On Saturday, Oct. 25, the Syracuse for Obama organization made its last major caravan to canvass in northeastern Pennsylvania. New York state doesn’t fit into the calculus of most presidential candidates. Only Ralph Nader, the candidate of the Green Populist party, has visited, stopping at the Westcott Theater for a rally and fund-raiser on Oct. 16.
Yet Scranton, birthplace of Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Biden, and just 130 miles from the Salt City, may turn out to be the epicenter of the battle for the Electoral College, and the White House, in 2008. Syracusans and others from around Central New York want in on the action.
Since the first caravan made the trek in March, there have been nine organized trips, two in the primary season and the rest during the general election campaign. The largest group so far consisted of 55 people. According to Andrea Audi, a local volunteer for the campaign, 120 people expressed interest in the upcoming trip.
Jon Dufort illustration
Audi herself, who was found working away in the Obama office on James Street at 7 a.m. on a recent Saturday, has made the 12-hour round-trip Pennsylvania pilgrimage four times already. “We leave here at 7:30 a.m. We spend about five hours walking the neighborhoods and knocking on doors and return home at 7:30 p.m.”
Other volunteers have been going to Pennsylvania on their own. Jamesville attorney Mimi Satter spent a rain-drenched Saturday in September walking through a blue-collar neighborhood in Scranton speaking and listening to potential voters. “I just drove down with my neighbor,” says Satter, a labor lawyer who was also involved in John Kerry’s losing campaign four years ago. “We went canvassing with people from all over. There were people from New York, from Brooklyn, from Binghamton. We called on people who were considered likely supporters of Senator Obama. We wanted to encourage them to turn out to vote.”
The Syracuse office has also coordinated with groups in Ithaca, Auburn and elsewhere around Central New York to deploy volunteers strategically. “People in Western New York have been going to Ohio,” says Audi. “Albany has been mostly going to New Hampshire.”
So how is the response of residents of the Keystone State? “People are much more responsive at their door,” says Audi, “than they are on the phone.” Part of the positive response has to do with the legwork done by the campaign field office in northeastern Pennsylvania, which is run by Central New York native John DeSantis.
When the groups arrive in Pennsylvania, they usually go first to the field office. “We go through a half-hour of training, pick a partner, get their ‘walk list’ and start knocking on doors,” says Audi. Volunteers knock on between 100 and 200 doors in a given day. If no one answers, they leave literature on the doorstep.
“The Northeast field office is second to none,” says Audi. “The time they have spent on the ground over the months has really made a difference. They know the voters. They have a walk list and they have identified the people who may need a visit.”
Notes Satter: “I found people interested and receptive. There was a lot of concern about the economy.” She had what she called an “interesting discussion” with one voter regarding Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. “I was asked why, as a woman, I wasn’t supporting Sarah Palin. I said it wasn’t a matter of my chromosomes, and that I’d rather vote for a man who supports feminist ideas than a woman who does not.”
Waiting for the pilgrims in Scranton is DeSantis, a graduate of Jamesville-DeWitt High School and SU. His mother, Angela DeSantis, is an attorney who teaches economics to East Syracuse-Minoa High School students. She has been a political activist since her days at Le Moyne College, when she was part of the “Carter Coeds” in 1976.
Angela DeSantis went to Pennsylvania herself earlier this year. She is the local student outreach coordinator for Students for Obama. Most recently she has been working with SU students to organize a block party called Barack the Block. “We have a lot of young people involved—there must be 400 members at SU.”
How does she feel about having her son in the thick of a pivotal political race? “I’m proud of him, but I have mixed feelings. We spent a lot of money for him to go to college, to get a degree in computer engineering. Right now he’s taking a different tack. He decided to follow his heart. Probably it’s the best time to do this kind of thing. He’ll have lots of stories to tell his grandchildren, something other than computer engineering.”
What will John do when it’s all over? “He’ll come back here and he’ll sleep for a few weeks,” says his mother. The younger DeSantis, reached by phone in Pennsylvania, referred a reporter to the Obama campaign media office. Asked when he planned to be home in Syracuse again, he said it would be sometime after the election. He says that he has no idea what he might be doing once the campaign was over. Nov. 4 is less than one week away.