It's early far too early, at 8:45 a.m. on a Saturday morning, and I've filed into the Chinese pagoda at Lake Eola Park, which is now filled with more than 100 Democratic activists, gathered to kick off the local "John Kerry for President" campaign. When this confab breaks in about an hour, these folks, nearly all of whom are sporting Kerry T-shirts, will spread out around Orange and Seminole counties, knocking on doors and marking what is just the start of the party's grassroots effort to defeat George W. Bush.
Pretty soon Doug Head, chair of the Orange County Democratic Party, and Orlando city commissioner Patty Sheehan, a Kerry precinct captain, are swarmed by the red-shirted Kerry workers. From what I overhear, they're trying to figure out who will be canvassing where. There's a sense of confusion that doesn't bode well. This isn't a party known for its organizational skills in the first place. To make matters worse, for the last few weeks, I've been hearing off-the-record mumblings about how the Kerry team hasn't been cooperating with the local party.
As I ponder this, I'm interrupted by a very chatty woman who sits next to me and begins rambling about the weather yes, it's so muggy that my T-shirt is already soaked with sweat her cabin in Georgia, the protests of the 1960s, how kids don't care about politics like "those of us in our 50s and 60s." (Hello, lady, I'm 25.) I nod and smile, and excuse myself to talk up Patty Sheehan, who is now hiding out in the shade.
"Did you see Fahrenheit 9/11 yet?" she asks. She went to the opening night at the Enzian. Sheehan is wearing a red, white and blue button-up shirt and khaki shorts. Unlike the rest, she won't be canvassing this morning. She has to get ready for the Gay Pride parade this afternoon. She's here to give the pep talk.
And she does, into a microphone hooked into a barely audible P.A. "We are going to get John Kerry elected president of the United States!" she yells to wild applause. "We're going to kick" pause "we're going to send Crawford, Texas, back its village idiot." Applause. "It's easy to say 'no new taxes' and waste money. That's not leadership. It's stupidity. I don't want any more stupidity in the White House."
Now for the semi-endorsement: "And they won't elect a woman, so for now it's John Kerry!" Applause, with laughter.
Tony Simon, the Kerry worker who's heading the event, steps up. (I tried to talk to him later, but was told, "I don't speak on the record. I'm not a press guy. I'm not allowed.")
Someone shouts from the audience, and asks him where the local Kerry office is. "We do not have an office yet," the fresh-faced Simon replies. "The office will be in the street."
Simon divides the gatherers into groups of 15, each of which would target a different part of central Florida. I follow Head's group which will target west Orange County into their meeting. At first, confusion reigns. Five of the team's members say they want to go to Casselberry, and switch groups. "We're going to west Orange, this group," Head says, as he passes out folders showing exactly which streets they'll target. "First of all, does everyone understand where we're going on the map?"
A man asks Head how they're getting there.
"You're driving out there," is the answer.
Then we get to the heart of things, and start talking about what exactly the canvassers will be looking for. It's mainly informational right now, as in checking on current addresses, voter registration information, and asking if people know who they're voting for. All this is tabulated on a scale from one to seven: A "one" supports Kerry; a "seven" doesn't; a "six" (as in 666, I presume) supports Ralph Nader. The in-betweens are undecided.
They head out I don't tag along; I got my fill of the canvassing life with America Coming Together a few weeks back. For the next four hours, the group circulates in Ocoee, and from what I'm later told by one canvasser, "I would say we have a problem with white men. The Democratic Party and the Kerry campaign have the same problem we had in the midst of the Vietnam War, where the blue-collar guys are not with us."
Then again, this is Ocoee not exactly a bastion of progressive politics. And regardless, the very fact that Democrats and other liberal organizations, including ACT and ACORN, are hitting the streets so hard, so early, means that they are serious about defeating Bush.
Now all they have to do is get their act together.