The New Era Experience: Learning to Make Politics Sexy. ~ Shannon Fritts-Penniman
“So you are fit?” she asked, pausing just long enough between the words to jog one’s imagination.
I found myself without a job in late September. With the election looming ahead, I decided there was nothing I’d rather do than get involved. I’ve been active in the Green Party during the past two years, but a typical Green Party meeting attracts no more than three or four uber-unique individuals who leave me feeling totally depressed after each meeting. I wanted to find a group that left me inspired, a group that gave me hope.
New Era Colorado turned out to be the sexy way to do politics without wading into the stagnant two-party system. They bring together young progressives who care about the issues I care about—the environment, equal rights, education and fair elections. They are remarkably successful at building their organization and promoting ideas without identifying with either the Democrats or the Republicans, and they have the legal flexibility to do nonpartisan get-out-the-vote as well as to support candidates who share their values.
This is my story of getting sexy with New Era.
My First Impression.
Ben Quam knows his shit. I came to the Denver office in late September to get oriented for voter registration with New Era Colorado. Ben took me into the backyard and sat me down at a red picnic table. I couldn’t tell how old he was, but he was definitely Norwegian.
Ben walked me step-by-step through the voter registration form, covering oft-forgotten key points such as the elusive “county” of residence. I was impressed by his intimate knowledge of the form. He then shifted gears to tabling tactics—how to lure unregistered voters when you are tabling on a college quad. Don’t stand behind the table, he explained, but rather stand in front of the table and enthusiastically greet folks as they approach. Keep your arms in an open posture to look inviting. Smile and make eye contact. Talk to everyone, even if they are sporting headphones or are flying by on a longboard. His tactics reminded me of a description of the “alpha male” in Neil Strauss’ best-selling book about pickup artists, The Game. As the training ended, Ben gave me his cell number and told me to make a note so I remember who he was when I get a text from this “vaguely Asian guy.”
National Voter Registration Day.
On my second day of volunteering, New Era put me on laser blue roller skates to skate in circles in front of the Auraria Campus student center. Dance music was pumping from the speakers behind our table, and the cardboard robot was greased up and waving at potential voters as if the end of the world would arrive that night. Not having roller skated for at least eight or nine years, I was delighted that my childhood skills came back. I circled the quad, weaving in and out of pedestrians like a patriotic seagull searching for his next meal.
“Are you registered to vote at your current address?” Was my opening line. The ladies were undoubtedly impressed by my skills, but I kept it professional. For democracy.
I’m on the Bus.
Bus trip numero uno was a short jaunt across I-25 to Lakewood. We met at campaign headquarters of state house candidate Brittany Petterson, accompanied by state senate candidate Andy Kerr and political celebrities Mayor Wellington Webb and Senator Mark Udall. The weather was an abysmal forty degrees and a steady rain. We congregated under a few tents in the backyard and ate lukewarm pizza while New Era staff demonstrated door-knocking technique. Candidates Brittany and Andy introduced themselves and thanked us for being there. Then, public building namesake Wellington Webb took the mic to inspire us with his rousing tale of a forty-two day walking journey across the length and width of Denver when he first ran for Mayor. Sleeping at houses along the way, he walked every street and knocked on every door. His efforts won him the office, and twenty years later we have a shiny football-shaped municipal building downtown with his name on it.
Sporting his classic outdoorsy fleece jacket and brown cowboy boots, senator Mark Udall sauntered up to the mic next. He explained how to woo the voters with your rustic charm—as if a bunch of sopping wet college students in hoodies had any rustic charm, but nonetheless. His presence alone was an inspiration to me, because as a student of environmental law at C.U. I have heard stories of the Udall family’s enormous impact on protecting land and water in the West. After introducing myself to Udall, I found myself in a picture with Udall and Jefferson County Board candidate Casey Tighe.
Then, a group photo shoot in front of Tiny Dancer (our bus) and off we went a door-knocking!
“Voting is sexy.”
New Era Registered over 20,000 voters this year, and each one of them had to be called and personally guided through the process of putting a ballot into an appropriate vote-counting receptacle. Fortunately, volunteer phone bankers had access to free takeout and beer at the Denver office. On my first night as a phone banker, we smashed out 700 conversations! That left only 17, 262 for the next 12 days.
To the surprise of the crew, two phone bankers were asked on dates by particularly lustful potential voters. I was one of the lucky ones. She was a 21-year-old CU student with a sexy librarian voice. My opening question completely ignored, the conversation redirected to “what was your name?” After I tried to get out the next question, I was stonewalled with “what are you wearing?” I answered her honestly, throwing in the tidbit that I was wearing an orange Boulder Marathon cap since I had recently completed that race. “So you are fit?” she asked, pausing just long enough between the words to jog one’s imagination. I asked her about Halloween to redirect the conversation back towards politics. I invited her and her friends to the Trick or Vote event that New Era was throwing at the Ogden Theater, and she informed me that she and her two friends would be the three blind mice. Finally I got her to commit to vote, at which point she asked me what I was doing tonight. I told her I was busy making phone calls. She said “write down my number, I won’t sue you.” I said okay.
I thanked her for being a voter, she responded, “okay, meet me at the Walnut.”
I never met that lusty voter at the Walnut, but I was convinced of the veracity of New Era’s slogan: voting is sexy!
Trick or Vote Halloween 2012.
I volunteered to check people in at the Ogden Theater before they hit the streets for costumed canvassing on Halloween night. Arriving at 3:30 p.m., I was met with an impressive front line of fuzzy-animal themed New Era staffers armed with laptops in the front lobby. Dressed as a zombie, I had to find a place to put my giant painted Dia de los Muertos skull that I had found on top of the dumpster a couple weeks ago. After scanning the joint, I put my giant skull on the upstairs bar.
After checking in roughly 200 volunteers (and no three blind mice), the check in table was dismantled and I wandered upstairs to watch the basic training for trick or vote. Lizzy the Lizzard and Gary the Sexy Puppy demonstrated flirting technique in a brief role-play of the door knock situation: do smile and be enthusiastic. Do ask the potential voter for specific details about their voting plans. Do take candy if you want, and do flirt with voters if the opportunity presents itself.
Although no numbers were exchanged, volunteers were left wondering if those two were going to hit the voting booth together in the near future.
Volunteers hit the streets, and I stayed behind due to a foot injury. Looking for things to do, I noticed a table full of uneaten sandwiches and a mass of tortilla chips. I stuffed my mouth with chips and queso and then moved the leftovers upstairs to the balcony area where New Era would have it’s post-canvassing party at the show featuring Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe with an opening set by DJ Z-Trip.
Z-Trip was killing it on stage when I returned to the theater at 9:15. The place was packed with brightly costumed Coloradans, and it looked like a typical cross-section of twenty-to-thirty somethings of the post-hippie pot induced skier-rock climber mecca that is Colorado. Whether these folks knew that trick or vote had occurred here was questionable, but no doubt they would have given booty points to anyone who participated. Unfortunately I was too tired to find out.
Bus Trip No. 3.
It was a perfect bluebird day in Denver. We met at 10:30 a.m. at the office for coffee and bagels. A random group of well-organized international students was there to observe democracy in action. New Era “Chief of Chiefs” Steve Fenberg roused us with an oration about our targets: the so-called “emerging electorate,” consisting of minorities, young voters, and women. Denver has a lot of those, Fenberg said. Our primary target would be young voters, since those are the voters we registered earlier this year at voter registration drives.
My group was dropped off in the Denver University neighborhood, a hodgepodge of small homes belonging to stoned students or to families willing to put up with stoned students. Most of the potential voters whose doors we knocked were not home, and each doorknob received our literature. Some doors where confetti-ed with election fliers. I ran into both an Obama canvasser and a Romney canvasser in my turf, at one point trailing five doors behind the Obama door-knocker.
My best conversation was with a bathrobed stoner who remained on the couch while I was at the door. He was eager to vote but had no idea where his polling place was, and I gave him the deets so he could vote on Tuesday.
I showed up at the office at 3:30 p.m. on the day before the election. The staff had already started an epic phone banking session, which would charge on through the evening until 8:30 p.m.. I found a cricket phone and started calling. There was a serious tone in the air, maybe one person was drinking beer, and there was a bit less chit chat between calls. By the end of the night, our team had accomplished 3,500 conversations!
After phone banking, we got organized for “Midnight Madness”—a parked-car lit drop to take place in Capitol Hill at 9:00 that night. Not exactly midnight, but marketing with sexy names is New Era’s specialty. About ten people hit the streets in pairs, walking each side and plugging our voter guides into the driver-side door cracks of each vehicle. As we walked the dark city street, volunteer Brad and I discussed whether this was “worse” than robocalls or not. We concluded that it was in fact worse, because it was an untargeted action— we did not know whether or not the owners of these cars had already voted. Having concluded that our lit drop would annoy quite a few people, we happily continued our task knowing that the benefits of turning out a few voters outweighed the annoyance to the others.
The next day, Colorado voted to legalize marijuana, to overturn Citizens United via constitutional amendment and to reelect Barack Obama. Young voters contributed 20 percent of all votes in the state, up from 14 percent in 2008.
We Did It.
New Era taught me how to turn people on to democracy. Hopefully it won’t be a one night stand.
A wealthy lawyer recently told Shannon he was not “boring” enough to have a successful legal career. Taking it as a compliment, he has chosen to follow his passions in yoga, partner dancing, and political organizing. He currently resides in Denver, Colorado.
Ed. Evan Livesay
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