become “political tourists.”
Hitting the Campaign Trail
Yes, you read that right. I’m a political tourist. I’ve always been interested in politics, but really became enamored with the excitement and energy of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign (thanks in no small part to my daughter’s involvement with it). Certainly a major reason was the opportunity to share the experience with her, but at the same time I discovered that once the campaign moved on, I wanted to stay involved, so I started planning my vacations around opportunities to do that.
Let me give you some background. I live in South Carolina, an early primary state. Once every four years, the eyes of the world are on South Carolina as we are among the first to cast a vote for the next President. It’s an exciting time, if you like politics. All the candidates come through the state and you can meet them in diners, high school gymnasiums, and sometimes even your neighbor’s living room.
Being an early primary state, South Carolina is also one of the first states organized by the campaigns (often as early as a year out) so there is an opportunity to be involved for quite some time if you are so inclined.
In late 2006, my daughter Gillian, a recent college graduate at the time, informed me that her plan for the next two years of her life was to get Barack Obama elected president of the United States (although at the time Obama hadn’t announced he was running yet, but there had been rumors and an internet “Draft Obama” movement was active).
While I encouraged her, I told her she needed to get a job because I wasn't supporting two years of her volunteering for Obama. And she did, starting as the (paid) volunteer coordinator in Charleston.
And that’s when things got interesting for mom, too.
From Political Junkie to Political Tourist
It started out innocently enough. I’d go up for several days at a time and help with events, combining my visit with some shopping on King Street, a visit to a museum or a walking tour of the historic district. Occasionally I’d visit other parts of the state when something was happening, like Oprah stumping for the candidate in Columbia in December 2007.
I saw Obama speak several times in small venues and got to meet him backstage after one of the early debates – and I even co-chaired an event for Michelle in a small church on Hilton Head Island.
Obama won a resounding victory in the South Carolina Primary in January 2008 and the next morning my daughter caravanned with most of the Charleston staff to Alabama to help get out the vote (“GOTV,” as they call it) for Super Tuesday, then on to Texas and Pennsylvania for those primaries. After almost a year of being on the front lines of the campaign, it had all moved on without me. So I returned to my normal life, (albiet with one more dog – her Rottweiler – who I was keeping on a "temporary" basis as Gillian and her colleagues followed the campaign and primary calendar).
But during that time, I had another chance encounter with the campaign while on a vacation to San Diego that spring with a friend. We saw on the news that the Obama campaign office was opening the day we were in town (in anticipation of the California primary in June) and decided to tie in a walking tour of the Gaslight Quarter with a stop at the campaign office open house (who does that?). We were treated like VIPs when they found out we were from South Carolina, as Obama’s early primary victory in my home state was already the stuff of legend. To be honest with you, now, almost eight years later, that open house is what I remember most about that trip.
As primary season wound down and it became evident that Obama would indeed win the nomination, Gillian was sent to New Mexico. Not being comfortable with my daughter – still in her early 20s – driving across the country by herself, I decided to go along for the ride. We stopped in Atlanta for lunch and a visit to the High Museum, and on to Memphis that night, where we ate barbecue and listened to music on Beale Street. The next morning we visited both the Peabody ducks and the Civil Rights Museum, before continuing to Oklahoma City and eventually Santa Fe, spending some time on Route 66 along the way.
So, I was getting to visit places I’d never been – and feeling I was somehow helping the campaign by getting my daughter safely delivered out West. As she got down to business reconnecting with New Mexico volunteers (who had not seen an organizer since their own primary several months earlier), I took in the sights of Santa Fe and Albuquerque, flying home a few days later and back to work.
Once the nomination was secured in July, the campaign began to organize the “battleground” states. (Some refer to these as purple states – these are the dozen or so states that are neither red nor blue. Since these are the states that could go either way, obviously this is where the election is won or lost.) And if you’re into politics, this is where the action is.
Gillian ended up as deputy state field director for battleground Colorado, another state I had never visited. I went out for a long weekend and traveled around to field offices with her. I didn’t have much to do at first, but she did find it helpful for me to drive so she could handle conference calls, emails and texts on the road, while someone else had her eye on it.
Eventually, I used the rest of my vacation time to take three more trips, and the more I learned my way around, the more useful I became, delivering voter registration forms or campaign materials to satellite offices.
Traveling for The Cause
As a “political tourist” I paid my own way and did things on my own schedule, doing my best to coordinate my time in the field with time I could be useful. But I had a full time job, so I could only participate as much as vacations and weekends would allow. So while my main reason for being somewhere was political (and ostensibly to help in some way) I had the luxury of taking some guilt-free time to myself to explore the places I was visiting, because I was there on my own dime.
I visited Boulder, Colorado Springs, Golden and Pueblo for the campaign. Since I wasn't on the clock, I would stop at places like Pike’s Peak, Red Rocks, Coors Brewery, and the Denver Art Museum between errands. I returned for the Democratic National Convention and was able to volunteer the night Obama gave his acceptance speech at Mile High Stadium.
I did go back again for GOTV and volunteered to work in one of the campaign offices. At this point, the campaign was actively encouraging other "political tourists" to travel to battleground states (at our own expense) to help with GOTV. But if you committed to work, they would arrange free housing, putting you up with local Democrats who had offered to house a volunteer (referred to in campaign lingo as “supporter housing”). I stayed in a lovely condo for several days and went to work in a field office outside of Denver where I met dozens of people just like me, most of them from either (blue) California or (red) Texas. Among the staffers in our office was actress Scarlett Johansson’s twin brother Hunter, who had been an intern that summer and was now running GOTV in this particular office.
(I anticipate opportunities like this will be available in this election, but keep in mind, if the campaign is housing you, they expect you to work, leaving very little time for tourist activities, but you can always enjoy a few days of sightseeing after the election).
After the election, my daughter got a job with the presidential inauguration committee and eventually the DNC, both in Washington. So of course I went to DC and volunteered to work several of the inauguration events, where I got to staff VIPs for the National Day of Service, and met then-UN Ambassador Susan Rice, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and an array of cabinet officials. I visited DC frequently while she lived there and attended several events – and even visited the White House.
In the summer of 2011, her division of the DNC moved to Chicago to run the re-election campaign – and my itinerary moved with them. Over the course of several trips, I shopped on Michigan Avenue, visited the Art Institute and several museums, and went to a baseball game at Wrigley Field.
But, while HQ was a happening place to visit with hundreds of energetic young people hard at work doing who knows what (analytics?), to be honest, for a political junkie, it’s relatively boring compared to being “on the ground” for a primary or election. The interesting stuff is happening in the field – and usually in battleground states.
So it was time for mom to go rogue and find new venues to explore on my own.
PHOTO: Bergeron with Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. "My daughter knocked on doors to try to get this man recalled. I donated money to try to get him recalled. But a photo op is a photo op. And he was very gracious… Of course I didn't mention the recall thing."
Probably the pinnacle of my experience as a political tourist came in the summer of 2012, when I actually attended BOTH the Republican and Democratic Conventions. As a former press person, I contacted several media outlets offering to cover the conventions at my own expense if they would apply for press credentials for me. A regional radio group took me up on the offer, and while I was pretty low in the pecking order compared to the network television reporters, the credentials did give me access to the convention floor and I made a point of contacting both the South Carolina and Georgia delegations so I could cover their breakfasts and interview delegates.
I met and interviewed lots of national politicians including one of my heroes, Rep. John Lewis, as well as my former Governor (who would eventually become my Congressman) Mark Sanford. Between conventions, I toured Tampa and the surrounding area, spending several days relaxing at a resort. In Charlotte, I found my way into lots of great parties at the Democratic Convention (thanks in part to folks I had met on the 2008 campaign). I even ran into former Gov. Bill Richardson in a bar downtown one night and chatted with him for awhile.
And I returned to Colorado one more time in November 2012 for GOTV, feeling like an old pro in both my knowledge of Colorado geography and my understanding of its election rules.
Eventually my daughter "retired" from politics after the last election, moved to San Francisco and went to work at what might be considered a “real job.” Of course, I still visit her, but my volunteer work now consists of walking her dog or holding a place in line at some popular Mission restaurant while I'm waiting for her and her fiancé (whom she met on the campaign) to join me after work. And while I still do travel to see a candidate or attend a debate, it’s mostly within South Carolina these days.
'Something You Never Really Get Over'
In fact, I was actually relieved that I made it through my home state primary last week without feeling the need to be in the middle of all the action. (OK – I did attend an event with Bill Clinton on the eve of the election, but it was only a few miles from my home). I actually started thinking this political tourist thing might finally be out of my system.
But Sunday morning, as the campaigns moved on to Super Tuesday and friends of mine were taking to Facebook to either celebrate their candidate’s victory or make excuses for their defeat, I found myself checking room rates in Philadelphia for the dates of the Democratic National Convention this summer. (I’ve never been to Philly, except to change planes. And if I go to the Republican Convention in Cleveland, I could visit the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame while I’m there).
Then I texted my daughter asking her which battleground she thought we should travel to for GOTV in November.
So maybe it's something you never really get over.
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