As vote nears, calling out for change - Williamsburg activists gather for a phone party to sway swing voters to go blue

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In one of the most left-leaning neighborhoods in one of the most Democratic cities in the country, the push to get Sen. Barack Obama into the White House is on.

Fourteen Obama supporters, most of whom were heretofore strangers, gathered at a Powers Street apartment in East Williamsburg on Saturday to dial for the Dems. They were brought together by, the progressive advocacy group known for its savvy use of the Internet to unite its members and build a powerful coalition.

The destination of their calls was Falls Church, Va., a blue-leaning, well-to-do suburb in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. Along with other D.C. suburbs, Falls Church is part of a rapidly growing area that has rendered the once solidly red Virginia – which went for Bush in 2004 – a swing state.

But the Williamsburg callers – who made the calls on their cell phones – were not targeting swing voters; rather, they were targeting other MoveOn members to get them to volunteer in their critical state.

“It’s this interesting viral or pyramid system – it’s like 10 people call 50 people, and it becomes exponential,” said Cassie Neyenesch, the party’s host, who was impressed by how organized MoveOn was.

“When I agreed to host this, they sent me a bunch of emails. A few days ago, someone called me and said, ‘You haven’t picked up your call-sheets yet.’ They really stay on you,” she said.

Added Beth Hillebrand, a Lorimer Street resident: “If [MoveOn] hadn’t contacted me, if they hadn’t emailed me, I’d still be sitting at home thinking, ‘I wish I could help somehow.’”

The first order of business for the callers was mastering the call-script, which involved exchanging pleasantries and establishing shared priorities in preparation for the “Ask,” the culmination of the call.

One thing callers had to grapple with was the high rate of failure inherent in cold-calling. Each caller placed 40 calls, getting through to an average of no more than four or five people. Generally, however, the like-minded Virginians on the other end were receptive.

“I’ve been calling ‘undecideds,’ and it can be pretty eye-opening in a bad way,” said Kevin Dekinah, a Lower East Side resident, adding, “This has been pretty positive so far.”

Overall, the 14 callers in Williamsburg placed 560 calls to Virginia. In between calls, they noshed on cheese and crackers and exchanged opinions about the dire state they feel the country is in.

“The country is just such a mess. Our future and the future of my kids is at stake,” said Claudia Jungkunst, a Bushwick resident and a first-time political volunteer.

“This election is so critical, we have to get out there and do whatever we can. At a time in this country when you feel so helpless and overwhelmed, it’s kind of empowering to get up and actually do something,” she added.

Many people echoed Jungkust in saying that the closeness and critical nature of the election, underscored by George W. Bush’s narrow defeat of John Kerry in 2004, had propelled them into action.

“I was actually in Ohio [a closely contested state that ultimately gave Bush the election] in college in ‘04, and I didn’t get involved. So I feel it’s kind of on me,” said Sam Withrow, a Prospect Heights resident.

“It seems like most people my age feel like if Obama doesn’t win, we have to move to another country,” added Renata Silberblatt, a Greenpoint resident, only somewhat tongue-in-cheek.

“I tend to be pretty apathetic, but I realized that if I wanted anything to change, I’d have to resist my own natural apathy,” quipped Tom, a Lorimer Street resident.

In addition to wanting a change from the Bush administration, callers also seemed genuinely excited about Obama himself.

“There’s a higher energy about it because the stakes are so high and people really like Obama. His energy and the way he connects gets people motivated,” said Karen Hudes, a Williamsburg resident.

Added Tom: “Obama’s the first candidate I remember that doesn’t give me that instant fear response, that instinctive, ‘I don’t trust this guy’ response.”

Updated 11:48 am, January 16, 2019
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