Invading Reno

Sacramento volunteers battle to turn Nevada blue

Reno Democrat Judy Plank gets a reminder to vote early from America Coming Together volunteers Hellan and Brad Dowden of Sacramento.

Reno Democrat Judy Plank gets a reminder to vote early from America Coming Together volunteers Hellan and Brad Dowden of Sacramento.

Photo By Deidre Pike

A sign on the door of a Reno apartment says, “Don’t ring the doorbell.” Hellan Dowden, an America Coming Together (ACT) volunteer from Sacramento, knocks. Her husband, Brad, stands behind her with a Palm Pilot and the names of registered Democrats and other Kerry supporters in the neighborhood.

A short-haired woman answers.

“Hi, I’m Hellan, and we’re here today to help defeat Bush,” Dowden says.

“Let’s get rid of that sucker!” the woman replies.

Judy Plank, 48, is a Democrat who “used to be a Republican until the Christian Coalition got in there.” She steps out into the sunlight in her socks. “Shh. Gotta be careful. The Nazi’s sleeping. He’s a Republican.”


“He calls me ‘Commie,’” Plank says, smiling. The three talk. Plank’s close friend’s son is fighting in Iraq. She considers him her “nephew” and says it’s frustrating to think he’s risking his life in a misdirected war. The U.S. military should be going after Osama bin Laden, she says.

“Tell me why we can’t find a 6-foot-2 Arab with a dialysis machine,” Plank says. “How many can there be? He’s probably in the south of France, drinking wine. Bush can just call his family, since they’ve been doing business together. Call his brother.”

After securing Plank’s promise to vote early, the Dowdens head to the next apartment on their list.

“It was fascinating talking to her,” says Brad, a philosophy professor at California State University, Sacramento.

“I don’t understand why some people don’t like doing this,” says Hellan, who’s a lobbyist back in Sacramento.

“They must have TV shows to watch or something,” Brad replies.

On the first Saturday of early voting in northern Nevada, the Dowdens joined about 250 ACT volunteers—most driving over from California—to help get out the anti-Bush vote in Reno.

“California’s already made its decision,” Hellan says. “So, we came to Nevada because it’s a battleground state, and it’s the closest. I can make a difference here.”

Brad, who teaches university classes like “Einstein’s Views on Space and Time,” has a simple goal: “I want to stop [Bush’s] reckless, go-it-alone foreign policy,” he says.

The Reno air is thick with smoke from California fires burning in the El Dorado National Forest. The haze conceals the view of Reno’s downtown high-rise casinos. It doesn’t seem to bother volunteers with ACT and the Sierra Club, who are gathering at the Steam and Pipe Fitters Union Hall in an industrial section of the Truckee Meadows.

Veronica Perez, 24, of Sacramento is dressed comfortably—and warmly—for walking precincts. It’s her first time knocking on doors to defeat Bush in Reno.

“I think it’s my duty to be out here,” she says.

Jim Shoch, assistant professor of government at CSUS, calls himself “a lifelong confirmed liberal Democrat.”

“This is the most important election in my lifetime, comparable to ’68,” Shoch says. “In the 10 remaining battleground states, it’s running close. This could absolutely swing the election.”

Nevada’s progressive activists welcome reinforcements from California. The battle for the state’s five electoral votes began early this year.

In 2000, Bush carried Nevada by 21,597 votes over Gore. Since then, 200,000 more Nevadans have registered to vote. Registered Republicans outnumber Democrats—by only around 4,000 voters. The state’s 162,680 registered nonpartisans likely will decide the race.

Talk of a Republican voter-registration-suppression scandal infuriates the activists gathered at the union hall. The Democratic Party filed a lawsuit this month against a private company that paid part-time staffers to register new voters on behalf of the Republican National Committee. Former employees claimed that Voters Outreach of America destroyed and discarded Democratic registration forms collected in Las Vegas and Reno. Workers said they were instructed to register only Republicans or to encourage those registering to leave the party-affiliation space blank.

Nevada law requires voter-registration groups to accept forms regardless of political affiliation.

Democrats and Republicans have spared no expense in wooing the Silver State this year. In just the past two weeks, Nevadans have heard from Gen. Tommy Franks, Teresa Heinz Kerry, Elizabeth Edwards, Laura Bush and the Bush twins. Andre Heinz, the youngest son of Heinz Kerry, brought cast members of the TV show The O.C. to meet with Reno university students.

After several earlier trips to Las Vegas, Senator John Kerry stopped in Reno on October 22. On October 14, George W. Bush made his second visit to Reno, drawing a throng of about 16,000 to a regional park.

The day before Bush’s visit, filmmaker Michael Moore spoke to a sold-out crowd of 10,000 at the University of Nevada, Reno.

“This is incredible,” Moore said as the supporters greeted him with cheers and a standing ovation. “Too bad Bush can’t see this here tonight. He wouldn’t bother coming tomorrow.”

ACT’s downtown Reno office is right between the Wild Orchid, a strip club, and campaign headquarters for U.S. Representative Jim Gibbons, a Republican running for re-election. In the parking lot, ACT volunteers—three from Sacramento and four from the Bay Area—learn how to use pre-programmed Palm Pilots, each with a database of the 350 streets to be covered by the eight volunteers.

Team leader Brian Fitzgerald, recent recipient of a graduate degree in environmental health from UNR, helps volunteers navigate drop-down boxes with voter info.

Although volunteers carry fact sheets about education, health care and the proposed storage of high-level radioactive waste at Yucca Mountain, the day’s canvassing isn’t about convincing people to vote for Kerry. Instead, ACT volunteers focus on getting out the Kerry vote. Debate isn’t recommended.

America Coming Together team leader Brian Fitzgerald shows volunteers how to navigate voter information stored on Palm Pilots.

Photo By Deidre Pike

“At this point, persuading is out,” Fitzgerald reminds everyone. “To put it bluntly, you’re wasting your time—and theirs.”

Brad, his snowy hair pushed back under a ball cap, practices with his Palm Pilot. The couple arrived in Reno on Friday and checked into a hotel-casino, where Brad won $40 playing keno. He’d considered playing some Texas Hold ’em, as well, but chose instead to get a good night’s sleep.

A car with Bush/Cheney bumper stickers drives into the parking area and then slowly drives away.

“It’s the enemy, everyone,” says ACT volunteer coordinator Ed Cobbs, 28. “Everybody convert, convert.”

Cobbs says he’s seen a significant shift in Nevada’s political climate since 2000. When he tried to volunteer for Al Gore’s campaign, he couldn’t get Democrats to return calls.

“Now, they call 50 times a day,” he says.

This year, ACT volunteers spent five or six months gathering voter-registration information so that they’d be ready to get out the vote. On the eve of the first day of early voting, Democrats in Reno camped out at the office of the registrar of voters to be the first to back Kerry.

“We’re like a plant that has just sprouted,” Cobbs says. “People just keep watching it grow.”

Importing California Democrats may energize the party base, but activists making the trip over the Sierra often seem “far more liberal” than most Nevadans, says UNR political-science professor Eric Herzik, a registered Republican.

The state’s Republicans, he says, aren’t exactly sitting on their hands, either.

“Nevada Republicans have had a very effective grassroots turnout in the past three elections,” Herzik says. “Democrats have to work to match that. They’re saying, ‘The Republicans are beating us at that game. Let’s learn how to play.’”

Democrats are learning.

“Both sides did a very good job in last-minute voter-registration drives,” Herzik says, though he adds that if the Democrats make too much of a fuss over allegations of Republican registration-form misdeeds, it’ll only hurt the left.

“If the Democrats’ strategy is ‘We’re going to sue everywhere’ and at the same time say that George Bush is dividing the country, that’s not going to resonate well with the average Nevadan,” he says.

Democrats seem sparse in some Sparks, Nev., neighborhoods. One ACT volunteer says that she walked several blocks to visit just one or two houses.

This team of volunteers is on a lunch break at a Sparks park. During the morning’s canvassing, ACT volunteers crossed paths with folks from the Democratic Party. And they’ve seen signs of others at work—pro-Bush campaign literature placed in mailboxes.

“That’s a felony,” complains Fran Matthew, a 34-year-old high-school English teacher from San Francisco. “We’ve been told strictly not to do it because it’s interfering with the post office.”

Many people aren’t home, says Nancy Michaels, a Sacramento retiree who worked 15 years as staff director for the California Senate Rules Committee. Kerry supporters who are home don’t want to drive to downtown Reno to vote today at a county office building. Later in the week, voting will be possible at local public libraries.

“They want to wait until Tuesday and go to a closer place,” she says.

“Putting myself in the position of the voter, it could take two hours to get to town, find parking and go vote,” says Glen Michaels, Nancy’s husband. “On Tuesday, [voters] can zip over and vote after work.”

Matthew, the team leader, reminds the volunteers to take their sunglasses off when talking to voters. It’s also a good idea, she says, to take a couple of steps back as the door opens.

“It’s less threatening that way,” Glen adds. “Especially if you’re a big man.”

Other than driving back to Sacramento for dentist appointments and to attend the bar mitzvah of a neighbor’s child, the Michaelses say they plan on staying in Nevada through the election. They might end up in Las Vegas on Election Day, where they’ve been asked to hang out at polling places and watch the vote.

The Michaelses say they’re concerned about the fate of the country—and of their grandchildren—should Kerry not be elected. During recent trips overseas, they say they’ve noticed that Americans aren’t as welcome as they once were. “Most places don’t see us as the good guys anymore,” says Nancy.

Hellan Dowden says she enjoys getting out into the neighborhoods to see how people live in the United States. Once, while knocking on doors in Vallejo and talking about issues like health care, she was invited into the home of a young family with a hospital bed for an elderly family member in the middle of its small living room.

“It makes issues so much more real when you see this firsthand, not filtered through TV or newspapers,” she says. “That’s what democracy’s about.”

No one answers the first door the Dowdens knock on in a quiet northwest Reno apartment complex.

“Let’s go see if we can find a live person,” Hellan says, placing a “Sorry we missed you” ACT door hanger on the knob.

The Dowdens have better luck at the next several houses.

“We’re here to help defeat Bush,” Hellan repeats at each door.

One senior citizen replies, “He’s already defeated here.”

Walking away, balancing a clipboard, door hangers and a Palm Pilot, Hellan smiles.

“This is so nice,” she says. “What a great system.”