Canvassing in Arizona for Hiral Tipirneni
Updated: Oct 23, 2019
I was in a red congressional district in Arizona (AZ-8) a few days ago to canvas for a Democratic candidate Hiral Tipirneni in a special election. Even though Hiral didn’t win, the special election demonstrated a historical swing of the district. The district has a large block of conservative voters and Trump won the district by 21%. Hiral lost by only 5.2%. It’s a blue swing of almost 16 percentage points!
Hiral Tipirneni, a former emergency room doctor who had never run for office before, ran as a moderate Democrat. Her opponent Debbie Lesko ran as a traditional conservative Republican. Debbie is being investigated for a potential campaign finance violation but she has otherwise no major scandals. As such, I believe the 16 point swing is truly indicative of a blue wave sweeping across the midterm electoral landscape and it offers hope for Democrats everywhere who are frustrated by the chaotic, scandal ridden, and dysfunctional leadership of this country.
How did I get involved in the AZ-8 special election?
I was initially informed of the special election in AZ-8 by Arizona members of AADC (Asian American Democracy Club). Given the demographics and voter registration information in AZ-8, I thought the Dems won’t have a chance so I wasn’t paying much attention to the race in the beginning.
One day, just out of curiosity, I checked out the candidates and their policy positions - and alas, was I shocked to discover the stark contrasts between these two candidates! On one side, we had a professional woman and grassroot candidate with a lot of sensible ideas who was moved to run for office after the 2016 election. On the other side, we had a Tea Party, NRA and Koch-network backed conservative candidate and career politician who had voted consistently against immigration, healthcare access, public education and women’s right to choose. If we were looking for a texbook case for the upcoming November election, look no further!
I watched a few videos of both candidates and was very much taken by the authenticity and quiet strength of Hiral Tipirneni. I was also alarmed by the slyness and smoothness of Debbie Lesko who appeared moderate while she was anything but. I knew that Hiral would face an uphill battle. She lagged behind in polling and the Dems lagged behind in voter registration. However, with a large percentage of undecided independent voters, I thought she got a chance. That’s when I decided to support her.
I immediately wrote and circulated an analysis of the AZ-8 election with a summary of candidate positions and a possible path to win. I also connected with the campaign team through private channels. In addition to fundraising, phone banking and mobilizing others to help, I decided that I could make the biggest impact by visiting her campaign office in Arizona and canvassing for her directly
Canvassing in Arizona
I flew into Phoenix in the weekend before the special election. I stayed in the house of Pamela, a Hiral supporter in Sun City West. Sun City is a retirement community with a largely white population and it serves as the conservative base of Debbie Lesko. Pamela’s Hiral yard sign was one of the few on her street that was covered with American flags and yard signs for Debbie Lesko. Pamela said most of her friends fell into one of the two categories: they either always voted Republican or were not registered to vote in the state because they only lived here in the winter. It was very courageous of her to publicly advocate for Hiral in this environment. Pamela travelled widely and collected arts from all around the world. She was very open minded and I couldn’t have found a better hostess.
Using Pamela's home as the base, I canvassed for Hiral for 3 days.
The neighborhood we canvassed in was pretty upscale with large and well maintained houses situated in an idyllic desert landscape. The setting was familiar and nostalgic for me because I lived, studied and worked in Tucson for a few years when I just came to the US. We were canvassing in the late afternoon and the temperature was very comfortable. Since it was Sunday, many people were home and we had some nice conversations. There were quite a few passionate Hiral supporters and they had either already voted by mail or would vote on the special election day on Tuesday. One guy was particularly excited about Hiral’s candidacy and urged us to run on a more progressive platform. Of course, because of the nature of AZ-8, Hiral's campaign messages leaned central to not alienate independents whose votes were very much needed to win the race. It was certainly a sensible strategy.
We spent the evening in the campaign office. There were people from DNC, AAPI as well as local volunteers and, just like myself, passionate volunteers from out of state. I met with volunteers from New Mexico, DC, California, among others. All the volunteers shared dinner with the campaign staff in the office and we either called the voters or asked more volunteers to come out to canvas with us next day.
On the second day, I canvassed on my own during the day in safe, suburban, and moderate neighborhoods. It was unseasonably hot at this time of the year. The temperature reached about 100F in the middle of the day. Even though I had lived in Arizona for a few years, I forgot how taxing the heat could be! Also, many families seemed to have dogs and they barked, sometimes ferociously, as soon as I rang the door bell. Even worse, since it was Monday, most people were not home - I simply left a flyer on their door urging them to vote for Hiral. Sometimes I also left a handwritten postcard written by volunteers at the door before the cards ran out. Some people worked from home but they didn’t want to be bothered and I couldn’t really get their attention or have a meaningful conversation.
The most rewarding encounters happened by chance. When I canvas, I always try to talk to people who happen to be out and about in the neighborhood. Since their names may not be on any list - Democratic or Republican - they are not approached as often hence are more willing to engage in a conversation. I don’t usually spend too much time with people who clearly hold opposite views, but I often run into people who are not aware of the special election or are still unsure of who to vote for - that’s when I feel that my canvassing is making the most difference.
Throughout the day, I noticed more than a few deeply divided families. The canvas list I got was for consistent democratic voters. Sometimes I got to talk to other family members instead and I noticed that quite a few of them were not eager to see a canvasser for Democrats. For example, one young man slammed the door in front of me after I mentioned who I campaigned for - judging from the age difference, my guess was that the voter on my list could be his grandma. It also happened a few times that the spouse clearly held the opposite views. I could only imagine the challenge of living in such politically divided households.
Later in the afternoon, I finished my list and went back to the campaign office. Guess who were there? Gabrielle Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly! Gabby is a heroine of mine. She was shot and critically injured in 2011 when she was hosting a constituent outreach event in Tucson as the AZ-8 House Representative at that time. I read that the recovery process had been long and painful but I didn’t realize how serious it was until I met her in person. She still had some apparent difficulties in speaking and walking. She stood next to me in the group photo shoot. She gestured to me afterwards - which I didn’t understand right away - and gave me kisses on my cheeks. What an incredibly sweet and gentle human being (I have tears in my eyes when I write this). What misfortune! And what absurdity this lack of gun control laws is in this country! And yet she fought on, years after years, with her husband standing by her side. She could have stayed at home but she chose to be out and about campaigning for Hiral and sensible gun control laws.
In the evening, I met a group of volunteers from the bay area. They were retirees devoted to the mission of winning back the country. They organized fundraisers and travelled to different states to volunteer. They sort of “adopted” me for the evening and we canvassed together until it was too dark to canvas effectively.
Finally it came the third day - the election day! The night before, I convinced an AADC volunteer, Dr. Hu, to join me in the morning. I arrived at the campaign office at around 8:15am when she had already received her volunteer training and was ready to go. We drove together to our assigned neighborhood and found that most people on our list had already been approached by the campaign. Given that this was a normal work day, most people won’t be home and it wouldn’t make sense to simply leave the flyer on the doorknob. By the time they saw the flyer - if at all - they would have missed the election. That’s when I decided that we needed a different strategy. We needed to visit places where we could talk to people face to face, now.
Our first stop of choice was a public elementary school - a natural choice since it was the time for school drop off. We drove to a school that was closest to us and started working right away. We stood outside of the school and talked to parents after they dropped off their kids. Many people had already voted but some had not, including the school principal! The principal asked us where the polling station was since there used to be one inside the school but it wasn’t there for this special election. I found it out for him a few minutes later and left him a message through the school front desk. Hopefully he did go out and vote that day, preferably with some teachers! Given that Hiral is a strong advocate for public education and Debbie is the opposite (she voted to move public school fundings to voucher programs), it surprised me that parents and teachers, even the principal, had not paid more attention to this election.
After our initial success at the elementary school, we decided to move on to a recreation center. We stayed outside of the gym and talked to people before they entered the gym or when they were departing. We got some pretty interesting interactions there. This being a gym, I assume that most visitors were well educated and health conscious. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that many of them had either already voted for Hiral or planned to vote for her that day. We urged them to get their friends to vote as well because the polling numbers were so close. We handed out dozens of flyers right there. We even gave our own “Vote for Hiral” volunteer stickers to people so they could show others that they voted for Hiral. Of course, there were many non-supporters as well. They usually just declined our overture immediately, yet politely, and hurried on their way. The entire experience had been very civilized and uplifting for both of us.
At around 10am, we headed to a shopping mall, hoping to talk to some morning shoppers. Once again, we stood outside and talked to people very politely. People we encountered were much more diverse than those we met outside of the gym. I noticed that we didn’t have much luck talking to Latinos - not sure whether it was due to the language barrier (neither of us spoke any Spanish) or if they were not registered to vote. Given the candidates’ stark contrast in immigration policies - Debbie Lesko wanted to help Trump build the wall - I’d think the Latinos would be very interested in voting. Of course, we met a number of supporters as well who boosted our spirits. After about an hour outside of the mall, a mall security guard came out and asked us to leave.
At that point, my friend had to leave for work, so I ventured ahead on my own and talked to people in a variety of places: outside of a Chinese Restaurant (not effective due to the demographics of patrons - hint, not Chinese and not very young), a Starbucks (also not effective because most patrons didn’t live in district), a Trader Joe’s (effective but wasn’t allowed to stay for long), a private College (not effective due to the largely out of state student body), and finally, I hit another “jackpot” like the gym, a State Community College.
Almost everybody I talked to on the State Community College campus lived in district, whether (s)he was a student, a parent or an educator. I was shocked to discover that a lot of them had not voted. Bear in mind that Debbie Lesko, as a State Senator, voted to reduce state fundings for community colleges and state universities. Hiral Tipirneni, on the other hand, is a strong advocate of affordable colleges, trade schools and the reduction of student loans. How could people not pay attention to an election that might have a direct impact on them? From the conversations, I learned that some young college students were still disengaged in politics. One student told me that his mom made the voting decisions for him: “She is a teacher. She will vote for the right person!” It was somewhat reassuring, but wasn’t he old enough to make his own decisions? Another student told me that he just didn’t want to vote and it was the same for his friends. He said he would consider to vote when he was a little older. Huh?? These students, as other young people, had the biggest stake in the elections. Clearly we need a lot more campus outreach, as I was the only volunteer out there the whole time.
I had been there for a few hours and was feeling comfortable talking to people when a security guard approached me and asked me to leave. He said some people weren’t comfortable that I was asking them to support a particular candidate. I told him that I had my freedom of speech on the campus of a public college. He didn’t insist but he stayed nearby which made me feel uncomfortable. I wasn’t sure if there were any specific Arizona regulations that would get me into trouble. After all, this was the district of Sheriff Arpaio! I persisted for another 15 minutes or so before I decided to go somewhere else.
I headed back to the recreation center for the rest of the day. It was already late in the afternoon. I talked to a few people who were entering the gym and promised that they would vote right after a quick workout - if only I could get them to vote before the workout! I understand that people have their own priorities and voting isn’t always on the top of the list. For example, I talked to a few parents with little kids and their excuses for not voting was “I don’t want them to miss the (xyz) match”. Apparently, not missing a baseball match was higher on the priority list than the public education funding for their children. In many ways, most of us are so wrapped up in our own lives and immediate needs that we lose sight of the bigger picture, namely the future of our next generation. I see the same thing play out in this election as in my environmental work. It’s frustrating but it’s also the reality that we have to work with. These are not bad parents - to the contrary, they care a lot about their children - but they don’t seem to value long term priorities as much as their short term and immediate needs.
In any case, I decided I was done at a little after 6pm - about an hour before the polling stations would close - and headed over to the election night event in a country club. The club was packed with people, both inside and outside. People were certainly nervous about the election outcome but the atmosphere was upbeat and festive. Regardless of the election outcome, Hiral had come a very long way in a few short months. That alone was worth celebrating. Her supporters were very diverse with people from all different backgrounds. There were reporters and photographers from AP, CBS, and other news agencies as well
It was with great honor and pleasure that I finally got to meet up with Hiral in person, right before my departure for the airport at 8pm. Hiral was still hunkered down in a room with her core group to wait for the final result at that time so I only met with her briefly. She was as authentic and gracious in person as I had expected. I was glad to have done my bit to support her. I was also glad that I had come and observed the blue wave at the first hand. I was eager to get back to work and help turn our beautiful state of Colorado blue.
Hiral lost by a small margin, which was remarkable given the short campaign time frame and the lack of name recognition as a brand new candidate in the field. This special election didn't get as much attention from national Democrats as it deserved. The argument that “This election isn't winnable so let's sit on the sideline and see how it plays out.” is a self defeating proposition. AZ-8 is winnable in November. However, there needs to be a concerted outreach effort to independents, younger women, latinos and college students. The main campaign message in the special election was social security and medicare, which worked well for seniors, but it missed out large segments of the population.
Voter registration needs to start now, especially on college campuses. While canvassing, I ran into quite a few people who would like to vote for Hiral but they hadn’t registered. We need to make sure that these people are registered in time for November.
How do we create a sense of urgency for voters so they would put voting on the top of their priority list? By talking to them about issues that they can't possibly ignore. For example:
For Independents: "check and balance for Trump"
For Latinos: "immigration reform and path to citizenship for Dreamers, and no border wall"
For College students: "more funding for community colleges and state universities and reduce student debt burden"
For Younger Women: "women’s right to choose and contraceptive access"
For Seniors: "social security and medicare"
Finally, it was very encouraging and inspiring for me to meet up with people who were equally committed to the same mission. I’d suggest everyone committed to the cause of democracy to make a trip like this in this election cycle. You don’t even have to leave your home state - it’s equally effective to visit your local campaign office and volunteer. Election matters. Policy matters. Your participation matters.
Let the blue wave come. It's about time.