Tuesday, January 12, 2010

I Live in Michigan, and I'm Jealous!

How Mary Poppins gets out the good word...

How Lorena, deputy campaign manager for Robyn Gabel, gets out the good word...

Robyn Gabel addresses the gathering of voters in Evanston, Illinois, then answers their questions

I don't get a vote here. This is not my election. I live in the 61st  District in southwest Michigan, but I decided to take a short trip to the 18th District of my neighboring state of Illinois and take a closer look at the lively campaign taking place there. Sure, I have a bias: my daughter, Lorena Rutens, is deputy campaign manager for one of the candidates in Evanston, Illinois. She is working pretty much 24/7 for Robyn Gabel, Democrat for State Representative. As a mama, I want to know ... what has my girl so fired up?

Back home in my Michigan district, and unfortunately this holds true for many, many districts in many states nationwide, few to no women are representing us in our state governments. So I'm already a little jealous when I arrive in Evanston at the Robyn Gabel headquarters. Things are bustling here. I find my daughter, looking a little worn at the edges from the long hours a political campaign requires, working the phones. Two rooms bustle with volunteers. They are sitting at tables, on the floor, along the walls, talking on portable phones and calling the citizens of Evanston.

While the volunteers are talking to their neighbors in Evanston, Lorena is gathering more volunteers, checking who can work what hours on what day. The primaries are February 2, and there is no time to waste. In fact, I am not in the office for more than a few minutes before I find myself with a phone in hand, too, working through a list of names and numbers to call.

So what can I possibly tell the people of Evanston about Robyn Gabel?

To start, I can tell them I am jealous. Gabel is offering her district choices and options I can, at this time, only add to my wish list. She is working to increase funding for education. She is working to bring quality health care that is accessible and affordable for all. She has ideas for real campaign finance reform. She is defending a woman's right to choose, with full ownership over her own body, just as it should be. Those of you who have been reading my blog for a while will already know how important the environment is to me, including organic and traditional farming. Robyn gets the importance of locally grown, organic foods, too, and this is on her agenda to bring to Springfield as the county's representative. She has plans to improve public transportation, and as someone who lives in a much smaller city than the Chicago area, I can only dream about such transportation options, even as I commute more than a hundred miles a day. I like what she has to say about green technology, and listening to her, I learn a new term: "green-collar jobs." These are jobs she plans to create in keeping with a green and cleaner environment while putting people back to work.

Do I sound like an ad? Maybe. But it was irresistible not to, as I talked to people over the phone about what they are being offered and I can only wish I had in abundance.

Then again, maybe I do? Never too old to learn new things from my daughter, I soon realize from watching her dedication to this campaign that I have been thinking about the importance of voting in a bass ackwards way all along. I have always felt it is crucial to vote for the "big stuff." Presidents and such. But those votes, however important, really do tend to get lost in the masses. Voting in local campaigns like this one, though, really do count. These are the local representatives that have an immediate effect on our communities. On the schools our children attend, on the taxes we pay at every purchase, on the roads we travel every day, on the foods we buy at our corner grocery store. All of that, and more.

I'm making a public confession here, and I'm a bit embarrassed about it. I have skipped more than a few of these state and local campaigns. Brushed them off as minor. Oh, not! If nothing else gained from my long weekend visit to the Robyn Gabel campaign headquarters, I learned this lesson and good. I am paying a lot more attention to my local elections from now on. They may be small, but they matter big.

So I watched, and learned, and absorbed with fascination the workings of this campaign. For a full day, I shadowed my daughter as deputy campaign manager, and that meant, too, shadowing Robyn Gabel herself. I first met her at the headquarters, when she walked in with a brisk and energetic step, pulling her gloves off from the bitter cold outside, eyes scanning the room to take it all in. She greeted Lorena, greeted her campaign manager, hugged many of the volunteers she'd gotten to know along the way. And she gave my hand a firm squeeze and thanked me. I had been helping from afar, occasionally serving as editor to proofread various campaign materials. My pleasure, I replied, and it was.

I was struck with how petite this woman is in reality. Tiny, actually. Trim little figure, short and cute, but it took but a moment for me to see she was a dynamo. And it wasn't long before I heard the now famous line traveling around Evanston ... about Robyn walking into the room at the capitol, introducing herself, to be greeted by the big boys with "You're Robyn?! We expected someone seven feet tall and 300 pounds!"

I could see why that impression could quicly spread about her. She had a rich, deep voice, one that carried authority. Scanning her history and long list of accomplishments while helping out I see a sound resume. Twenty years and more working as an advocate for women and children, she was executive director of Illinois Maternal and Child Health Coalition. She had helped create Illinois' Kid Care Program, guaranteeing access to health care for children throughout her state even while the nation is twirling about how to do the same. She was a strong voice for maintaining women's reproductive health care rights. Some of what she had done could be pretty controversial, but she hadn't backed down. Little she may be, but she had proven herself to be a political heavyweight.

Her opponents? I got to see them later that day at a public debate sponsored by Women's League of Voters. All dudes. Couple of them were still in their mid-twenties. Oh, please. These boys are telling women they understand a woman's reproductive rights? They were talking experience? My daughter was running the room from end to end, passing out leaflets and brochures, talking to people about her candidate, and to be sure, I was peacock proud of her hard work for a cause that had captured her heart and mind. But even she understood that, still a half year from her own 30th birthday, she was very much at the stage of learning the ropes. She was in a great place to bring her youthful energy to a campaign, but a long way from being the star of the show. What is it that no one wants to pay their dues anymore and put in the time? Experience is not negotiable. It's not a luxury. When you are making decisions for thousands of people looking to you for leadership, you better have real, hard-won, sweat-it-out experience, and no shortcuts. This is no stepping stone here. This is a real job.

I listened to the five candidates word-fight it out on the panel, and I was increasingly impressed with Robyn. She more than held her own. She rose above the rest with unmistakeable authority.

No time to rest on laurels or achievements. Lorena piled us back into her car, Robyn and I sat in the back while Lorena took us the second of two "coffees" of the day. Voters around the district were opening their homes to their neighbors to come over, sit in their living rooms, sip from their best coffee cups, and meet Robyn personally. I loved it. Who would have thunk? A campaign candidate right in your own living room, talking about the issues and answering everyone's questions personally.

The day wore on, but the candidate didn't. I was quietly yawning in the back of another living room, even my girl was looking a little pale, but Robyn was center of the room, cracking jokes, taking up the most incisive questions, answering every last one. Where does she get the energy?

I'm thinking ... this kind of energy comes when you love what you do and you believe in what you do. Doing a good thing comes with its own vitamin. I watched as Robyn grabbed a pretzel from the table and then headed out the door again, checking her watch for the next event.

This may not be my district. Not even my state. But I learned much from meeting Robyn and I want to take several of these lessons home to Michigan. No election is too small. Local primaries matter. And women must be heard. From women themselves. I have had enough of listening to men in office tell me how I feel, what I need, what is best for me. Dude, you don't know. It is high time for more strong women to take their place in politics - on all levels, in all kinds of offices, throughout the country, and globally. We are more than half the population. We have much to offer. It's our turn.

Evanston, I hope you are listening. Don't miss this chance. Something good is about to happen, and we all know the best gifts come in small packages.

Women, it's time to stand up for other women who are standing up for you. Let's show Robyn Gabel it matters to us. Add your vote to the poll. http://evanstonnow.com/

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