Sure, it's annoying. Those dinnertime phone calls asking for your vote, your money, your time. Those mean-spirited commercials with no information about the sponsoring candidate, only that low creepy voice warning you of the opposing candidates' diabolical views. Those news reports about accusations, denials, and positional flip-flops. The endless, often contradictory and usually misleading polls.
It's Election Season.
My advice? Don't get angry, get involved. That's what I do.
With a disability like mine, some political activities are out of the question. I can't canvass neighborhoods, because most private residences are inaccessible to visitors using wheelchairs. I can't volunteer for phone banks without my own adapted telephone equipment, or without someone else to dial and hold the receiver. I can't contribute huge amounts of money, because my other disability is being not rich.
What I've learned, though, is that I can still play a role in political campaigns. So can you. What can we do? Just show up.
Woody Allen said something like, Eighty percent of success is just showing up. (Different versions of this quote float around the Internet.) I think that's right, if in politics "success" means having just a little bit of the impact that, as citizens in a democracy, we have every right to expect.
Okay, I'll admit, that sounded a little starry-eyed. I'm as skeptical as anyone about our dysfunctional version of democracy. It doesn't work the way it's supposed to. Shady, misnamed political action committees pay for deceptive ads, while huge special interests purchase strings that you know they'll be pulling later.
But I refuse to let my skepticism and dissent deteriorate into cynicism. I'll denounce corruption wherever it's exposed. I'll laugh at the outrageous satire of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.
I will not
, however, give up on the ideals of democracy, including civic participation and one-person-one-vote.
And that one vote – your vote, my vote, etc. – is something that the candidates still want. So make them earn it. Don't let them buy it with their dirty money. Let them know that you pay attention, and care about issues that they should also care about. How do you make this clear to them? You don't need a lot of expertise, money, or energy. You just need to be present sometimes. Be visible. Just show up.
Politicians, political organizations, and advocacy groups hold dozens of events in the weeks leading up to Election Day. Just last week, I attended two events, which is more than my usual average, but they made me want to do it more often. They were very different in size and type, but both gave me a chance to count as a citizen and a voter.
Last Thursday, Rep. Joe Rice, who represents my district in the Colorado General Assembly, held a pizza party at a local restaurant. I have to admit that what first got my attention was the promise of free pizza – my daughter loves pizza. But I also know Joe to be a smart and decent guy who does a good job in the statehouse. So I went, and also persuaded my partner, my brother and his family, and my parents to go too. (My daughter didn't need any persuading.)
It was a relatively small, friendly gathering – probably 60 or 70 people came and went at different times during the course of the event. In between, they ate pizza, salad and snacks, and talked to Joe. Most left with a yard sign.
That's what we did too. We enjoyed the food, but we also made our presence known. I introduced myself to Joe, and he remembered that we are friends on Facebook! (That's another way of "showing up" – make a virtual connection with the candidates if possible.) I took the opportunity to talk to him about Colorado's budget problems, and potential cuts in Medicaid programs. I mentioned that several other states are pushing through drastic cuts in home and community based services, threatening to force some people with disabilities into nursing homes. "Which is more expensive, and a lower quality of life," he responded.
I was glad to learn that my representative already had a handle on this basic concept, that home care is better and usually cheaper than institutional placement. But by seeing me and my partner, two visibly disabled constituents – and not just us, but also our family members who care about these issues too – he gets a powerful reminder that his Medicaid-related actions in the legislature will be noted by at least half a dozen politically engaged citizens of his district. Because it was a small gathering, our presence there made more of an impact.
The day before that, last Tuesday, a group of disability rights organizations including the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition (CCDC)
sponsored a gubernatorial forum. The forum was held in a large theater, with a local TV talk show host moderating. The two major candidates, John Hickenlooper and Don Maes, each spent an hour answering detailed questions, which the host had prepared in consultation with advocates. (The third-party candidate, Tom Tancredo, was invited but declined.)
This time, my individual presence was barely noticeable. What made my showing up so powerful this time was that over 500 members of the disability community showed up with me! Wheelchair users, crutch and walker users, blind folks, lots of young people and adults with developmental disabilities; as well as parents, spouses, attendants, friends – we nearly filled that big concert hall. The two candidates couldn't help but be impressed.
We keep talking about the power of the disability community as a voting bloc. We can expect candidates to understand this automatically. We have to show them our numbers, our interest, our commitment, our involvement. We have to show up.
Remember the immortal words of the late great disability rights leader Justin Dart: " Get into politics as if your life depended on it - because it does."
Copyright 2010 by Laura Hershey