Primary Colors: On the street with the Sonia Chang-Diaz Campaign

I called Sonia Chang-Diaz’s Campaign Manager Deborah Shah yesterday to ask if her soldiers were pulling a traditional java-driven all-nighter before today’s primary, in which her candidate is challenging State Senator Dianne Wilkerson for her Second Suffolk Senate District seat. My plan was to surprise them at 4am, when volunteers and even candidates tend to say the darndest things. But Shah doesn’t operate like that: “My way of running a campaign is not having people stay up all night,” she said.

Shah might be the calmest political operative I’ve ever seen or heard the night before an election; in my experience frontrunners act busy so they don’t seem arrogant while underdogs freak out of necessity. Shah was cool though: “We’ll be here at 5:30 tomorrow,” she said. “You’re welcome to come down.”

I show around 7am – just as the donuts and coffee arrive. Things are relatively calm, though some mania bubbles over tardy volunteers. “I’m really concerned that we haven’t heard from a lot of these people,” Shah tells her 12-strong support staff. “Some of them are our best people.”

Like pre-teens whipping out camera phones at Miley Cyrus shows, Shah’s workers frantically grab their cells and start dialing. “They’ll be here soon…something about an alarm clock,” one young woman reports after contacting a late helper. “Yay – I just got a text back over here,” another volunteer announces. “Don’t you remember he had court this morning,” a third caller reminds her colleagues about one straggler.

Shah runs an organized office, which is critical when campaigning in a district that’s been as brutally gerrymandered as the Second Suffolk. The territory – from Jamaica Plain through Roxbury, Mission Hill, Back Bay, Chinatown and even Beacon Hill – is so immense that it’s largely perceived that Chang-Diaz lost her sticker campaign against Wilkerson two years ago because her operation was simply unable to get stickers to enough voters. This time, however, Chang-Diaz isn’t playing; not only is her name on the ballot, but her camp is mobilized. Sort of.

Shah’s maps and ward lists are clearly marked on large printouts sprawled across the walls, but the one-time primary day volunteers don’t know what they’re staring at. Warm bodies are warm bodies though, and she even half-jokingly asks if I want to work as a runner. While I can’t help for reasons both ethical and my not having a car, I hit the road with Peter Lin, a community organizer who’s known Chang-Diaz for a while, and who today is responsible for delivering refreshments to people working inside the polling stations.

I’ve never understood the obligatory donut and coffee runs; particularly in Boston where there are three Dunkies for every six caffeine addicts. The first two polling stations have no Chang-Diaz volunteers passing out literature (there are two Wilkerson supporters at the first spot in the South End). Clearly it would have been more efficient to use these java runners outside the precincts; after sitting through 20 minutes of excruciating drive time muck to get there, Peter arrives at his second stop on Tremont Street to discover that his poll worker doesn’t even want anything (and if he did, there were already three boxes of communal Joe for the sipping).

After leaving Peter I snake through the district on my way to the Phoenix. Though it’s closing in on 8:30am, political pedestrians would have trouble knowing that it’s primary day, let alone who to vote for. The last polling spot I walk past is virtually abandoned save for a few scattered Wilkerson folks, and I’m not seeing the thousands of leftover campaign signs that generally turn up on primary and election days.

Throughout this campaign there’s been a lot of talk about how difficult yet critical it is to get voters to the polls. But from the looks of things this morning it’s not so easy to get volunteers out either.

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