Scoundrel Time

Holding the Blue Line: Dispatches from a Swing State

Image by Ali Zifan
Virginia Presidential Election Results, 2016

 

Roanoke. Population approximately one hundred thousand. A small city nestled at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. An island of blue in an angry sea of red.

The Democratic Party of Virginia’s headquarters here is a prime example of the grassroots aesthetic—a two-story worn-out house covered in Clinton signs inside and out, both the official campaign and the lovingly hand-drawn varieties. It smells of dirt and acidic coffee. The kitchen is crammed with cases of bottled water, granola bars, and potato chips. All of the furniture is either plastic or foldout, except for the coveted solid wood desks commandeered by head organizers. The staff—some paid, but mostly unpaid—run off a combination of left-wing zeal and high fructose corn syrup. Everyone is busy assembling walk packets, entering data, sorting campaign literature, or not busy because they are first-time volunteers or they’ve collapsed in a chair. There’s a lot of talk about numbers. Contact percentages, voter registration dates, current poll results, flake rates, doors knocked, calls made, hours of sleep achieved.

Most of us are white and female, a mix of retirees and college students. Most of us are from Roanoke or the surrounding counties, but some are from elsewhere, having traveled to Virginia because of its swing-state status. We are a small army, concerned with the minutiae of city blocks and single votes, feeling the strain of the immense supply chain that is “Hillary for America.”

I moved to the city two weeks ago for graduate school, after working on an unofficial offshoot of the Bernie Sanders campaign for six months overseas. I am a sore loser. Seeing Clinton on television—not “Hillary,” never “Hillary”—prompts a seething reaction in me, one that is reminiscent of the anger I feel whenever an ex-boyfriend sends me a casual text. But I know I have to vote for someone. And a few days ago Cecin*—a quiet man sporting aviator sunglasses and an “I’m With Her” badge—registered me and my partner to vote. I am here because Cecin said he could use the help, and because I could use some new friends.

“There’s never enough Clinton campaign literature,” he tells me, “but we’ve got a ton of Kai Degner stuff.” He indicates a stack of flyers depicting a smiling bald man. Kai Degner resembles a friendly egg. “He’s running against Bob Goodlatte for the House of Representatives, 6th district. Good guy. Hope he doesn’t lose.”

 

My second day out volunteering, I do voter registration with Cecin and Eva* outside a Wal-Mart. Eva is a cheerful woman in her early thirties with a werewolf tattoo on one shoulder. She smokes hand-rolled cigarettes, wears all black despite the August heat, and enjoys what she calls “harassing people with a clipboard.”

An elderly white woman, her scooter loaded down with shopping bags, approaches Cecin and asks him what he’s collecting signatures for. When he says he’s with the Democratic Party, she snarls at him.

“But Ma’am,” Cecin explains. “We’re registering everyone to vote. Including Republicans. We can’t control who you vote for. We’re not stealing your vote.”

The woman motors across the parking lot, then approaches in a car, shaking her fist outside the passenger window.

“We’re registering everyone to vote!” Cecin repeats.

“I hope that none of you damn liberals get any signatures,” she says.

 

My first time canvassing is the day of the Roanoke Pride Parade. It is too hot for September—over ninety degrees. Our head organizer, Shan, is a demanding type whose default expression is a frown reminiscent of Paul Ryan’s. Eva complains that he’s trying to give her heatstroke. We knock doors together. I try to memorize Eva’s spiel. At a house decked out in rainbow streamers, we are invited inside for waffles and mimosas. We decline, but stay long enough for a resident to show us her Clinton nutcracker.

We return to the office with a record high number of Commit to Vote Cards, but fail to impress Shan. We also learn that Trump supporters have set up a table directly in front of ours at the parade. They are harassing the volunteers and shouting at the marchers.

“But those are our people,” Eva says. “Nobody at a Pride parade wants to vote for Trump.”

Cecin* is a gay Lebanese man of color, the only one in Roanoke and perhaps all of Virginia, the two of us joke. He knows better. He’s been talking politics at bars without success.

“The gay white men always get me,” he says. “The ones who are supporting Trump because Hillary is a woman.”

 

The first and only time I hear Trump speak is at a screening of the second presidential debate. I hyperventilate and mumble curses under my breath as Trump stalks Clinton around the stage.

“What the hell was that?” I ask Eva the next time we canvass. We are on the highway. Someone has paid a crane to dangle a Trump-Pence sign over the exit ramp.

“That,” Eva says, “is why we’re out here. It’s like fighting Nazis, I know.”

“Are we gonna win?” I ask.

“I fucking hope so,” says Eva.

 

The door opens to reveal a woman in her nineties, struggling towards us with her walker. She beams on seeing Eva’s #ImWithHer sticker.

“I’m very partial to Hillary Clinton,” she says. “I already have my absentee ballot. It really is astounding you know, to see a woman running for President of the United States.”

It occurs to me that this woman could have been born the year suffrage became law in America.

“Are you excited to vote for Hillary?” she asks me.

“You know,” I say, “I am.”

 

At one house, we ask for a woman who lives there who is a registered Democrat. Her husband says she’s not around, but he’s voting for Trump. Eva and I slink back down the driveway, but he lumbers after us.

“You people and my wife keep saying that Trump is bad for women,” he says. “Hell, I used to be a banker on Wall Street, I know my stuff. Trump is great for women. Listen to the real facts, not the spin of the liberal media. You can’t believe that Pussygate stuff. You can’t.”

 

We all do well in black neighborhoods, although our presence is, understandably, unnerving. I tramp up and down one block with Tessa, a friend from school, but no one is answering doors. Across the street, a family watches from their front porch.

“What are you knocking on doors for?” one woman with a pink hair wrap asks.

I wave my clipboard. “We’re with the Hillary campaign. We’re giving people information about voting.”

“Well holy shit.” She walks towards us. “I need to know where to go. It’s my first time voting. I’m sorry! You’re just two white ladies—we thought you were with Trump.”

The week before the election I knock on a door, and the man who answers tells me to wait. He returns with an official pardon letter from Governor McAuliffe.

“I got this a few weeks ago,” he says. “I’m a felon—but I can vote now. This paper says I can. Tell me what I need to do so they won’t turn me away at the polls.”

“Bring the letter with you,” I say, handing him the voter help hotline number.

“I couldn’t vote for Obama either time,” he says. “I couldn’t vote for the first black president. And me, a black man! This is my election. I’ve wanted to vote for twenty years.”

 

Two days before the election, the country is hanging by a thread. My mother calls and says she’s voting for Gary Johnson. It feels like a personal attack, especially since Mom has been a hard line Democrat since before I was born.

“Mother. It’s got to be Hillary.”

“I don’t like her. I don’t like either of them.”

“But you like Gary Johnson, Mother? Who doesn’t even know where Aleppo is? Who doesn’t support women’s health, or anything you stand for?”

Mom hangs up, saying she has to go to work.

A few minutes later, I get a text: Fine. I’ll probably vote for Hillary.

 

I have to work on Election Day. I voted weeks before. Even though I knew my answers to all four issues on the Virginia ballot backwards and forwards, it didn’t stop me from checking over the paper five times before I put it in the machine. The voter fraud rhetoric has gotten to us all.

That evening, Cecin is losing his voice. He’s been making calls all day and trying to avoid election coverage.

We are no longer calling undecided voters. God help you if you are undecided now.

 

All I can remember about the night it happened was screaming out the number of precincts in swing states that hadn’t fully reported in. And Eva, huddled on the floor in a corner, her eyes wide as if there was a train coming towards her and she had forgotten how to move.

 

I am convinced the next morning that Cecin is dead. I haven’t heard from him since the screening party the night before. Hours later, he answers my frantic calls. He is alive and has left to go to a protest in Richmond. Eva refuses to leave her room.

Everyone seems hopeless and scattered. People walk around hunched over, eyes puffy from crying. Even the winners—though in my circle they are few and far between—are in a state of shock.

 

The Hillary yard signs refuse to go away. Mine only disappears because our landlady pulls up the stakes in January. One morning on my doormat I find a worry stone, a safety pin, and a note: Hang in there. #StrongerTogether.

A few of us volunteers meet up once a week at a coffee shop; Eva christens our group the Sad Democrats’ Coffee Hour.

I am told that I did my job, since Virginia went blue. I am told that we will be okay, since we survived Reagan. Both comments seem irrelevant. The first because Kai Degner lost by a flood of percentage points to Bob Goodlatte. The second because the Reagan years are a foreign concept to me. I was born under a Clinton presidency, and everyone agrees that Trump is worse than my childhood political nemesis, Dubya Bush.

 

I am in Washington D.C. on Inauguration day. Trying to stay as far from the crowds as possible, I jam a Bernie Sanders beanie on my head as a small act of protest and ride the blue line down to Arlington. I want visit the cemetery and buy some sage to burn before the Women’s March tomorrow.

The subway car is swamped with Trump supporters. Make America Great hats. Trump t-shirts. Trump scarves. I get the familiar sensation that I am underwater.

A few stops later the door opens and everyone grows quiet. I look up to see a woman wearing a hijab. She clutches her partner’s hand, murmuring to him in Arabic. A hundred pairs of eyes begin to glare. The couple takes a seat near the car’s entrance. The woman’s knuckles are white.

One father is bouncing a baby in a Trump onesie on his knee; the man looks livid. I glance at the woman sitting next to me. She’s wearing a shirt that says “Don’t Be a Jackass. Vote Republican.” You would not believe who just got on the train, she texts. Omg, can’t believe these people are still in our country.

The woman in the hijab glances at me. I try to smile back to ask if she’s okay. Across the aisle, within a few steps of me, there is a button to stop the train, to open the emergency doors. But we are en route to Arlington. The train is above ground, running on tracks suspended in the air. If something were to happen—if I were to hit that button—we would still be trapped.

Instead we ride, hurtling towards someplace in the distance.

 

 

*Names have been changed to protect identity.