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September 15, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Talking it to the streets Talking it to the streets (September 15, 2004)

Local Democrats and Republicans turn the heat up as Kerry and Bush fight for the presidency

by Alex Doniach

As George W. Bush took the podium at the Republican National Convention a few weeks back, an eager crowd of about 60 local Republicans exploded with enthusiasm. Partygoers bobbed red, white and blue Bush/Cheney banners enthusiastically and waved American flags. "Four more years, four more years," they chanted, eyes fixated on the large flat screen TV at the front of David's restaurant in Santa Clara.

The next day, local Democrats pushed open the doors of their makeshift headquarters in Palo Alto with a purpose. Bush's approval ratings had jumped overnight and the volunteers knew they would have to accelerate their efforts. More than 40 showed up to set up registration booths at movie theatres, festivals and super markets. Others worked the phones, calling hundreds of swing-state voters.

"The energy was palpable," said Jim Evans, spokesperson for Assembly candidate Ira Ruskin and a volunteer at the Palo Alto Democratic Headquarters. "There's really been an extra push."

"Push" may be an understatement. As the nation gears up for what is anticipated to be a closely contested presidential election, the local grass-roots sector -- from club president to campaign volunteer to local picketer -- has, in some cases, quit their day jobs to throw themselves into campaigning. From registering voters at booths to walking door-to-door in sweltering Indian Summer heat, local political activity has reached a fever pitch.

In an area where Democrats out register Republicans by about 45 percent to 28 percent, both camps are working feverishly to consolidate their strengths and reach new converts. And what better way to achieve such goals than by hitting the streets?.

Local Republicans face a daunting challenge: Uniting voters in an area that consistently supports the opposition. Palo Alto resident Keen Butcher, chair of the local Bush/Cheney effort, asserts that Republicans do in fact exist in Palo Alto.

"The left in Palo Alto is very vocal," Butcher said. "You wouldn't know there are about 8000 republicans here."

This year, the party is hoping to create a new face for itself, build grass-roots support and encourage local Republicans to speak out.

"There are an enormous number of Republicans who are very quiet," Butcher said. "I call this year's effort a 'green field' because it's brand new. There hasn't been a Republican structure in place locally and in the past the grass-roots effort hasn't been strong.

"This year it's phenomenal and mostly off the radar," he added. The party currently boasts 350 volunteers countywide that work together in coordinated efforts to carry the Republican message to Silicon Valley residents by phone banking, precinct walking and voter registration.

According to Butcher, the effort is paying off. About 5,000 more locals have registered Republican this year than in previous elections. That's about a 2 percent increase from 2000.

Butcher, who works full-time as banker, also attributed the party's newfound fortune to the heated rhetoric surrounding the presidential race -- a trend exemplified by such controversial films as "Fahrenheit 9/11" and "Outfoxed."

"The argument from the left became one of hate and it's driving people to help the Republican cause," he said. "The message on the left is intolerance and destruction. This message is building up the Republican base."

Building this base requires intensive precinct walking and interpersonal connections.

"Face-to-face, person-to-person contact is the key," said Dennis Pyper, the president of California Young Republicans, a local club for anyone between the ages of 18-40 that meets monthly in Palo Alto.

Pyper has spent much of his time at local supermarkets, arts and wine festivals and farmer's markets spreading the word about Republican issues and candidates. House parties are another useful tool.

"By actually meeting with people and putting a personal face on something easily non-personalized, you can help break down some of the stereotypes associated with Republicans in this area."

Marie Dominguez-Gasson, a senior at Santa Clara University and Republican candidate for the 22nd Assembly seat agrees: "Republicans are categorized by the classic negative image of an old rich white man," she said. "Look at me, I'm a young woman, and part Hispanic. I don't fit that stereotype and I'm a Republican."

Carol Morison, chair for the Bush/Cheney campaign in Santa Clara County, also places a heavy emphasis on voter registration, especially among minority communities.

After 20 years working in high tech sales and marketing, she takes a business-like approach to local campaigning.

"Our efforts are oriented along communities of interest," Morison said. "We are focusing one-to-one marketing around shared values within a community."

In an effort to stimulate votes from minority communities, her volunteers divide into teams that cater toward a specific demographic, walk door-to-door in non-English speaking neighborhoods and converse with residents in their native tongues.

"We think first-generation immigrants who are just becoming citizens view this as a land of opportunity and have less of an entitlement mentality," Morison said. "We think they are good candidates for the Republican Party because of our self-reliance message."

One of Morrison's target groups this year is the Indian-American community whose population has doubled since 1990. Morrison discovered that many Indian-Americans have just arrived in Silicon Valley and are not yet registered.

Morrison's campaign to register and speak with local Indian-American community members includes setting up registration tables at Indian-American festivals and events.

Local Republicans feel these efforts will yield benefits that will extend far beyond the 2004 election.

"If you run for office and have an 'R' by your name, it's something you have to overcome in this area," Pyper said. "Often I will talk to people who are registered as Democrats and all of their values and beliefs will fall in line with the Republican platform."

For their part, local Democrats aren't taking anything for granted.

"This is the Super Bowl of politics," said Gail Slocum, the former mayor of Menlo Park and a volunteer for the Kerry Campaign. "The energy and the turn-out have just been phenomenal for this election. This is the most energy we've seen since 1972. Every volunteer is focused, everyone knows what the results of this election could mean."

Slocum's efforts epitomize such energy. The former Republican has launched her grassroots effort full-speed, raising $145,000 for Kerry single-handedly from donors in Menlo Park, Atherton and Palo Alto.

Convincing voters of Kerry's platform isn't the challenge, she said. Many local residents are strongly opposed to Bush's policies and actions. Harnessing such sentiments for this election and funneling them into an effective campaign, however, is a different matter.

House parties, the Internet and the political zeal are tools Slocum counts on as she enters the last leg of this political race.

"Everyone is united in this," she said. "All this money was raised from contributions made of $200 or less in a house party setting. That just shows you how many people are passionate about this.

"I have never seen this kind of involvement this early in the race," Slocum added. "Bush said he was going to unite the country and he really did unite a group of people who want to find him a new job."

The Santa Clara County Democratic Headquarters, located on 3898 El Camino Real in Palo Alto, even opened up shop a month early due to the high volume of volunteers calling in to help.

Hope Cahan, campaign coordinator for the Santa Clara County Democratic campaign, said the enthusiasm is inspiring. Since the headquarters opened its doors, 2,000 volunteers have enlisted their efforts and more are coming in daily, she said.

Their main goal is to register voters and, like local Republicans, set up booths at local supermarkets, farmer's markets and festivals.

The Internet is the real MVP award for this campaign, Slocum said. In a party she feels has traditionally lacked unity, the Internet has proven to be an essential organizing tool.

Such Web sites as Meetup.com and Evite are great ways to communicate with and organize others, according to Teka Thomas, the Kerry campaign coordinator for San Mateo County. With the help of meetup.com, Thomas was able to organize everything from fund raisers to house parties and to even Starbucks runs so local volunteers could discuss strategy and politics.

"Local campaigns are all over this," Thomas said. "This is how most of us, from San Jose to San Francisco have stayed connected."

The Internet is also used to publicize events that exceed Starbucks' capacity. Information on Fund-raisers and other major events are available on John Kerry's official website. Just type in your Zip code and up pops a listing of what's happening in a particular area.

Palo Alto natives Josh Noss and Alex Kaplinsky designed the Kerry Web site, which has exceeded expectations as an effective fund-raising tool by collecting $82 million since the primaries.

"Eighty-two million dollars raised online shatters every record," said Noss, who oversees all Internet-related activity for the Kerry campaign. "I think in this campaign there was tremendous enthusiasm and the Internet was the perfect medium to channel that. It allowed people to get involved that wanted to and enabled them to be proactive."

The site is also used to mobilize volunteer support and resources to swing states.

"Most of my time and energy has to gone to battleground states and supporting local political operations there," Noss said. "The Internet can be an effective tool for supporting those operations by turning out volunteers, letting them know that there are volunteer opportunities, connecting local organizers and giving specific directions."

The Kerry site sends out thousands of emails per day reminding voters around the country to vote, especially in the swing states.

Such activity has also been a central focus for Bay Area volunteers who feel their efforts would be more valuable directed toward those who are not predisposed to vote Democratic.

Thomas and Slocum both plan on devoting their energies to undecided swing-state voters for the remainder of the campaign This means phone-banking parties, letter writing parties, trips to Reno and fund raising for the national committee so the money can be sent to needy volunteer coalitions around the country.

Slocum calls trips to these states sobering -- especially when you realize how many places there are in the country don't look anything like Palo Alto.

On a recent trip to Arizona, Slocum volunteered to walk precincts and knock on the doors of registered Democrats. However, the effort proved much more difficult than she thought.

"It was like finding a needle in the haystack," Slocum said. "Democrats there felt much more beleaguered. They are surrounded by a different philosophy and they just can't understand how the country isn't incensed."

While Palo Alto may be an island of liberal energy unto itself, Slocum remains optimistic as far as the election is concerned. "If you look at the Kerry camp, they have hired the best people from different campaigns. It's kind of like the Olympic Dream Team of politics. We're in good hands."


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