Bernard is a new CHS contributor.
I got a jolt earlier this month when I encountered dozens of people with extremely conservative and religious views at 15th and E. Pike. I had never experienced that in my 7 years living in the liberal bubble that is Capitol Hill.
Now, these people weren’t actually on the hill. I talked to them on the phone as I joined about 30 volunteers at Temple de Hirsch Sinai, turning two basement conference rooms and a hallway into a makeshift call center for marriage equality. We talked to residents across Washington state, from Colfax to Kennewick, Spokane to Vancouver, Bonney Lake to Bellingham.
Washington United for Marriage, the group supporting the approval of Referendum 74, organized the phonebanking event as part of its final push before the November election. My good friend Robert is one of the organizers and he asked if I would help. I said yes.
Most of the volunteers had a vested interest in spending their weekend calling up strangers. There was the gay couple who got married in Canada and wants their union recognized in Washington. And there was Shelly Cohen, who along with her female partner of 10 years, raise two young daughters. Two decades ago, Cohen helped write Seattle’s first domestic partnership ordinance. She can hardly believe the community is at the cusp of gaining marriage equality.
“When we were working on the city ordinance, one guy suggested we should go for marriage. We thought he was nuts,” said the 54-year old Cohen. “Back then, I couldn’t have fathom this. I never thought I would see this in my lifetime.”
There were also volunteers who technically wouldn’t be affected by the referendum’s outcome, yet felt strongly enough to offer their time. Lacaia Sauer, a 20-year old Seattle Central Community College student, said she hates “pushing my views on people”, but wanted to do this for her aunt.
“My aunt and her partner have been together since I was born,” Sauer said. “I think they and everyone should have the right to marry.”
Seated next to me was a really cool blonde named Katie Chapman who looks just like Kate Hudson. Chapman is outgoing and loves talking to people but, more than anything, she was there for her sister.
“It’s so sad she can’t do the things I can. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a second class citizen,” said Chapman.
Some volunteers brought their laptop, others were assigned one. We all fired up a special program that teleconferences in our cellphone, while automatically dialing the numbers of registered voters.
We held on the line until we heard a beep, which signaled someone had answered on the other end and we should start talking. We learned to dive right into our introduction because more often than not, we got just a few seconds before the person hung up.
Prior to this effort, I had never phonebanked. It took a few dozen calls to get used to being hung up on in mid sentence. Chapman, who worked for years as a telemarketer, assured with a smile that it’s just a normal part of the business.
What was more jarring was when some of the people actually started talking. I got a, “That’s an abomination.” Sauer, the Seattle Central student, got a, “Go to hell.”
To be sure, there were also people who supported marriage equality and said they intend to vote to approve Referendum 74. On the whole, though, the takeaway for me was how polarized the state is.
If you live and socialize on Capitol Hill, you may think Referendum 74 will pass based on the comments you hear around the neighborhood. But talking with, and sometimes being lectured by, folks in other parts of the state, you really appreciate there are people whose core convictions simply point them in a different direction. And their vote counts just as much.
After three hours on the phone, I notched perhaps a half of a “persuasion” – the group’s term for a voter who changed their mind during a phone call – when a man said he may consider marriage equality after initially saying he was opposed to the law. Cohen recorded two persuasions, which I was told is rare since most sessions end without even one.
With days to go before the election, Washington United Marriage has planned many more of these phonebanking events. You can see the schedule at their website.