by Kellen Squire
One Saturday morning not too long ago, our campaign team here in Central Virginia ventured out early to do some door knocking- early because of the forecasted temperature at noon was over a hundred degrees. We were accompanied by a volunteer from Code Blue from Northern Virginia; not content to ride out the non-competitive race in dark blue districts, they’ve stepped up to help races across the country.
The area we hit that morning was relatively red, but it was also dense- a rarity in the largely rural 58th District, which runs from the Harrisonburg suburbs to the James River in Fluvanna County, deftly skipping the heavily Democratic cities of Harrisonburg and Charlottesville altogether. And while we have an absolutely winnable race- something nobody would’ve even bothered to consider on November 6th, 2016- that means going out and talking to folks everywhere we can. Deep canvassing at its most intense.
We split up the streets we were walking down; my campaign volunteers hit the easier houses, our juiciest targets as indicated in the VAN- the Voter Action Network, our statewide voter database- and I hit everything else. Which is how it was I came to a house with “TRUMP” stickers displayed prominently on two vehicles in the driveway.
I could’ve skipped it. The odds this guy was going to vote for me were slim, and in insurgent, David-vs-Goliath campaigns like mine, time is never on our side. Why spend it on someone who’s never going to vote for you?
But I’ve had a premise I’ve held for awhile now; that there is a progressive revolution brewing out here in Trump country. That the folks out here, a lot of ’em saw their vote for Trump as being an equal “**** YOU!“ to the Republican party as it was to the Democratic party. That while they’ve felt abandoned by everyone, no Democrats have even bothered to challenge my district in damn near a decade- so why were we surprised by who they’ve been voting for?
Without hesitation, I went up to the door, having to weave my way through a veritable jungle of beautiful potted plants to reach it; regardless of their political affiliation, looked like these folks had some seriously green thumbs. I knocked firmly, and a few seconds later, an older gentleman answered the door, wiping his dirt-streaked hands on a dishcloth, and regarded me coolly through his screen door.
“Hi,” I said, “my name is Kellen Squire; I’m an emergency department nurse, and I’m running for the House of Delegates this fall in our district.”
He thought about this for a second. “Well,” he intoned, you must be a conservative, if you’re here at my door.”
“No, sir,” I replied, pulling out one of my palm cards and offering it to him. “I’m a Democrat.”
He cracked the screen door just enough to take the card, a “Hmph!” noise escaping his lips as he regarded it. I noticed his eyebrows raise as he scanned the top of it, which I assumed was on the point of my palm card where I mentioned Medicaid expansion.
“If you’re a Democrat,” he said, his voice carrying a slightly hostile tone to it, “how can you be okay with what the Democrats are doing to Trump?”
This is where my time as an assistant store manager at The Home Depot came in handy, as well as the years I’ve spent as a triage nurse in my emergency department (“You say that got up there by accident, sir? Okay.“). Because otherwise, I would have launched into a dissertation going from Mitch McConnell’s “one term President” to “spicy mustard” to “grey suit”, and compared it to what is going on in Washington right now, with a healthy sprinkling of profanity peppering it. None of which would probably have done much to engender a dialogue with this gentleman.
Besides that, one of my consistent sticking points with my campaign has been that too many folks have been caught in an echo chamber- and while anyone caught in an echo chamber certainly owns some of the fault for that, if we abandon any attempt to reach them, then we’ve ceded the ground for all of the ideas that are shoved into that unholy mixture. And that’s exactly what has happened in my district, which hasn’t had a challenger to the incumbent in almost a decade.
But I couldn’t be anything but honest with him on how I felt about the President- and so I was.
“Well, I’m not a fan of the President’s, sir,” I intoned seriously. “I’m happy to give the office the respect it’s due, since I was upset when people didn’t do that for President Obama. But I’m pretty disappointed with how Mr. Trump has carried himself, and the things he’s both done and hasn’t done since being elected. I do understand why folks voted for him, even if I thought personally he was selling a line and never intended to stand up for things he said he would. Because folks out here see what goes on in Washington, that nobody is fighting for them, regardless of what party they belonged to.”
My Trump voter nodded along at this, even semi-vigorously at a couple points. When no angry rebuttal came forth, I plowed onward.
“And I’m running here in our district, sir, not up in Washington; I might not like Mr. Trump, but he’s not here, and I’m not running against him. I want to fix problems here in Virginia- like on healthcare. I work in the ER, and we’re on the front lines of everything from the opioid crisis to Medicaid expansion, and there’s so much better we could, and ought, to be doing here in Virginia to better serve our Commonwealth. Particularly in rural districts like ours, making sure people can see the doctor when they need to! Get the medications they need! By God, Thomas Jefferson himself once held the very seat I’m running for; d’you think he’d be okay with what’s going on today?”
The man shook his head; no, not hardly. I pointed to my logo on the palm card he was holding onto, where my slogan featured prominently- PEOPLE BEFORE PARTY. “I’m proud to run as a Democrat, sir, but I’m fighting for the folks here, in our district, first and foremost. And that’ll never change; I’ll quit before it does.”
While I could see I’d made some traction on making this gentleman think, I could tell it was only some. Which is fine; I recognized that from the get-go. All I could do is tell him how I felt, and the rest was up to him. He nodded thoughtfully, though, as we wrapped up our conversation. I thanked him sincerely for his time, and told him I hoped to see him out on the campaign trail again before November. As I turned to leave, though, he called back to me.
“Good luck in your race,” he said, “I hope it goes well for you.”
Which, as far as I was concerned, was an absolute “win” on that interaction. I thanked him sincerely and walked on, heading toward the next door. The Code Blue volunteer who had come down for the day to help us, Cindy, looked thoughtful as we walked together toward our next target.
“What’d you think?” I asked her. She considered this for a minute.
“Well,” she said, “I’m not sure we won his vote. But I think we made him stop and wonder. And hopefully he saw you just as another good man who’s frustrated with politics as usual, and wants to step up to make things different.”
All I could do was nod. “Yep. About as good an outcome as we could’ve asked for.”
I initially walked away from that exchange feeling pretty good about what happened. I mean, considering I’ve had my campaign volunteers threatened on Primary Day; that I was told Democrats were like bugs that needed to be exterminated; that I had a “brood” of “brats” (followed by a strangely anti-Semitic rant); that I had a call from an unlisted number from someone who thought it’d be super cool to tell me they didn’t like me, and then read off my daughter’s name, age, grade, and elementary school… after all those things, a positive interaction with an unapologetic Trump voter to an unapologetic progressive was pretty good, right?
But I got stuck on that one line; it played over and over in my head, and I couldn’t let it go.
You must be a conservative, or else you wouldn’t be here at my door.
Those of you who know me know that, during the Governor’s primary here in Virginia, I was an unapologetic supporter of Tom Perriello’s. I like Ralph Northam a lot; he once asked me if I knew how many times nurses had saved his bacon, which I could only grin and nod at- that’s what nurses do best, after all. And he’s still the only candidate I’ve ever heard that can pontificate on “epigenetics”, and not only what they are, but why they’re essential to consider in any push to reform healthcare in our Commonwealth. This year was bizarre, because it was an easy choice in our gubernatorial primary; both candidates were awesome.
My respect and reverence for Tom, though, has stretched all the way back to when I was still a single dad and poor-as-frick college student, who budgeted my finances literally for five months in order to be able to afford what is, still to this day, the biggest single political donation I’ve ever made- $225. $225 to a man who said, in March of 2010, after voting for the Affordable Care Act, that “If I have to go home in November, and people get healthcare, that’s not a bad deal.”
Tom is always someone who’s never been afraid to wade into a conversation like the one I had in Greene County, or go to that precinct he wasn’t “supposed to” go to. He’s never been afraid to be unapologetic about who he is, or what he believes. He won because of it in 2008; and in 2010, in the Tea Party year, when people in much more “liberal” districts got blown out of the water, a few thousand votes would’ve given him a win, even in the ruby-red Virginia 5th Congressional District.
He showed that if you go out, and listen to people- not just wait for your turn to talk, but listen. Really listen. Take their concerns to heart. Show them you don’t have to agree with them a hundred percent to stand up and fight for them. That you can win.
We didn’t do that- either here in Virginia, or nationally. Two years ago, in our last election cycle, not a single incumbent lost- and I believe we had a record for how few districts were even challenged. The Koch Brothers dumped a billion dollars into state legislative races, and we just rolled over and let ’em.
You must be a conservative, or you wouldn’t be here at my door.
That has to stop, now. Seeing what’s going on in Washington? The stakes are too damn high for anything else. Our Republic is literally on the line here– that’s not hyperbole. That’s what I realized in the wake of the election last November; that what was shaping up to be was that my generation would be the first in American history to tell their kids, hey- sorry, guys. It was good while it lasted. All of those opportunities I had, the majority of which I squandered? You’re not even going to get the chance to have them in the first place.
I don’t know if y’all can conscience that, but I can’t.
I refuse to.
I get it; it’s not easy. It’s intimidating as hell. Try explaining to the guy with the Molon Labe tattoo that there is absolutely no way the Founders ever would’ve supported “Constitutional Carry”, and that our gun show loophole is killing people in New York every day. Try telling the blue-haired lady who just word-associated “Democrat” with “baby killer” that you not only refuse to defund Planned Parenthood, you’ve supported financially and used their services personally. Try telling the evangelical Baptist that everyone deserves to marry who they love, and not face recrimination for it; and that you don’t give a single dang what bathroom someone uses, as long as they wash their hands. And remember the whole time, you have to be unfailingly respectful; that word of mouth carries long and far in districts like mine, and everything you do and say will be scrutinized, misapprehended, and always assumed to be with malicious intent.
You won’t win every voter over. Nobody ever does, which is why we keep seeing evidence that running as an unapologetic progressive is the way to go. But you can make headway. You can eat away at the margins. Because when you do, you hear the tattooed gun owner agree with you that there’s nothing at all wrong with background checks. You watch the blue-hair tear up when you explain that it’s you performing those emergent abortions in our ER, and hear her agree that robust birth control availability and comprehensive sex ed are absolutely necessary if we actually want to make a difference in the abortion rate. You have the evangelical Baptist tell you their grandson is gay and was kicked out of their church- and they refuse to be a part of a church that won’t welcome their grandson fully.
Of course, stories won’t always end on those sorts of heartwarming notes. By far and away, in the majority of cases, you’ll get called a gun grabber. A baby killer. A pedophile enabler (because of the bathrooms, see). Or, my favorite, a politician! Which is technically true, I suppose, but is snarled in such a way as to represent all of the above things and more- someone who is duplicitous, conniving, and only out for themselves.
Sadly, we’ve gotten to a point in our society where Occam’s Razor always points to malice first in people’s minds, especially with anyone who broaches the echo chamber they’ve encased themselves in. With as much as people are clamoring for fresh faces in politics, you’d think they wouldn’t seek out the dulcet tones of the focus-grouped buzz words they’ve been fed for decades. That they can’t comprehend the possibility there are folks who just honestly want to fight for the Democratic values and traditions our country was founded on- and which may well disappear without constant vigilance and people willing to stand up and fight.
So, knowing that, why would we do it? Why would anyone in their right mind want to be put through that?
Recently, I had a patient I had taken care of long ago come back into our ER to seek me out; which is rare enough to have only happened to me once or twice in my entire career. She was not much older than I; a single mom who made too much for Medicaid, and thanks to the refusal of our General Assembly to expand Medicaid, couldn’t afford insurance with as much as she worked to support her son.
She’d come to see us after having diffuse abdominal pain, pain she’d been ignoring for a number of weeks because she had no primary care physician; one didn’t exist where she lived, even if she had the insurance to enable her to see one. Every test we did, every vial of blood we drew or urine test we wanted to run, she wanted to make sure we did as little as possible, since she would have to pay-out-of-pocket for them.
Her CT scan flagged as concerning for a neoplastic growth; ovarian cancer, probably. Almost certainly a death sentence. She told me about how this couldn’t happen. It couldn’t. She’d been planning on taking her son to a theme park that’s a household name; it’s all he’d talked about for a year. She’d made all the arrangements. Saved the money. It was set. I sat with her for a few minutes as she cried silently and vented to me, holding my hand, as I fought valiantly to not join her in sobbing.
But ER Nurses have to take a breath and move on, since we have so many patients who need our help, and such a limited time to help in. And that’s what I did; we discharged her and sent her on her way. I moved on, and that episode became another in a series of events that will sit silently on my shoulders for all time- something any medical professional here knows full well about.
She came back in, however, and when I remembered her name, I feared I would see her at her worst; emaciated, bald, with a chemo pump attached at the hip. Instead, she was vibrant and full of life- and just visiting us, not coming in as a patient! She told us proudly that didn’t have cancer; her mass was non-malignant. She was fine. But she wanted to come back in and not just thank all of us for the wonderful care we gave her, and to make sure I knew she was going to be okay.
That. That’s why we do it anyway; why I’ve found being an ER nurse lends itself well to this David versus Goliath battle I’ve undertaken. We have an infinite problem with finite resources, and the odds are always- always- against us. But we pick ourselves up and soldier onwards anyway.
Because every once in awhile, it makes a difference. Enough to save a life. Enough to have someone come back in and thank you.
Or enough to win an election by standing up for people who haven’t had a champion in too many years to count- and changing even one little corner of the world for the better.
Kellen Squire is an emergency department nurse from Barboursville, Virginia, running for the Virginia House of Delegates in the 58th District, the Trump Winery district, this fall. Donate to, volunteer for, or get the word our about our people-powered campaign today!