Armies of Volunteers Mobilize To Get Out the Vote in Virginia

By Brett Lieberman

Published November 03, 2008.
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McLEAN, Va. — The days of Barack Obama and John McCain’s efforts to persuade Jewish voters are done. Now, the singular focus in such battleground states as Virginia has shifted to turning out any and all voters.

With relatively few undecided voters remaining, and no heavy concentrations of Jewish voters in any particular neighborhoods or voting precincts, the ethnic and religious operations have pretty much been folded into the campaigns’ larger get-out-the-vote operations, known as GOTV.

“Now it’s all about GOTV,” Josh Kram, Obama’s Virginia Jewish outreach coordinator, said October 30 inside the campaign’s buzzing office here. “Whether you’re Asian American, African American, Jewish American, now it just folds into the GOTV effort here.”

Close to three dozen Jewish volunteers, some part of the metro Washington area’s Jewish Community Leadership Council, which has spearheaded Obama’s Jewish outreach, worked the phones and called lists of voters, or got instructions for canvassing neighborhoods. Oscar-winning actress Debra Winger joined several of them for a late breakfast at the Celebrity Delly before offering a pep talk to Jewish supporters and greeting phone bankers in the McLean and Arlington campaign offices.

“It’s the last push to get people extremely energized again,” said Julie Katzman, one of four JCLC chairs who also campaigned for Obama in New Hampshire, Indiana and Pennsylvania. “Right now, it’s turning out everybody to get them energized for the last 48 hours.”

Fifteen minutes away, a much smaller but equally motivated group of McCain supporters gathered outside the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia, located in Fairfax. It was a much quieter scene: three organizers from the Republican Jewish Coalition who attracted four volunteers to canvass the subdivisions around the JCC, the nearby Conservative synagogue Congregation Olam Tikvah and the Chabad-Lubavitch synagogue Congregation Ahavat Israel.

Despite the close proximity of the three Jewish institutions, the community is not distinctly Jewish. Nor are there other major Jewish concentrations in Northern Virginia, which makes it a challenge to reach the region’s larger Jewish population that is more spread out.

“If you think about it from the concept of going door to door and targeting just Jewish voters, that’s tricky,” Katzman said later. “This isn’t Williamsburg,” she said, referring to the Brooklyn neighborhood with a large Jewish population.

Much like the Democrats, the RJC is aiming at the broader community. The literature left on doorsteps is an RJC ad that includes quotes from Democratic senators Hillary Rodham Clinton, John Kerry and Chuck Schumer, praising McCain’s leadership and experience. It’s a more centrist and positive image designed to attract the support of independents and undecided Democrats. It’s also difficult.

“It’s basically a last-ditch effort,” said Elaine Arnstein of Fairfax. “It’s disappointing that the Jewish community is not standing behind us; there aren’t 10 people here, they’re all blind to Obama.”

Dressed in white T-shirts with a message from the RJC’s ads — “Naive and Inexperienced: Concerned about Obama? You should be” — the small group huddled outside the JCC to organize, map out the streets they would canvass and get instructions.

The message resonates with Paul Berg of Fairfax, who last campaigned for Democrats George McGovern and Paul Tsongas, then a congressional candidate, in 1972. He was motivated by fears that the country would be less safe with Obama in command.

“People may not like Bush, but he’s kept us safe,” Berg said. “And John McCain is the better choice to keep us safe.”

Berg’s top priority is to elect McCain, but he has a fallback reason for getting involved: “If that fails, I want to make my voice heard. Not everybody in the Jewish community has been blinded by Obama,” he said.

Back in McLean, bags of leftover Halloween candy provided energy for the Obama volunteers working in the second-floor office in a corporate park in one of the area’s wealthiest communities.

The center of activity is the giant rectangle of tables in the center of the room, where an eclectic mix of people — some old, some as young as 12 — call lists of voters. It’s serious business for most. One woman scolds Winger, “Could you lower your voice?” as the actress thanks volunteers.

Along with other campaign banners and posters, Obama signs written in Hebrew hang next to ones for Arab-American outreach and one for U.S. Rep. Jim Moran, whose relationship with the Jewish community could be described as strained at best. “The worst enemy is stasis,” Winger tells a group of Jewish volunteers. “The worst enemy within us is saying, ‘Well, I don’t know, I don’t feel sure enough.’”

“It’s unacceptable,” she said. “Stasis is a vote. So you really have to emphasize the importance. They’re all registered, but will they vote on Tuesday?”

It was such worries that Jews would not vote that motivated Winger to get involved in Obama’s campaign back in the primary.

“I really believe our voice depends on our vote,” she told the Forward. “As we see more intermarriage and as we expand our lives to include all beliefs and want our own to be included, we have to remember that our voice needs to remain strong in the community.”

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