Rallying the Promised Land, Part I

Just as it is in 2012, Wisconsin was a closely contested battleground state in the 2004 presidential election. That year, The Mrs. and I volunteered for the Kerry campaign in various ways. When the candidate came to town with a special guest just a week before the election, we worked the rally, and I wrote about it on my original blog, the Daily Aneurysm. It’s probably the best actual reporting I’ve ever done. (It’s insanely long, too, so I’m dividing it into three installments.) The whole thing appeared on October 28, 2004.

Today The Mrs. and I volunteered to help out at John Kerry’s Madison rally. It’s a tradition for the Democratic presidential candidate to appear here the week before the election, and with Wisconsin so critical this year, it’s doubly important. Bill Clinton reportedly set the attendance record with 40,000 during one of his appearances, and Al Gore packed ’em in on the Capitol Square in 2000. This rally has been moved, however, so the stage is four blocks from the square at the intersection of West Washington Avenue and Bassett Street, and the throng will assemble back up Wash to the Square. Bassett is a street steeped in history; along with Mifflin Street, which intersects it a couple of blocks away, Bassett was the beating heart of the counterculture 1960s in Madison. To this day, the Union Cab drivers still call Bassett “the Ho Chi Minh Trail.”

8:00AM: We arrive at the volunteer rendezvous area at West Washington and Henry. Most of the volunteers seem to be between the ages of 35 and 70, and we wait in knots for the campaign staffers in charge of the particular areas to which each of us was assigned last night. When they arrive, they are all between the ages of 21 and 22.

8:15AM: The Mrs. and I, assigned to sign distribution, learn the identity of the staffer in charge of sign distribution. She calls her group over to another part of the staging area, where we wait.

8:30AM: “Sign people, follow me!” We take off down West Washington Avenue toward the main stage. We are herded through the security checkpoint, where we must remove all campaign buttons and the contents of our pockets. The Secret Service confiscates the apples The Mrs. was carrying, presumably because unauthorized fruit presents a security concern.

8:35AM: After going through security, we spy a line of portable toilets. It occurs to me that thanks to the Secret Service, these are the most secure toilets I will ever have the opportunity to use, so I partake.

8:40AM: We follow our leader to a spot just behind the main stage, where we begin waiting anew.

8:50AM: A guy in a Boston Red Sox hat comes toward us. “There’s a happy Red Sox fan,” I say aloud. “I’m still inebriated,” he says, and I believe he could be telling the truth. It turns out he’s part of the national advance team.

[The night before, the Red Sox had won their first World Series since 1918.]

9:15AM: “Sign people, follow me!” We take off back up West Washington Avenue about one-half block to a spot behind the media risers and next to the portable toilets. Upon arrival, we wait some more.

9:30AM: Finally, we get a job to do. We are sent back down West Washington Avenue to get boxes of signs. There are approximately 12 or 15 sign volunteers and 8,000 signs, which we will distribute later on. As we’re returning to our spot behind the risers, a blues band takes the stage. We wait yet again.

9:40AM: It occurs to me that the spot we’re in is a pretty good one. There are three levels of ticketing for the event: red and blue, which require a trip through security and get you down front, and white, which does not require security screening but puts you farther back. Next to the media risers, we are on the edge of the red area, maybe 150 feet from the stage.

9:45AM: The Mrs. strikes up a conversation with a guy in an Ohio State University baseball cap and sweatshirt. It turns out he is in charge of the giant video screen positioned halfway back up West Washington Avenue for the convenience of the attendees at the back of the crowd. The Mrs., still pissed off at the woman who cut in front of her in line last night for the last spot with the press volunteers, ends up being asked to run the camera for the giant video screen. This gets her not only a place on the media risers but a spot where she can sit down.

In the next installment: Various dignitaries appear, the crowd gets restless, and I am not good at sign distribution.

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