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Canvassing Anchorage door-to-door

When I told people that I was going to live in Alaska, they looked at me like I was crazy.  And before I left, I thought I was crazy too.  Like Tropicana Orange Juice, I am 100% pure Florida-squeezed.  Born in Tampa, raised in Miami, and educated in Gainesville, I believe that if the temperature dips below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, “it is freezing.” I own one pair of long underwear, one pair of gloves with holes in the fingertips, and an oversized (under-insulated) ski jacket.  But as Jon Krakauer writes, “Alaska has long been a magnet for dreamers and misfits, people who think the unsullied enormity of the last frontier will patch all the holes in their lives.”  Some go off to Alaska to find themselves in the natural world of ice castles and orcas.  Others seek thrills in climbing the highest peak in North America.  And others still search for respite and solace in a kayak on Glacier Bay.  But perhaps the oddest bunch of journeymen are those like me, who traverse the continent in the name of politics.   My Alaskan addiction began not unlike the wanderlusts of other twenty-somethings who tell their mothers that they “want to see the world,” but strangely enough, evolved into a full-time job working for a candidate running for the United States Senate. 

This moose seems impressed..

If I billed myself as a politico simply looking to win, however, I really wouldn’t be telling the whole story.  I went to Alaska of all places because besides it being an important race with a terrific candidate, it was a once in a lifetime opportunity to live and work in one of the most extraordinary and often forgotten places in America.  There were plenty of states with important races – North Carolina, South Carolina, Oklahoma and while it didn’t come to pass, even Florida was projected to be at the epicenter of the campaign’s maelstrom.  None of the places, however, would produce stories that begin with, “fifty-pound spawning salmon,” or end with “but I managed to escape from the pack of grizzly bears.” 

I lived and worked in Anchorage, Alaska’s biggest city by far, and was given three precincts to focus on.  I spent all of my time in these precincts and got to know the intricate details and personalities better than those of my own neighbors — a woman who was laid off after 24 years at a retail store and lost all her health insurance, a mother who made me eat her salmon jerky, and the family with an entire room full of stuffed caribou.  Our goal, we were told, was to be able to get elected as mayor of our own little precincts —- that’s just how well we should know our area, the people that live there, and the issues unique to these Alaskans. 

I spent an afternoon in a seedy trailer park with an Aleutian family, a tribe of native Alaskans from a village called Unalaska.  I sat in their living room and listened stories about their lives out in “the bush,” and the important issues like fishing and hunting that effect their livelihood.  I met very nice couple on the other side of town drew me into their home and told me all about how their family’s history in Alaska is tied to the oil pipeline’s development.  The man showed me a sculpture molded from the pipeline itself shaped like the state of Alaska and explained how important it is for the government to allow the controversial drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve for the sake of jobs and economic development.   Another man told me that oil was the lifeblood of the Alaskan people.  He lived apart from his Anchorage-based family for 3 months at a time to work a catering job on Alaska’s North Slope: home to Alaska’s biggest oil reserve. 

Encounters with Alaskan wildlife were also part of the campaign experience.  The week before I started work, there was a report of a canvasser being chased by a bear in Anchorage.  Later in the summer, a canvasser was trying to read a map while driving and ran into a moose head-on.  These interactions became just a normal part of the daily story.  While Alaskans will brush off an encounter with a moose like it was seeing a stray dog, I was so giddy when I saw up-close my first bull moose lackadaisically cross the street.  

A great rule of thumb that I tried to observe while in Alaska was simple.  I told myself to always watch the horizon.  Living in Anchorage, it was very to forget where I was — the exoticness of the locale, the majesty of the land — especially when I was working day in and day out in poor precincts with dilapidated ratty apartments.  But from basically anywhere in the city, all I had to do was look up out at the horizon to see the snow-capped Chugach Mountains towering above as a jolting and beautiful reminder of where I was.  There are other perks that come with watching the horizon as well.  On one clear blue day when while driving back from canvassing, smack dab over East High School over the horizon was Mt. McKinley — the tallest mountain in North America.  I could not see the mountain when I was just a few hundred feet away from it in Denali National Park, but on a clear day in Anchorage, I could see the tip 240 miles away.  

From August to November, I saw Alaska door-to-door.  And even though we lost, I got real sense of Alaska from the many different people that live and vote there.  I met an entire street full of felons, a former Jehovah’s Witness who gave me tips on door knocking, a soldier who returned from Afghanistan last week, and a young couple who just moved in together and were cleaning the apartment to show off to the boyfriend’s mom.  I have been offered to come in and join families for a salmon dinner.  I have been offered a stiff drink at noon on a Sunday afternoon.  I have been I met people who told me “they only vote for themselves,” people that told me to “drop dead” followed by a chorus of curses. 

I used to cringe at the idea of going door-to-door.  You’re hitting people at home, when they’re the most vulnerable and defenseless.  It offers the omniscient onlooker or canvasser a weird window into strangers’ lives.  Some strangers turn you away and slam the door feeling outed for their odd habits – eating dinner in front of a blaring television wearing their underwear, or living in filth with disobedient children running crazy calling their parents “crackheads.” But after 3 months and about 4,000 doors knocked, you find the others who draw you into their lives further — wanting nothing more than to share their nuances, accomplishments, and peccadilloes.  It was a fascinating portal in Alaskans voting preferences, their interpretation of the issues, and the intimacy of their lives in the foreground of one of the most spectacular places in America.

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