By Lisa Keen
Keen News Service
When Mark Walsh knocked on the door of a blue-collar residence in northeast Philadelphia last Saturday, there was very little chance of his encountering another gay person. This was not downtown Philly’s gayborhood, but a rough-around-the-edges treeless development where the chief difference among all the look-a-like duplexes was how badly they were in need of paint. Here, a young man in a shiny Philly basketball jersey washed his Mustang in the driveway, a young girl rode her bike up the middle of the street with no hands and no helmet, and gnomes were the most common lawn and bush ornament. Nearly every house had a well-worn American flag hanging from some part of its pale brick-stone-aluminum facade, and behind nearly every metal-grated door could be heard some large guard-like bark.
So, what was Hillary Clinton’s national LGBT outreach director doing here?
Walsh was doing what he had just asked a busload of LGBT people from New York City to do that afternoon: go door-to-door to encourage a vote for Clinton during Pennsylvania’s April 22 primary.
Walsh is the Hillary for President campaign’s national LGBT outreach director, hired barely a month after the senator announced her bid for the Democratic nomination. He and his partner in life and business, Bryan Rafanelli, first started supporting her in 1999 when she ran for the U.S. Senate seat from New York. They live in Boston’s famously gay South End, but have a place in Washington, D.C., now in order to help the campaign.
Walsh sets up LGBT fundraisers for the campaign, secures endorsements by its celebrities and well-known politicos, and directs basic grassroots work by the LGBT community on behalf of the candidate. Itis a mix of glamour and roll-up-your-sleeves, Blackberries and Dunkini Donuts, rally the troops and preempt the renegades.
He campaigned in Iowa with the likes of veteran gay Democratic activists Elizabeth Birch and Roberta Achtenberg, and on this day, he’s divided up several blocks with New York new tech newcomers Matt Paco and Jeff Campagna. Paco and several friends have constructed a “Hillary Speaks for Me” Web site of personal testimonials, Campagna has been organizing “Hillary Happy Hours,” raising more than $125,000 since last July.
They are on another street, when Walsh knocks on the door and a teenaged girl answers. He introduces himself and asks for the name of the man listed as a registered Democrat on a list he’s working off of.
“Daaaaaad!” yells the girl, walking away from the door. Soon, a man appears and opens the screen door slightly. Walsh says he’s going door to door for Clinton and asks him if he’s decided who he’s supporting. The man says no, he hasn’t decided. A woman appears at the door next to him. Walsh offers some words of encouragement for Clinton but the man says he feels like he might just have to “flip a quarter” to decide whether to vote for Clinton or Barack Obama.
“No,” says the woman suddenly. “We’re voting for Hillary.”
At another house, an energetic senior man opens the door and complains about an Obama ad he’s seen on television in which the candidate says “I don’t take money from oil companies.” The ad’s misleading, says the man, because it’s illegal for any candidate to take money directly from any oil company. From inside the house, a woman’s voice calls out, “We’re voting for Clinton.”
For almost two hours, Walsh studies the voter sheets, knocks on doors, offers rides to the polls, compliments children, and watches the sky vacillate between threatening to rain and a glaring sun. A woman, whose son has been in Iraq, is not voting for anybody – it’s the war and the economy and a vague litany of other issues. Walsh listens and chats with her much longer than the “two to three minutes” the field director imposed on door-to-door canvassers today. But when he walks away, he’s got a new vote for Clinton and a big smile on his face.
After 25 houses, he’s met only one voter who’s backing Obama, three who were already in the Clinton camp and two or three who appear to have been persuaded by his effort. It’s hard work, but he’s clearly happy. He jumps in a car rented by the campaign and driven by a straight campaign worker who, like Walsh, has been on the national campaign staff for more than a year.
“This is so much fun,” Walsh tells his colleague, and he seems sincere. The polls and politicos suggest the campaign is sliding down a steep incline that supporters of the candidate of “hope” want Clinton to give up on. Walsh has no discouraging words for Obama; he just feels he knows and trusts Clinton more on gay issues.
“I feel like she’s been standing behind the community for a long time,” says Walsh. “Things her husband did as president engendered much good will,” said Walsh – appointing the first openly gay ambassador and department officials and signing an executive order that prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation in security clearances. But Hillary Clinton has shown real commitment and respect for the community, he says. She spoke before the Human Rights Campaign board, on which Walsh served before joining the campaign. In recent interviews with local gay newspapers, she’s shown a willingness to respond to the community’s hard questions. And she has many openly gay people on her campaign staff – from Walsh, to Deputy Communications Director Doug Hattaway, to National Political and Field Director Guy Cecil.
When Walsh returns to a campaign office to meet back up with the two dozen LGBT volunteers who have been canvassing on other streets in the area, he is greeted by Dan Baer, a gay friend of Clinton’s daughter Chelsea. Baer is sunburned from standing on a street corner, holding a Hillary for President sign and waving to traffic passing by. He’s often on the campaign trail with Chelsea, whom he met when they were students at Oxford. When the Clintons visited their daughter there, Baer was invited along to dinner, just as friends often are during such parental visits. He got to know and respect the senator and has helped the campaign on his own dime in Iowa, South Carolina, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and now Pennsylvania.
“She gets it,” Baer tells a reporter about Clinton and gay issues. “She’s not just pandering to an interest group.”
Walsh grabs some chicken salad and chips off a table the campaign office has set up on the sidewalk outside, to feed hungry volunteers as they make their way back. The Peter Pan bus that brought the volunteers down from New York will take them back tonight after a big Clinton fundraiser at a popular gay bar. Walsh tends to the details of that – from the delayed flight of singer Sophie B. Hawkins to helping arrange for a ride for a woman who has just learned about the event and wants to attend.
“I’m the fixer,” Walsh tells his comrades between phone calls as they drive back to the campaign’s downtown headquarters.
“Bruce Cohen, where are you?” he exclaims into his Blackberry. Cohen, the film producer of American Beauty and an upcoming documentary on slain San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, is an avid Clinton supporter and is in Philadelphia to help with tonight’s fundraiser. Walsh apprises him of the agenda for the evening, then fields another call from a very unhappy gay Democratic activist who has been told she can’t get into the venue ahead of time. Walsh makes a call that opens the door for her.
Then, as coincidence would have it, Walsh finds the door to the building which houses the Clinton campaign office is locked. No use knocking this time; there’s no guard is on duty. But it’s a temporary snafu and Walsh and his crew don’t miss a beat as they check their e-mails and phone calls until another staffer arrives to open the door.