Please welcome today’s guest writer, Nathan Slauer. Nathan graduated in 2015 with majors in political science, history, social studies, and secondary education. After serving two AmeriCorps segments at nonprofit organizations, he managed a state house race for a candidate named Tanya Cabala. Currently, he lives in the Heritage Hill neighborhood of Grand Rapids and plans to continue his education at Grand Valley State University.
Nothing prepares you to knock on the first door.
There’s the moment when you head down the driveway. You scan the home, maybe noticing a crucifix, a garden gnome, or a rusty, red pickup truck covered with U.S. Army bumper stickers. Snooping reveals helpful clues.
You reach the front door and ring the doorbell. Butterflies fill your gut, and you glance down at your clipboard, reviewing your script.
“It’s time for affordable healthcare!” you think. “Or is it schools? Housing? Shit!”
The wait drags for eternity.
“Will anyone notice if I leave?”
Just when you’re about to turn around, the door cracks open. An elderly fellow in a bathrobe peeks outside. It’s only 9:30 a.m., and judging from his baggy eyelids, the doorbell woke him up.
A smile crosses your face. The lines you’ve recited a dozen times click, and you deliver them effortlessly. You ask the man if he has any questions, and he quietly shakes his head and returns inside.
That’s it. You cross the address off your list. One door down, fifty more to go.
During the summer of 2018, I knocked on doors as a campaign manager for a state house candidate named Tanya Cabala. Tanya ran for Michigan’s 91st District, which stretched around the outskirts of Muskegon. Farm houses to lakeshore mansions, impoverished suburbs to postcard villages.
We were underdogs from the start. Everyone knew our primary opponent Andy O’Riley from his popular radio show, the Muskegon Channel. Overcoming Andy’s huge audience would be difficult. However, as a teacher, city council member, and environmentalist, Tanya had an impressive start.
For a political junkie, managing this race represented a golden opportunity. Picking up a seat in a swing district could land me a ticket to the state capitol. It meant the chance of launching a bright career in public service—or so I hoped.
When you get down to it, campaigning revolves around the two Ds: dollars and doors. The campaign office is used mainly for storage, not strategic walk-and-talks. Parades, interviews, television advertisement shoots—they’re all fluff. Debates usually fail to attract attendees or even reporters. Time spent on anything but fundraising or canvassing is a distraction.
It’s nothing like West Wing.
Most days are spent driving. The morning kicks off with stuffing yard signs into the trunk. When noon rolls around, you stop for gas, a cheap hamburger, and coffee. By sundown, you find a volunteer’s couch to crash on for a night, feeling like a nomad.
The Jack Kerouac routine gets old. Podcasts cannot liven things up. Relatives stop sending invitations to barbecues. My wife gets called a “campaign widow.” Life on the road becomes a repetitive cycle.
This work is not sexy, but you do learn a few things.
Lesson one: Skip houses with “no soliciting” signs, barbed wire, or security cameras.
Lesson two: Don’t step on lawns.
Lesson three: Avoid dogs, especially (especially) German Shepherds.
Once, I approached a mailbox and a man screamed “get the hell off my property!”, pointing to the holster on his belt, and reminding me of his Second Amendment rights.
Another time, I spotted a black van with tinted windows parked on the corner. As I walked around the block, the van trailed closely behind. The stalking continued all afternoon.
I’ve had people interrupt my speech about invasive species to shout “you care more about the whales than unborn babies!” I’ve had people rip up my fliers, call the cops on me, and even fling dog shit at me.
The horror stories shake up your routine and give you something to discuss over drinks at cocktail parties. Arguments don’t happen very often, though.
Honestly, most people just want to be left alone. Bills are piling up, the kids are late for soccer practice, and the game’s on. Daily life’s hard enough without politics. I met a single mother raising six kids in a trailer park, a family of Burmese immigrants navigating the voting process without knowing English, a teenage boy growing marijuana to support his disabled Vietnam veteran father. When they actually open their door to you and talk about what they’re going through, it’s an intimate act, an invitation to experience their reality.
I don’t know if I changed anyone’s mind that summer; Tanya eventually lost the race. But I know these people changed mine.
In a culture filled with distrust, cynicism, and apathy, it is still possible to build community. All it takes is a good conversation.
I don’t know what the future holds for me. I do know that I plan to keep on knocking. You never know what doors might open.