Ground Zero at the Lieberman Campaign

by Pamela E. Winthrop '95

 
  Pamela E. Winthrop '95 (center) volunteered for for the Al Gore/ Joseph Lieberman campaign in the Washington, D.C., office of Senator Lieberman's wife, Hadassah (left). Joseph Lieberman appears at right.
 

The clock on the wall reads 10:30 pm. Some friends have invited me to their house to watch ER. Instead, I am sitting happily behind a computer screen in a poorly lit office on Capitol Hill. This was the scenario on many weeknights and most Saturdays last fall. I wasn't working overtime for an Internet start-up firm or studying for the LSATs. After volunteering for events at Vice President Gore's residence for two years and getting acquainted with his staff, I was now volunteering for the Gore/Lieberman campaign in the Washington, D.C., office of Senator Joseph Lieberman's wife, Hadassah.

Each Thursday, Mrs. Lieberman's D.C. press secretary, Joy, participated in a “trip call” with the campaign's Nashville headquarters to determine Mrs. Lieberman's travel schedule for the following week, the groups she would address, and the message she would convey. My job, as a policy adviser to Mrs. Lieberman, was to compile research materials for her campaign stops. Whether she was meeting female union members in Pittsburgh or participating in a roundtable discussion with working parents on children's health insurance in Detroit, I researched and prepared multipage documents that presented the current problem, accomplishments of the Clinton/Gore administration, and goals for the Gore/Lieberman administration. Because her office was small (three staffers), I was able to do high-level, meaningful policy work.

When I was invited to travel to the Nashville headquarters to work during the final week of the campaign, I jumped at the opportunity. Politics, while not my profession, is my passion. Thanks to my supportive employer, I took a leave of absence and headed south. Within twenty-four hours of arriving at the Nashville headquarters, which were housed in a warehouse, the field organizer deployed teams out to swing states to campaign. Joy and I were handed the keys to a rental car and we headed eight hours west to St. Louis. I soon learned that Missouri was the top assignment—the center of American politics in the year 2000, where anything could happen. According to pollsters, deceased Governor Mel Carnahan was beating incumbent United States Senator John Ashcroft for the Senate seat. At midnight, we arrived at the strip-mall headquarters of the Missouri Democratic campaign. We spent our first night stuffing information packets for union members to pick up at six the following morning and distribute door to door.

The next few days were filled with visits to residential neighborhoods, where we walked for blocks handing out literature encouraging Democrats to vote. While I enjoyed talking to voters and loved being “on the campaign trail,” the work was monotonous and we soon tired of the fast-food life. After not eating vegetables for days, we found a chicken franchise, and I ordered a plate full of squash and corn. It was heavenly. On Election Day, we continued our get-out-the-vote effort. We visited arun-down neighborhood where I met an elderly man who sat in his freezing-cold living room watching a black-and-white television. He couldn't afford heat so he wore three sweaters. His face lit up when he saw me come to his door. He invited me in and told me how much he liked Vice President Gore but said he wasn't going to vote. When I asked why, he showed me a notice from the Board of Elections informing him that he had to appear in person to vote this year or he would not be allowed to vote in the future. I tried to convince him that he would be allowed to vote and offered to drive him to the polls. He politely refused, telling me that his vote didn't matter anymore.

Later, I helped out at a phone bank by calling residents to encourage them to vote. Many of the people I spoke with were frustrated by the long lines at the polls, and others told me they tried to vote but were turned away. As the sun set on St. Louis, the Missouri press secretary and I rushed to the courthouse to join the request for an injunction to keep the polls open two additional hours so that people who had had to leave the long lines to return to work would still have a chance to vote. We were delighted when the judge ruled that the St. Louis Board of Elections was not prepared for the huge onslaught of voters and ordered the polls to remain open until 8 pm. The secondary issue in the case involved repeated reports that African Americans were being sent away from the polls and not allowed to vote.

As we were leaving the courthouse, news cameras had gathered on the steps to report the outcome of the hearing. Fox News asked to interview me and the St. Louis director of the NAACP about the apparent injustices against black voters. I told the story about my elderly friend and his notice from the Board of Elections and also recounted the conversations I'd had with people over the phone.

Hours later, as Joy and I drove back to Nashville, we listened to National Public Radio report that Vice President Gore had won Florida, then that Florida had been taken away from him. At 2 am, we walked into a nearly deserted headquarters and joined a small group of staffers in the “boiler room,” where key staffers gather on Election Day to track exit polls and evaluate results. Despite the five televisions all programmed to different stations, a deathly silence hung over the room. My last activity of the campaign was watching Gore Campaign Chairman Bill Daley declare on television that a recount in Florida had to take place before a winner could be determined. At 5 am, my head hit the pillow in my hotel for a few hours of sleep before my flight back to Washington and my regular life.

This piece represents the first in a new series of “First Person Mount Holyoke” columns, personal accounts written by members of the Mount Holyoke community that will appear occasionally in CSJ.


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