As a veteran of Chicago’s political wars, Clem Balanoff has surely seen a little of everything that election campaigns have to offer.
So when Balanoff says, “I’ve never seen anything like this in my life,” that must count for something.
Balanoff was referring to the leave-no-stone-unturned campaign field organizations mounted on behalf of the two Democratic candidates for the U.S. Senate in Georgia.
As Georgians head to the polls Tuesday in a pair of runoff elections that could determine control of the Senate and by extension the course of Joe Biden’s presidency, Balanoff is among a number of Chicagoans engaged directly in the fight — and excited about what they’ve witnessed.
From old-fashioned door-knocking to sophisticated texting efforts to standing on street corners with signs, campaign workers have blanketed Georgia for two months.
“It’s just massive amounts of people,” Balanoff said of the Democratic push.
Balanoff came to Georgia after the Nov. 3 election in his role as national political director for the Amalgamated Transit Union. His main job: organize and turn out the union’s 3,200 active and retired members to vote on behalf of Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, who are challenging Republican U.S. Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler.
One of Balanoff’s tasks is to travel to campaign rallies in a bus transformed into a mobile campaign billboard adorned with images of Ossoff and Warnock, Biden, Kamala Harris, Barack Obama and Stacey Abrams, whose losing run for governor two years ago helped pave the way for Biden’s win.
“This bus is a real celebrity wherever it goes,” Balanoff said. “You go to a place and people run to the bus to take a photo.”
Often, it’s Balanoff taking the photos, sometimes joined by his wife Jan Kralovec, who like her husband once served as director of elections for Cook County Clerk David Orr. She’s also working on helping voters rehabilitate absentee ballots that have been rejected.
That the transit workers union would choose to be so actively engaged in Georgia — where its presence is relatively small — is in itself a sign of how seriously Democrats are pursuing every last vote. The transit workers are just a part of a broad labor coalition working the state.
Biden won Georgia over Donald Trump by just 11,779 votes, and the expectation from the start has been that the runoff could be similarly close, with Republicans having the advantage based on history.
Even as they allow themselves to be more optimistic based on the success of their early voting efforts, Democrats are bracing for an Election Day vote from Republicans that could turn the tide.
Balanoff doesn’t seem to share those worries.
“We’re going to win this thing,” he gushed.
I’m certainly not hazarding any predictions of my own, and I’d put his fellow Chicagoans’ more in the category of “cautiously optimistic.”
One of them is Tania Unzueta Carrasco, political director of Mijente, a progressive national immigration reform advocacy organization.
Unzueta came to Georgia from Chicago three years ago to lead efforts to organize Latino voters in support of Abrams’ campaign and ended up staying to continue her efforts through the presidential election — and now the runoff. That’s evidence of the type of planning foresight that might give Democrats a chance.
The challenge was to organize in a state without the same political infrastructure that Latinos enjoy in the Chicago area.
Unzueta said her group has spent $2.3 million to target 300,000 Latino voters, a small but growing minority now seen as important swing bloc in a state long defined by the voting patterns of its white and Black residents.
“People are paying attention to the Latino community for the first time,” Unzueta said, adding that “there’s something exciting about being in a place they’re just figuring out their possibilities.”
Unzueta’s wife, Van Huynh, is also working the campaign, running a voter defense program. The couple plans to move back to Chicago after the election.
Asian-Americans comprise an even smaller portion of Georgia’s population but also could play an outsize role in a close election, and there’s a Chicagoan helping lead the effort to organize them, too.
Grace Pai, executive director of Asian American Midwest Progressives, came to Georgia just before Thanksgiving to run a door-knocking and phone banking campaign for the Asian American Advocacy Fund PAC that’s tried to reach 100,000 voters.
“The energy I think is really electric,” Pai told me. “It’s amazing to be part of this movement.”
Enthusiastic, well-organized campaigns sometimes mean nothing. But sometimes they win.