After meeting Rachel Barnhart twice on her campaign trail for the New York State Assembly 138th District seat — an extended conversation in Washington Square Park the led to Rachel’s Rebel Roots and a cameo appearance in A year after Reverend Mothers, Empaths of Enlightenment and American buskers at the Park Avenue Festival — I was intrigued by her invitation to join her for an afternoon of canvassing.
Beforehand, I asked local political maven Alex White (who’ve you met before) about the finer points of door-to-door canvassing. In 2013, “Professor” White had actually given a seminar on the subject, “Campaign School,” at the Flying Squirrel Community Space.
Look to see how long Rachel waits if no one seems to be home. Does she bring lawn signs? How does she use post-its? Is Rachel’s door speech engaging? And — fundamentally — the challenge of the graceful exit. For maximum volume, the conversation should not extend beyond 5 minutes. 1-2 usually can suffice.
For evidence, Alex pointed to Rochester’s most legendary door-to-doorer: Monroe County Legislator Tony Micciche. According to Alex, in his first campaign the CanMan knocked on 16,000 doors. Reproaching himself for slacking, in his second campaign Micciche only reached 14,000.
“CanMan” Micciche reminded me of a campaign I had worked for briefly in Rhode Island when David Cicilline ran for Mayor of Providence in 2002. An openly gay man, Cicilline — like so many Rhode Island politicians for hundreds of years — graduated from Brown University (as did I) and lived on the fashionable East Side.
But during his campaign, Cicilline focused on the poorest Portugese and African-American neighborhoods. All winter Cicilline knocked on doors where people were unaccustomed to seeing an Ivy League graduate from the East Side of Providence. Ciciline won the primary and the general election, and is now the U.S. Representative for Rhode Island’s 1st congressional district.Last Saturday, Rachel and I met at a canvass table on Colby Street next to the antique store. Rachel and I headed off to the Harvard Street area.
Our first stop was successful. We met Joanne Larson from the Warner School (who we both knew) and Marcus Smith, 17. But I made my first campaign school faux passé by asking Joanne for a photo op. Joanne declined, saying she looked too Saturday morning, just-out-of-bed. Rachel suggested not asking people — especially women — for Saturday morning pics.
Marcus didn’t mind having his picture taken, all 7’1” of him. A recent East High grad, Marcus was pumped for this year’s elections. In November he would be 18, making this his first presidential vote. In the primaries, Marcus had voted for Sanders.
Proving all elections are local, Marcus took interest in the city’s plans to put up more speed bumps, pointing to a nearby stop sign he said was often ignored. Marcus didn’t state his position, but he seemed pro-speed bump.
Later we met a retired city school principal. When learning Rachel was a city school grad (Marshall) and her parents were retired city school teachers, the man said he would give her candidacy a close look. But then we noticed he had a Bronson sign in his yard. The man said he was open to switching signs. But Rachel had just run out of yard signs! Oops, that’s a demerit in Professor White’s Campaign School.
Next door we met two men with a Rachel yard sign. Openly gay (as is Harry Bronson), the men discussed some of the resistance to Rachel’s campaign in the gay community. The two liked Bronson, but believed Rachel was also fully committed to gay rights. Basically, they said they liked Rachel’s energy and determination.
When meeting gay voters, Rachel says she admires the work Bronson has done for the gay community and understands why they might want Bronson to represent their voice. At the same time, Rachel points out that the gay equality movement is also part of social justice movements that have made it easier for women to run for office. To Rachel, the two social justice movements are inseparable, adding that most gay voters have given her a fair hearing. Of course, voters have every right to vote for Bronson because he is gay, just as — to my mind unfortunately — some voters will vote against Bronson just because he is gay.
Along those lines, Rachel discussed a blog, RachelforPromQueen, that recently appeared (see WHEC’s coverage). The blog has a photo shopped image of Rachel wearing a prom queen crown and makes disparaging sexist comments. Bronson rightfully and forcefully condemned the blog.
At first I chuckled at the image, but as Rachel talked about it, I realized anew the culturally embedded sexist tropes any female candidate faces, especially an attractive single woman. The blog itself is riddled with negative stereotypes: women as shallow, attention-seeking and vain, in which Rachel is merely a TV personality engaged in a self-indulgent, ego-driven popularity contest.
More insulting is the blog’s fascination with Rachel’s personal life as it seeks “juicy,” “titillating” and “salacious” stories about her. For me, the blog revealed the deep reservoir of sexist terms and assumptions that can bubble to the surface during a political campaign. Something I don’t experience, the blog defines Rachel by her appearance and sexuality.
The blog is indicative of Rachel’s 17-year career doing serious journalism, tackling pressing issues including poverty, inequality and segregation. Given my own journalist bias, these are credentials any voter should carefully consider when deciding.
On my way back, I ran into two other canvassers, campaign manager Lori Knowles and friend Karen Raihill. It was a hot day and not a lot of people were home, but Lori and Karen had soldiered on, leaving many flyers in mailboxes.
I realized that canvassers sans candidate have it tough. People were shorter with them, wanting to see Rachel herself. And — perhaps people felt less inhibited without Rachel being there — Lori and Karen received one or two dismissive comments about Rachel as an airhead tv lady.
A few hours later, Rachel and I were scheduled to canvas in the Beechwood neighborhood where she lives. Rachel says the demographics of the 138th — parts of Henrietta, Chili, the Park Avenue/South Wedge area and Beechwood and Bay/Goodman — pretty much mirror that of Monroe County.
Biking from Park Avenue down Bay, as usual, I crossed from the one Rochester to the other.
The people in the Webster Recreation Center were friendly. The boys at the basketball game made fun of my sneakers and said I must be a Westsider because I had a helmet, but thought I was cool enough for a group photo op.
Nonetheless, the boys’ basketball game felt far away from the one at Sumerton Park. For me, the imperative of any representative of the 138th District is staying focused on Beechwood not Park Avenue — actually the imperative is bringing the two together.
Our canvassing in Beechwood was truncated by a rainstorm. We did meet one voter, an elderly gentleman whose Rachel’s records showed had a 100% voter turnout history. Rachel offered to give a reminder call, but it didn’t seem necessary.
Instead, along with Pixie, we spent about an hour talking in Rachel’s nicely decorated home in this solidly middle class — though hardly opulent — part of Beechwood.
Rachel’s “campaign headquarters” was filled with printouts, thank-you notes, and flyers. One printout was color coded with likely voter preferences that Rachel prudently didn’t let me photograph.
We discussed Rachel’s two key messages: she is a fighter and her candidacy is all about building personal relationships. With 60,000 twitter and facebook followers, Rachel has built a strong online presence. Now — as with any modern politician — her task is to merge the digital with the indispensable face-to-face connection.
During the conversation, I thought about how I had called Rachel’s Rebel Roots a portrait of her at 17. Now X number of years later, I sensed the same social activist passion and idealism that had landed her in trouble at Marshall High School for publishing an underground newspaper. And perhaps still just a little trace of that headstrongness characterized by the principal as “mouthy.”
In Washington Square Park, Rachel talked about giving up her job to run for office; she had always wanted go into public service. Rachel had decided she was going to lay it all on the line.
And last Saturday I saw her doing just that, door-to-door. I also saw that running for office is a grueling process, both exhilarating and draining. After I left, Rachel had dozens of thank-you notes to write and when the thunder ended might canvass a few more doors.
Win or lose, Rachel should be admired. During the campaign, the wealth of knowledge she has brought into public debate only makes democracy stronger.
Not living in the 138th, I don’t have to choose between Rachel and Harry. I’ve heard good things about Bronson from people I respect. Even Alex — who as a Green Party member is chary of praising Democrats — thinks Bronson has been strong on some issues he cares about.
I will be supporting either one in the general election. And, no, Rachel is not running for prom queen.