A City Council candidate returns to old-fashioned politics with door-to-door campaigning. Although time consuming and frustrating, it might be the best way for candidates to reach people.
On a Friday evening in Butchers Hill, people are getting home from work, walking their dogs, starting dinner, and Matt A. Clark, on a corner across the street from Patterson Park, poises himself at the foot of a marble stoop.
By climbing the steps and giving the door atop a hearty knock, the Green Party candidate in the City Council’s 1st District is hurling himself into the ground war of American politics: door-to-door campaigning. He joins candidates across Baltimore, across Maryland, across the country in practicing democracy at its most basic, most humbling and perhaps most effective form.
Yet tonight, it’s a whole lot of nothing. At the first home Clark tries, no one answers the door. Same for the second. And the third. At the fourth, the door opens … a bit.
“Are you a registered voter?” Clark asks eagerly. Seconds later, the door’s shutting, and he’s backing down the steps. “I think,” he says, “she was trying to get me to move along.”
Clark, who’s vying for the seat with Democrat James B. Kraft and Republican Roberto L. Marsili in the Nov. 2 election, faces daunting prospects. The roughly 1,300 people in town who have chosen the environmentally oriented Green Party live among more than 228,000 Democrats, 26,000 Republicans and 23,000 unaffiliated voters.
Though door-to-door campaigning is time-consuming, and as the beginning of Clark’s evening demonstrates, often tedious, political veterans, academics and voters agree that it’s the best way to reach people.
And because the fight between George W. Bush and John Kerry for the presidency could come down to a photo finish, legions of their local supporters are embracing door-to-door campaigning in earnest, hoping to pull in every possible voter, says Bill Galston, interim dean of University of Maryland’s School of Public Affairs.
As campaign strategies shifted from the personal, fueled by handshakes and kissed babies, to the media-centric, fought with pricey TV ads and technology-heavy tactics, people became alienated and voter participation dwindled. Now realizing this, Galston says, candidates are going old school, embracing a political tactic that predates radio, television and the automobile.
“I call it back-to-the-future politics,” Galston says, “and we’re seeing a lot of it this year.”
As Clark walks the Southeast Baltimore neighborhood, he eventually finds a willing ear, a woman walking her dog along Baltimore Street who not only wants to hear a bit about Clark and the Green Party but also fills out a voter registration form.
And as daylight fades, Clark hits pay dirt in Jim Reeb, a 42-year-old teacher with Living Classrooms, a nonprofit group that provides education and job training for at-risk children. Reeb says his “big issue,” like Clark’s, is a moratorium on waterfront development. And yes, he would gladly display a Clark sign in his front window. “Actually, gimme two,” Reeb says. “No, gimme three.”
Some of the priciest property has sprung up along the water in 1st District neighborhoods such as Fells Point, Canton and the Inner Harbor’s east side. Clark doesn’t want to see more prime harbor views taken over by pricey real estate.
Clark finds more unanswered doors as he campaigns. More cards in the mail slot. One woman walking by only laughs when Clark calls out, “‘Scuse me, my name is Matt Clark, and I’m running for City Council. Would you consider voting for me?” He adds: “Is that such a hard question?” She laughs more and keeps walking.
Baltimore City Council veterans like Mary Pat Clarke and Nicholas C. D’Adamo Jr. have logged their share of face time with constituents. And they have their walking shoes on again. With the district lines redrawn, they find themselves campaigning in new, smaller districts. Even the city’s political old hands are a little out of their element.
“I am a big believer in door-to-door,” says Clarke, who is running in the 14th District against the Green Party’s Myles B. Hoenig. “It really makes you a stronger elected official because you have such a good grounding in what people are saying and thinking. You know where the problems are. You know what corner the drug dealers are on. You’ve even talked to the drug dealers on those corners.”
Clarke is a former council president who was absent from city politics from 1995 until winning the 14th District Democratic primary last year.
D’Adamo, a Democrat, was elected to the council in 1987 from the old 1st District. The way he goes about door-to-door, it’s more of a lifestyle choice than a campaign technique. In election years, D’Adamo is at it all evening, six days a week, three or four months at a time. In his first campaign, he hit every home in the district with likely voters — three times.
“I won with $12,000 and shoe leather. I busted my backside doing it the old way,” says D’Adamo. Redistricting has put him in the 2nd District, where he faces Will Bauer, a Republican, and Libertarian Lorenzo Gaztanaga.
D’Adamo likes to make the doorway visits extra memorable by leaving something with his name on it — notepads, chip clips, potholders. One year, he lugged a wagon laden with coffee mugs. “That’s work, believe me,” he says.
As council candidates work city neighborhoods, supporters of Maryland’s U.S. Senate candidates and the presidential hopefuls are hitting the streets as well. In fact, because Maryland isn’t one of the swing states, where the campaigns are depleting their funds on TV and radio time, the all-but-free door-to-door approach is all they can afford.
“We’re relying almost exclusively on grass roots,” says Josh White, executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party.
Though they might not agree on much, White and Jim Pelura, Maryland’s chairman for Bush-Cheney ’04, say that because it’s the rare voter whose mind isn’t made up for president, by going door-to-door, they want to shake people into voting. And though he considers e-mail and the Internet invaluable in reaching his party faithful, Pelura says technology is no substitute for looking someone in the eye.
“People want contact. We’re social animals,” he says. “We’ve gotten away from that with the Internet, but I think it’s coming back. This is a one-on-one campaign.”
With phones ringing off the hook with telemarketers and inboxes being deluged by spam, people these days have little patience for things that invade their downtime. So it’s notable, says Johns Hopkins political science professor Matthew Crenson, that people tolerate, even appreciate, candidates knocking at their doors.
“People think of it as old-fashioned and that takes the curse out of it,” Crenson says. “Most of politics is not like this. People feel very distant from politics. This brings it up close. American democracy comes to your front door and wants to listen to you.”
On Baltimore Street, it’s dark now and Clark’s working by the glow of street lamps.
A man comes to the door of one home as a woman peers out from an upstairs window. “I’m Matt Clark, I’m running for council. Just want to introduce myself.”
The man, in stocking feet and shorts, props his screen door open so it doesn’t slam on Clark and listens intently as the candidate tries to explain the Green Party philosophy. The man, Kirk Robinson, 40, a railroad carman who just moved to the city from Baltimore County, promises to check out Clark’s Web site.
As Clark continues down the street, Robinson says he’s impressed with the candidate’s initiative. “For people not all that active in politics,” he says, “I think it’s a great way to meet people and get his name out.”
Joanne Goshen, who’s helping with Clark’s campaign and walking with him on this night, guesses it’s meaningful just meeting someone at your door. “It seems more real,” she says.
As the two turn around, wrapping up for the night, Goshen jokes that now that Clark’s 35, he can run for president.
“That,” Clark says, “is a lot of doors.”
October 16, 2004