Land of Cotton
“Rise and shine everyone and good morning! Let’s go get a U.S. Senator elected! Dress warm…”
This was the Facebook post that greeted me Sunday morning before my shower. The author was Trey Palmedo, political activist and a Democratic Party candidate for Tennessee House District 51. He and fellow activist Ramon Ryan had recruited a group of Nashville area Young Democrats (and young democrats at heart) to carpool south to North Alabama for an afternoon of election canvassing.
Doug Jones, the Democratic Party candidate of the Alabama Senate seat recently vacated by current Attorney General Jeff Sessions, was within a hair’s breadth of pulling an major upset over Republican Party candidate Judge Roy Moore. Palmedo hails from Alabama and knows the background of Judge Moore and his core supporters. If the Volunteer State could contribute some of her sons and daughters to a fight once again, it just may help tip the balance of this election to a progressive candidate.
We meet in a union hall parking lot in North Nashville for the car pools south. Ramon was the first to arrive, earning my free spare chicken biscuit. He tells me that he put in a call to the Alabama Young Democrats after hearing Roy Moore’s recent remarks about LGBTQ+ people. His offer to put together a flying squad of Tennessee Democrats to help canvass and get out the vote was immediately met with open arms.
A Facebook post soon gathered around a dozen volunteers for that morning, many openly LGBTQ+. I come prepared for cold weather with my Tom Baker-style Doctor Who scarf made for me by Soulmate back in college. I am a proud queer Whovian...and it keeps me warm.
My chariot south is piloted by fellow scribe (and professional Lyft driver) Eric Patton with his friend Travis riding shotgun. The mothership sports HRC equal sign stickers on the front and back...headed to rural Alabama. I am the only lesbian in the group, riding in a stereotypically clean car with two openly gay men, singing along to show tunes and discussing the positive aspects of bear relationships...for two hours.
(This is what hell looks like. It would turn anyone toward the path of Sappho very quickly.)
We have been told that we will be visiting the residences of registered Alabama Democrats and encouraging their going to the polls on Tuesday. We would not be visiting Republican households. It wouldn’t be right to do so and they’re pretty set in their ways. The majority cannot be...converted.
Travis tells me his coming out story between Disney favourites and why he feels called to canvass for a candidate outside Tennessee. Says he prefers to support the LGBTQ+ movement through his music (he’s a songwriter) but it is important to get involved in politics now. He is a political novice...but learning quickly.
The Lion King soundtrack gets us to Ardmore and we cross the state line...confronted with our first “Elect Judge Roy Moore” roughly 1000 feet inside Alabama. We spot our first Doug Jones sign about five miles later alongside what looks like drifting snow blowing down the sides of the road.
The “is that what I think it is?” discussion is soon resolved as a giant cotton gin plant rolls into our view. Eric’s “how in the hell to they actually make this stuff useful…” question is soon opined upon by said writer explaining how Soulmate use to spin her yarn back in college. I bore the boys mercilessly for a good three minutes before Uncle Walt's greatest hits come back into play. We see much more cotton the rest of the day...no one dares to discuss it again.
Canvassing central is soon found inside a nice house converted into a political headquarters deep in rural North Alabama. We run into a canvasser coming in from a long morning’s work. She advises that there were a few “pit bulls” out there that we may run into in the afternoon after they return from church, but our experience would probably not be as bad as in previous days.
Miss Alice, the director of local canvassing greets us inside. ”We need to get y’all trained and out there,” she tells us in her sweet as honey Alabama twang. There was another big Nashville contingent coming down to help them soon and they would need the training space downstairs for their speedy education on canvassing and the niceties of North Alabama politicking.
One of the reps who spot us announces that she is going to announce to their locals that we are here and in training. If we can come all the way down here to canvass in the countryside, they can do even better.
The same rep tells us that in addition to the large Nashville and Franklin contingents, many walk-ins have come from all over Tennessee to canvass North Alabama. Miss Alice has been recruiting volunteers from all over including Pennsylvania and California over the past week. Many of them came too. “It’s just unbelievable!” exclaims said Alabama Democratic Party rep. She has never seen anything like this.
The training takes place in the two-car garage below. A card table loaded with info campaign literature and informational signs posted on all four sides the backdrop for a session lasting about 10 minutes.
Eric, Travis and all who pass through this automotive-inclined political war room are to ask those visited if they are supporting Doug Jones for Senate and would they need a ride to the polls? After the visit, they will log in responses into a smartphone app then move on to the next address listed.
We leave just as soon as the next Nashville contingent arrives, one of whom is dressed in a lovely green elf costume. From that moment forward, I no longer worry about the HRC stickers on Eric’s car.
A twenty-minute drive east takes us to our canvassing territory. Hazel Green, Alabama is a rural patch of both tract and brick homes ten miles above Huntsville, surrounded by the ubiquitous cotton fields I am no longer allowed to opine upon.
Our first visit sees a young twenty-something female voter telling us that she is supporting Doug Jones because of homophobic remarks she allegedly overheard Roy Moore say once in person. The boys nearly float back to the car as Travis fingers the “strong support” button on his smartphone app.
We soon come up to a house where the kids inside ran into the back to hide. The mom quickly answers the door, sees Travis and Eric’s “Doug Jones for Senate” campaign buttons and says to the back “it’s ok...they’re not strangers. They are with Doug Jones and he's helping us with our rights.”
We get some negative responses too, but not very many considering we are knocking on the doors of acknowledged Democratic Party voters. We do notice however that the negative responses that we occasionally get are very negative and deeply personal in nature.
A caucasian resident of a beat-up trailer home looks rough and tough when he comes to answer his door. He soon turns out to be a big Doug Jones supporter...and genuinely happy to see us. He will be at the polls bright and early Tuesday. “If not somebody like Jones now...then when?” he says in parting.
We notice that there seem to be more Doug Jones signs in yards than Roy Moore signs. It could be Doug Jones supporters tend to be more visible, but we take it as a good sign nevertheless. One of the supporting households tell us that they are afraid to put a Jones sign in their yard for fear they would lose business.
The last household on our list turns out to be a super-strong supporter of Doug Jones, but has a message for the campaign: “STOP CALLING ME!,” he shouts. Our records indicate the campaign has only talked with him six times within the past few days before our personal visit to reassure his support...again. We have no clue as to why he should be complaining.
We return back to canvassing GHQ to see a smooth well-oiled operation running in high gear. Volunteers were processing the turned in canvass packets and syncing up the smartphone app results.
The boys get a minor debriefing as to what potential voters are telling them. Knocked on forty Democrat-leaning doors, only received a few negative responses. Their reasoning: Doug Jones is too liberal.
Trey Palmedo’s group arrives soon after we do. He reports only one negative response out of fifty-seven knocks on doors...but the negative response was very passionate and loud.
Ramon Ryan’s gang was already in before we arrived. He reports that the other female in our group got a very passionate negative response. A couple felt she was being disrespectful that she had come out on a Sunday to canvass for Doug Jones. “This is a war on Christianity!” one of them shouted at her.
Codde, another volunteer from the Nashville area, related to us that one of his visits wound up with the respondent one no respondent shouting to him that the countryside was getting ready for the second civil war.
“I still have PTSD from the last election!,” he shouted to us eliciting much-needed laughter. “I don't need any more of this!”
A poll of our group shows the majority in favour of one more crack at door-knocking before the sun sets. Eric and Travis smile at the decision. They have agreed that they like canvassing. Travis wants to spend the night here and go out again in the morning. None of us believe the householders will let him sleep in the garage….um, training room.
The sun is fading as we drive out to Hazel Green one more time, and the boys reflect on what they have seen.
Travis confesses that he did not know what to expect, but it was fun and went very well. The people he visited seem genuinely excited about the potential for Doug Jones to be their senator.
“The South gets a bad rap most days,” Eric chimes in. “Lots of conservatives, but most born and bred Southerners tend to be pretty neutral on election day. People still vote their pocketbooks and what is ultimately best for their families.”
“Most people are just voting for someone who wants to make their lives better here,” Travis responds.
That’s true,” Eric retorts. “But I think the majority of have concluded that you cannot elect an alleged pedophile….”
“That’s why Doug Jones will likely pull this off.”
Let’s hope so.
Election Day for the Alabama U.S. Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions is Tuesday, December 12.