It’s Saturday morning, and Enrique Aquilar is about to embark on his first precinct walk as an intern on District 9 Supervisor David Campos’ State Assembly election campaign against Board of Supervisor President David Chiu.
Aquilar, who moved here two months ago to pursue a Master’s in Public Affairs from the University of San Francisco, has traveled from the Inner Sunset to walk the Mission’s streets encouraging registered voters—all on a list he carried on a clipboard—to vote for Campos in November. His first stop is the southwest 24th Street BART Plaza, where other interns, campaign organizers and volunteers – some 40 people in total— are gathering and preparing for a morning of knocking on doors and handing out flyers.
Yes, right here in the plaza there is idealism, coffee, apples and a bulk-pack of Safeway croissants. Precinct-walking has long been a staple of American political campaigns. It’s often a tactic used by grassroots-focused campaigns that rely more on manpower than money to get out the vote. According to the Mobilize the Immigrant Vote, a California-wide campaign, precinct-walking is one of the most effective modes of campaigning in many communities, far exceeding the results of phone-banking.
Genesis Chavez-Caro is a 20-year-old and from Los Angeles. She decided to intern with Campos’ campaign after another organizer came to campus and discussed the platform—one that involves helping long-term residents keep their homes and jobs in the face of the new wealth entering San Francisco.
“I like being part of something I believe in and not just for a reference,” she says, referring to the habit of young college students volunteering and then asking for a letter of reference.
Campos finally arrives with his parents and aunt in tow, a large “Unity Clap” greets him. The clap, which farm workers used during the 1970s, begins slowly but progresses into a fast-paced, loud beat.
After a short speech and photo, the precinct groups are off. Devin Silvernail, a full-time Campos campaign coordinator, and Aquilar are headed to precinct 7922, which includes 24th and Alabama to Bryant and 25th and everything in between.
“Right in the heart of awesomeness,” says Silvernail, who is a seasoned campaigner and has been busy training people in the BART plaza for the past hour.
Silvernail and Aquilar, both 27, begin the usual small talk that evolves into “it’s a small world” –in minutes they realize that they lived in the same Seattle neighborhood.
The precincts are split into four Tetris block-like turfs. Each group, usually made up of four to eight people, takes on a turf. They pass other groups of two as Silvernail discusses the importance of starting a political career as an intern.
“Barack Obama was an intern at one point,” he says.
When they hit Alabama, they approach the first house, an old, slightly unkempt split Victorian that looks as though it might have once been a vibrant blue.
“I’ll do a couple and we can trade off when you feel comfortable,” Silvernail tells Aquilar. He then asks whether or not Aquilar can speak fluent Spanish. Yes, and with that he is on as their frontman with the monolingual Spanish-speakers.
There’s a moment of anticipation, but no one answers the door. “Put down an ‘NH’ for ‘Not Home,’” Silvernail says to Aquilar, pointing to the sheets of paper on his clipboard.
“You’ll see precinct-walking is a lot of people not being home,” Silvernail continues.
By his own estimate, Silvernail has walked about 100 precincts and he figures about one in five people answer the door. Aquilar is about to find out that number might even be generous.
House after house warrants an “NH” on the clipboard, at which point Silvernail leaves a flyer-pamphlet with a large, smiling photo of Campos on the front in the gated doorway or in any nook where it might fit—just not the mailbox because that’s illegal.
On occasion, someone will answer the door but usually only halfway. It is rare that even that person is the registered voter whose name is on the list. Sometimes it’s a roommate who lets Silvernail and Aquilar know the person they are looking for is not home.
“People are usually out of the house by this time on Saturday,” Silvernail says with the spirit of an optimist. “We are a motivated city.”
Sometimes the door is opened, but the person no longer lives there.
“That’s the sad reality in the Mission is that so many people have moved and not necessarily by choice,” Silvernail explains, asking Aquilar to put an “MV” for “Moved” by the person’s name.
In the five times out of roughly 50 that they actually find the right person at the right address, the people are mostly polite but dismissive.
“Yes, we will probably vote for Campos.”
“No, I would not like to display a poster,” they say while trying to close the door, the sound of barking dogs echoing through the home’s interior hallways.
Finally, Maria Escobar, a hotel worker and a Campos supporter, opens the door and is ready to chat.
“We like Campos,” she tells the two, gesturing to her whole building.
Aquilar switches to Spanish and the two go back and forth for a while, which results in Escobar taking a campaign poster.
She switches back to English. “I will put the poster right up on the front gate,” she promises.
A little Chihuahua has joined the group. “This is Oliver,” Escobar says proudly and then, after accepting a poster, she’s off to play bingo at her senior center.
By the next Saturday, now 38 days away from Election Day, Silvernail has already completed four more precinct walks. Today’s gathering spot is the playground at Dolores Park, and the Safeway croissants and same loudspeakers have found their way to the new location.
Voter turnout in midterm elections is notoriously low. The Pew Research Center reports that this has been the case since the 1840s. In the last midterm election of 2010, the voter turnout dropped to 36.9 percent from 57.1 percent in 2008. In the case for local campaigns, half the battle is getting people to the polls, let alone convincing them to vote for a specific candidate.
Silvernail is on his own today in a completely different neighborhood than last Saturday, the area around Sanchez and Hancock.
As he walks up the dark exterior stairwell of one multiple-unit home, Silvernail exclaims, “Oh, her name is Devin!”
“Hi, my name is Devin too!,” the poll worker says as the female Devin answers the door.
She appears skeptical and is restraining a large dog.
“There’s a big election happening. Do you plan to vote?,” Silvernail asks.
“I haven’t researched enough, but I do plan on voting,” she says, accepting Silvernail’s campaign literature.
She comments on the beautiful weather and wishes Silvernail luck before closing the door.
“For being as young as she was, she actually stayed to talk for a while,” Silvernail says, marking a “U” for “Undecided” by the 29-year-old’s name.
“Most people under 30 are just like, ‘No,’” he says with a laugh.
In this neighborhood, the interactions rise exponentially.
At the end of the first block, three people all over the age of 30 and all out drinking coffee and reading the paper on a sidewalk table outside their home, even approach Silvernail with questions.
“What’s your list,” asks a man wearing glasses with circular frames and a small newsboy cap.
“Is it people you are trying to persuade or people that are likely to vote for him?” asks the only woman in the group.
They are all registered voters who have previously voted, Silvernail explains.
“We just had a big rally at Dolores Park because [Campos] just got endorsements from Planned Parenthood and the National Organization of Woman,” Silvernail continues, enjoying his interested audience.
“Do any of you interface with the Harvey Milk Democratic Club?,” Silvernail asks.
“I don’t want to read anyone’s propaganda or spin,” the woman says.
“What do the polls say? Are they neck and neck?,” the conversation switches back to California’s 17th Assembly District race when the man from San Jose interjects with this question.
“They are super neck and neck,” Silvernail says of Campos and his opponent.
The three seem surprised but can’t define why. “It’s just interesting to me,” the man from San Jose says. “It makes what you do really important.”
Silvernail walks away from this interaction with a smile on his face. Sometimes on these long walks, there are moments of validation.