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Beto O’Rourke, a candidate for the U.S. Senate, speaks on the campaign trail in Dallas in October.

Voices / Dispatch

A political volunteer’s odyssey

A Vermonter goes to Texas to volunteer for the campaign of Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke

Vincent Panella is an author, most recently of Lost Hearts, a collection of stories. Links to his work and books can be found at his website, vincentpanella.com.

Marlboro

What made me go to Texas?

Last spring, the news filtered in that a U.S. representative from El Paso named Robert Francis O’Rourke, nicknamed Beto (Bet-toe), was challenging Ted Cruz for a Senate seat held by Republicans since the early 1990s.

Cruz was considered a lock at the time, and Texas opinion writers gave Beto no chance. Texas was flat-out red.

Then came a turning point.

At an August Town Hall meeting, Beto took a question from someone offended that NFL players could kneel during the anthem: Wasn’t this an insult to the brave men and women in the military?

Beto paused, said the short answer was no, then gave a longer one, relating the protest to those who sacrificed life and limb during the civil rights movement, to the killing of blacks by police, to the blood spilled by black and white alike in “places like Omaha Beach.”

He ended with the phrase, “I can think of nothing more American.”

The applause began before he finished the sentence. The crowd was with him, many stunned by his combination of logic and passion.

The NFL answer lit up the internet and spread to cable news. Beto was soon on the national stage, with Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher, Ellen DeGeneres, and others.

Some were calling him the next Robert F. Kennedy, and he had the look: a slightly goofy smile, a little funky, a little elegant. Cruz would seize on Beto’s words to repeat his theme that Beto was out of step with Texas values.

Anti-Trumpers and a growing Texas demographic, including women, younger voters, and people of color, were taken by this one-time punk rocker who relaxed by skateboarding in Whataburger parking lots — duly recorded in social media, in which Beto dominates. He’s posted almost every minute of his campaign odyssey for all to share.

As for Texas values, Beto pointed out in the first debate with Cruz that he’d visited every one of the state’s 254 counties. Behind the wheel of a pickup truck or a Dodge van, he’s been to the reddest.

In contrast, he said that Cruz, soon after his election, visited not only New Hampshire and South Carolina, but all 99 counties in Iowa. Cruz missed one half of his Senate votes in 2016 during his presidential run.

“You tell me, who can miss half the day’s work and then be rehired for the same job going forward?” Beto says. “That’s not what Texans want.”

For Cruz there’s also the well-known unlikability factor. Along with other expletives, former House Speaker John Boehner called him “Lucifer in the flesh.” A colleague famously said that if somebody shot him on the Senate floor, nobody would do anything about it.

* * *

I click on a YouTube video of Beto with his wife and three kids. He says he wants to represent all of Texas, that he’s running for something, not against something.

He says he named his youngest son “Ulysses” because he didn’t have the nerve to call him “Odysseus,” the hero of the poem that changed his life — as it did mine.

Beto laments that Texas schools are teaching an abridged version of The Odyssey because they need the extra time to teach to the test. He adds that if Betsy DeVos, Trump’s secretary of education, diverts one penny of public money to private schools, he hopes that from Texans “there would be hell to pay.”

He takes no money from political action committees. He’s online asking for $3 and up.

He’s out-raised Cruz and the right-wing mega-donors. By the end of the campaign, he may have twice as much in reserve as his opponent. He’s even been criticized by some Democrats for not sharing it. The response is that his campaign needs every penny.

* * *

On the news, I watch Beto at one of his 300-plus town hall meetings, holding the mic with his sleeves rolled up and sweating through his shirt. He gestures with his free hand, reaching out to pull in the audience.

He talks health care, education, immigration — the liberal playbook, but with this difference: how Texans can lead the way on these issues: Texans with their low voter turnout record, Texans needing health care and affordable prescriptions, Texans whose opioid-treatment center is often the county jail.

He’s captivating, smooth, and rough at the same time, a toothy grin out of Mark Twain — all Texan, all American.

Willie Nelson hosts a rally and concert; Beto joins him on the stage. Willie writes a song for the occasion called “Vote ’em Out.”

Cruz is worried. He says the left will crawl over broken glass to vote. He calls for help. He calls on Trump: his old nemesis, the man he called a coward and a pathological liar.

Through September, Cruz is still ahead, in some polls by high single digits, but polls are slippery as live fish. Texas opinion writers say the race will be won by the undecided, who in the end will come out for Cruz. This is Republican muscle memory.

Unless Beto can get out the vote.

This is where I might come in.

* * *

There’s a place on Beto’s website for volunteers to sign up. It lists jobs from data entry to phone banking, from canvassing to something called a “social media rapid response team.” The last category is “other.” I click on that.

A few emails later, I’m on the phone with a Beto rep. I tell him a little about myself: writer, teacher, open to anything, and above all, how I can do this on my own dime.

“Why do you want to volunteer?”

“Because I’ve had enough.”

“Where in Texas would you like to go?”

“I don’t know — I’ve never been to Texas.”

Beto has 54 campaign headquarters throughout the state, in places like Odessa, Lubbock, Dallas, Fort Worth, Corpus Christi, El Paso. I retrieve the road Atlas from the back seat of of my Saab. Texas takes up 12 pages.

Dallas is a one-stop flight.

Dallas will work. I tell Beto’s campaign. I’m thinking of 10 days in Dallas. Can I work in early October?

Fantastic.

It’s hot in Dallas. I buy some short-sleeved shirts, pack a deodorant stick and a baggie full of almonds. Friends encourage; my wife gives her blessing.

* * *

At Logan Airport, I watch the JetBlues line up and taxi, top lights blinking in the sunless afternoon. It’s all New England, cloudy, chilly, ready to rain. A mental goodbye to home. Dallas will be in the 90s.

I don’t know what’s in store. All I know is the address of the headquarters and my plan to walk in and introduce myself.

My phone rings. It’s another Beto volunteer. How am I? Where am I? Is everything okay? I’m relieved that people are taking the time to reassure me that all is well.

I begin to rest easy. He says to show up tomorrow at the headquarters.

* * *

Dallas is all sprawl. Fast food joints abound, Chick-fil-A, Whataburger, Taco Bueno, a Spanish chain supermarket called La Michoacana.

My Lyft driver is an Iranian named Mashid. We have a softball conversation about immigrants coming here for a better life, my grandparents, his grandparents, all the same, all good. We speed through a maze of highways and beltways and swirling roads above our heads, all concrete and red steel.

There’s no feeling of a center. We’re not in Kansas anymore, but I don’t say this to Mashid. We talk football, Vermont, snow and seasons. Does it snow in Dallas? Hardly, and when it does, watch out.

I tell Mashid that I’ve read about a race for Senate between someone called Beto O’Rourke and Ted Cruz.

“Who do you think will win?”

“Cruz.”

“He’s a lock?”

“The Republican governor is well liked, the economy is good, the Republicans never lose.”

* * *

In the morning, my phone dings with a text: Come to the headquarters at ten.

I pack phone and laptop and mentally review my training. I grab a Lyft to the headquarters, where a Texas-sized Beto sign dominates the frontage of a partly occupied mall.

I enter an outer room with receptionists selling Beto shirts and lawn signs. I pass into the main room, full of chairs and trestle tables, couches and sofas occupied by volunteers glued to their screens, some in positions of attention, some in semi-repose, some napping. Their computers are decorated with Beto stickers.

I count 30-odd men and women in equal number. Dress is casual, unimportant. Many wear Beto T-shirts ($25 and not free to anyone). Volunteers are glued to their devices, lounging on couches with computers on their knees or phones in hand. A few dogs sleep under the tables.

I introduce myself to a volunteer, who is impressed and thankful that I’ve come all the way from Vermont. Why are you doing this? she asks. I give the answer I will repeat to others in the days to come: Vermont is solid blue, and Beto has a chance to flip the Senate. Maybe I can make some small difference.

I reveal a secret that I don’t often share: that after getting interested in the Beto campaign, I found his online statement of why he was running, that he and I share the same favorite book, The Odyssey.

“Can you phone bank?”

“Lead me to it.”

* * *

It’s early October, and the campaign is in the get-out-the-vote phase. Voter data is gathered by phone and by foot, by phone banking and block walking.

The campaign has already done the initial statewide phone search to identify probable Cruz and Beto voters. The Cruz supporters have been removed from the database — theoretically.

The next step is to canvass these probable voters, but not so much to convince them to vote for Beto by discussing the issues — that has already been largely done. Now, we need a pledge to vote. This is called “the hard ask.”

The phone-bank room consists of 20-odd desks, and the walls have signs in red and green marker with the web addresses and passwords for the automatic dialer. At the front of the room sit stacks of laptops for volunteers and scripts to follow.

I rehearse the script with another volunteer, then log onto the dialer. I watch the screen and listen for a ding, which means the voter has already been called and has said hello.

I jump right in.

“Hi, I’m a volunteer with the Beto O’Rourke campaign and I’m calling for [Voter]. Is this [Voter] speaking? I’m calling to ask if you will vote for Beto in the November election. Can we count on your vote?”

Simultaneously, a data box on the screen lists the voter’s name, age, address, voting record from 2016, polling place location, and the early voting schedule. Early voting is encouraged.

All this data is public record, information the phone banker tries to leverage into a solid commitment by having the voter visualize the act of voting.

If the answer is yes for a Beto vote, the phone banker pushes harder.

On a scale of one to ten, will you definitely vote? If you plan to early vote, do you know that you can vote anywhere in the county? You can also vote at your designated voting place. On what exact day will you vote? At what time of day?

Do you have your photo ID? Can you get to the polls? Would you like an email reminder?

And finally, if by now the voter is willing to keep talking, we point out that whom you vote for is a secret, but whether you voted is public record. Can you share an email address so we can follow up after the election to review the voting experience?

This call is designed to be the final lock, but in all my hours of phone banking, I’ve only reached this point once or twice. Most voters have been called more than once, and even if they’re Beto supporters, patience wears thin — and they want to end the call.

The results of every call are recorded by selecting an option from a drop-down menu: Strong Beto, Lean Beto, Strong Cruz, Lean Cruz, Undecided, Has a plan to vote, Has no plan to vote, Wrong number. Also, Spanish speaker, of which there are many — voters who will be called back by a Spanish-speaking volunteer.

Many of the voters hang up as soon as they hear your voice. They will be called again.

* * *

With the exception of an afternoon of block walking, I phone-bank every day, 9 a.m. to 5 or 6 p.m. — or sometimes later, if I have the energy and if my voice holds out. The headquarters are open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., and volunteers of all ages and colors come and go — some for just a few hours, all of them wanting to do something to help, all feeling the urgency of this election.

I train the new phone bankers. I’m told that my lack of Texas twang is not a drawback. My impression is that women Beto voters seem more motivated — not only to vote, but also to get other women and family members to as well.

Those Cruz supporters who have slipped through the cracks are sometimes polite, but more often staunch Republicans with an angry edge, insulting Beto personally or repeating the playbook mantra that he stands for open borders, abortions, free medical, free college, higher taxes, and sanctuary cities — the last of which he does support.

To a burst of profanity from a Cruz supporter, I simply say, “Have a nice day,” and put him on the drop-down. Then I take a few deep breaths.

To a woman voter who says she’s organizing all the women in her apartment building to vote for Beto, I feel like what I’m doing has some value.

* * *

By the end of my stay, I’m ragged and hoarse-voiced, and I realize that everyone in the headquarters works with such focus that I’ve had no more than one- or two-minute conversations with other volunteers, mostly along the lines of how much I’m appreciated. I sense no rigid structure in the organization, no personality conflicts. Everyone supports everyone else, and things get done in a process of disorder and order.

Conventional wisdom says that little or nothing has changed, that the polls still show Beto single digits behind. To win, he will have to find voters in a state with a low-voter-turnout percentage.

There’s no way to project an outcome, even though the Houston Chronicle, the state’s second largest newspaper and a traditional Republican supporter, has endorsed Beto with a stinging rebuke of Cruz as an absentee more interested in his own career than the welfare of Texans.

I’ve met volunteers who have left their jobs to join the campaign. I’ve seen how deeply all are invested, and I wonder about their reaction when it’s over.

When the votes are counted, we’ll see either grief or elation, but I can’t believe that it’s winner-take-all. Whatever the results, a movement has been set in motion.

The energy of those committed volunteers will not be lost.

* * *

On my last day, I sit in a restaurant in my Beto T-shirt. A woman gives me a thumbs up.

“Are you voting for Beto?” I ask.

“I’ll be there on the first day of early voting, and I’ll be first in line.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #484 (Wednesday, November 7, 2018). This story appeared on page D1.

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