Go and knock on their doors
Blue Beginning organizes political canvassers for midterm election
By Ted Cox
Mike Lenehan and Mary Williams, a couple from Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood, were out canvassing recently in a well-to-do suburb.
“It was a place where the driveways were about a quarter-mile long,” Lenehan said. “And this really nice, friendly woman came to the door. She was probably in her 40s, and she said something about how she didn’t know if she could support a candidate who was not pro-life.”
Williams, however, just happens to be a nurse midwife. “And Mary chimed in, and they were like old sorority sisters,” Lenehan recalled. “We had a long conversation, and I learned a lot about what a rational, nice, reasonable person thinks about a lot of things.”
Make no mistake, Lenehan was canvassing for Democratic candidates as one of the leaders of Blue Beginning, a Chicago group that formed in the wake of Donald Trump’s election as president two years ago and is now fully engaged in its first campaign with the approaching midterms. But, not unlike One Illinois, Lenehan and Blue Beginning have made it a point not to write off people simply because they voted for Trump.
“I see a lot of pragmatism,” Lenehan said. “If we don’t get some of those people who voted for Trump, we’re not going to achieve what we want to achieve.”
Lenehan agreed with U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin’s recent pronouncement that about 30 percent of voters who are solidly behind Trump are probably a lost cause where his causes are concerned.
“The 30 percent, there’s no getting them back,” Lenehan said. “But there are people in the margins there, and we want to make sure those people vote instead of staying home.”
Returning to the pro-life woman they spoke with, he added, “We have to convince those people too, and she might vote for us.”
Lenehan is a writer and editor who is probably best known at this point for his book “Ramblers: Loyola Chicago 1963 — The Team That Changed the Color of College Basketball.” He’s also written “Much Ado: A Summer With a Repertory Theater Company,” and for years he was an editor and co-owner at the Chicago Reader (where, in the interest of full disclosure, he sometimes edited my work).
But, like many people, he was caught off guard by Trump’s election, to put it mildly, and went running to Marj Halperin, a longtime friend who also happens to be a Chicago political consultant. “People were coming to Marj because she’s connected … the one political person we know, and saying, ‘What just happened? What do we do now?’
“It was apparent to us there was a lot of energy and we could maybe multiply our effectiveness if we worked on channeling all that energy,” Lenehan added. With Halperin lending much of the expertise, Blue Beginning was born.
It soon became affiliated with Indivisible Chicago, part of the nationwide Indivisible movement that sprang up after the Trump election. Lenehan described the alliance as “all these people who don’t really have much in common except they said, ‘Time to do something.’
“I think one of the tricks to this is offering people as many opportunities — and as many different kinds of opportunities — as you can,” he added. “Indivisible does a lot of postcards. People love to do these postcard parties, and evidently they’re pretty effective.” There are also traditional phone banks, more modern-day text banks, and other ways of getting people engaged with both politicians and fellow voters.
Blue Beginning also got involved with a suburban Chicago group looking to swing a congressional election and seeking help in putting boots on the ground in the district.
“So we sort of quickly latched on to canvassing as our niche,” Lenehan said. “Everybody’s glad to sign petitions and write postcards and go to marches, but to get them out there knocking on doors requires a little extra encouragement.”
Blue Beginning began meeting at the Hideout, a North Side Chicago bar that prides itself on its insurgent attitude, in booking alt-country groups and other iconoclastic forms of music, as well as political causes. Lenehan’s group was offering clinics and other prep work for people to canvass outside Chicago. Attendance at first was admittedly sparse, Lenehan said, as they built a list of about 140 members, with a “hard core” of a couple dozen. Yet Hideout owner Tim Tuten kept telling them, “Just keep at it, keep at it, because when the time comes you’ll be ready.”
“And that’s pretty much what happened,” Lenehan said. Since Labor Day, as the midterm campaigns have kicked into high gear, they’ve found “a lot more than those 140 people coming out of the woodwork now.”
They expect a good turnout for the next Blue Beginning Canvassing Class, at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia Ave., free and open to all who are interested. “It’s the perfect thing for people who feel a little squirrelly,” Lenehan said. “It’s about how easy it is — and it really is easy. I’m not just blowing smoke." They’ll be laying out the basics for political canvassing, and some Chicago improvisational actors have been recruited to offer a few conversational tips.
“Everybody’s nervous the first time, and 99 percent of everybody after a half-hour is just charging ahead,” he added. “You’re not out there to convince people or argue with people. You’re out there to figure out who’s on our side and make sure that we have a way to get back to them.”
“You’re not out there to convince people or argue with people. You’re out there to figure out who’s on our side and make sure that we have a way to get back to them.”
Mike Lenehan of Blue Beginning (One Illinois/Ted Cox)
You’re also getting out of your political bubble and confronting other points of view, and finding surprising sources of commonality — and not just among Illinoisans. Blue Beginning has been recruited to do some canvassing for U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly of Indiana in his campaign for re-election as well.
Lenehan said he’s keeping an eye on a handful of Illinois congressional races, but allowed that it’s hard to get Chicagoans to make the commitment to travel hours each way to canvass for St. Clair County State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly or Betsy Dirksen Londrigan in their bids for Congress. Even so, he added, he did take the time recently to join a group visiting the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to register voters as students were arriving for the fall term.
“I was out there on Quad Day with a clipboard chasing down students who all had somewhere more important to go,” he said, "but we registered 2,000 people, and that could make the difference.”
Blue Beginning will be canvassing Saturday in the Elgin area. On Oct. 3 it will join other Indivisible Chicago groups in what’s being called a Blue Wave Rave including an improv performance, beginning at 6 p.m. at the Athenaeum Theater, 2936 N. Southport Ave., Chicago, again free (with a donation suggested) and open to all who are interested. Lenehan called it a “rally party” to “kick off the last month of the season” in the campaign leading up to the midterm election.