“Thank you for doing what you’re doing.”
I first heard those words last January in Iowa, while knocking on doors for Pete Buttigieg. Whether voters supported Mayor Pete or not, they appreciated that a retired TV reporter from Chicago was encouraging them to participate in the upcoming caucuses.
Recently, my wife and I heard the same words again, 1,400 miles farther west, in Montana. We had volunteered with Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat who was in a tight race for the U.S. Senate.
Bullock caught our eye when a New York Times headline labeled him “the most important person on the planet.” Columnist David Leonhardt suggested a Bullock victory could flip the Senate to the Democrats, opening the door to real progress on climate change.
After meeting Bullock during a virtual fund-raiser, my wife and I rented a home near Missoula for the month of October, and plotted our pandemic-safe, three-day drive to Montana.
Despite President Donald Trump’s popularity in Montana, we hoped Republicans would split their ballots and help a Democrat, Bullock, win the Senate seat. Our assignment was to locate Bullock supporters, and encourage them to vote.
Going door to door for a political candidate feels like a daily dip into Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates. Every doorbell, every cul-de-sac, every farmhouse offers a nice surprise.
In Iowa, I received lectures from progressives devoted to Bernie Sanders. Several Trump supporters politely asked me to leave their property. Overall, the folks who greeted me lived up to their reputations, as being famously ”Iowa nice.”
Montana’s voters were just as nice, but there were differences.
They treasure their independence, and resent outsiders. Some Montana friends suggested we not reveal that we were from Chicago.
Also, gun ownership is a big deal. An old friend who has retired near Missoula spent an evening with us, showing off his brand new $900 rifle. He planned to go elk hunting later that week.
Several voters warned us, “Democrats will take our guns away.” Surprisingly, as we dug a little deeper, we found they actually agreed with some of Bullock’s positions on gun control.
At one home, a sign cautioned, “Trespassers will be shot. Survivors will be shot again.” Another handwritten note on a gate said, ”Thanks for what you are doing, but thank you for staying out.” And one anxious woman shouted as she slammed her door, ”This is a Covid home, please go away!”
Rejections like those could be deflating, if not for the occasional successes.
One man, a 63-year-old convicted felon, told us that when his ballot arrived in the mail, he ripped it into pieces, disappointed that he was not allowed to vote.
He was mistaken. When we informed him that felons in Montana ARE allowed to vote, he obtained a replacement ballot, and voted (for Bullock!)
He later told us that he was ashamed of his crime, and had never revealed his past to anyone, until we showed up at his door. He was grateful for our efforts.
If Bullock had won by a single vote, we stood ready to claim credit. But when the votes were counted, incumbent Republican Senator Steve Daines, by a 55 to 45 percent margin, had defeated Bullock.
We have no regrets, though, about our work in Montana.
Bullock, we’re convinced, has a great future. We’re proud to have been part of his campaign.
We hiked Rattlesnake Trail and caught fish in the Bitterroot, Blackfoot and Clark Fork rivers. We survived black bears rummaging through our garbage bins and a record-setting October blizzard.
Blowing snow and bitter cold, however, won’t hamper our next canvassing effort.
We’ve got Georgia on our minds.
Larry Yellen is a former investigative reporter, anchor and legal analyst at Fox-owned WFLD-Channel 32.