Lessons From a Phone Banker: What 2020 Taught Me

Last summer, as an intern for now-Congresswoman Cori Bush’s U.S. House campaign, I spoke to thousands of St. Louis voters, providing COVID-19 resources and making the case for a transformative legislative platform headlined by Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, and comprehensive criminal justice reform. Cori’s calls for structural change drew me in from 2,000 miles away; a community leader on the front lines of the war against police violence and a former victim of homelessness, it was clear to me that she was uniquely situated to advocate for St. Louis residents in Washington. By contrast, Representative Lacy Clay, Jr., the 10-term incumbent, hadn’t held a single town hall for his constituents since his re-election in 2016 and was the product of a 52-year political dynasty that, two days ago, finally met its demise. Cori now joins the Squad in Congress, the first Black Lives Matter organizer to grace its halls—kickstarting her quest to turn protest into politics on behalf of a plurality-Black district. And what I gained from my work on her campaign will forever stay with me.

My first day of phone banking was a tiresome one. After two hundred dials (most of which ended abruptly or went to voicemail), I reached a woman from St. Louis whose story served as a jolting reminder that the same problems I had long thought about in the abstract shaped others’ lived reality. Shanice Davis*, the screen read.

“We’re, what, ten minutes from Ferguson?” she said after I asked her what political issue most concerned her. It was step 3 of the routine I had been trained to complete: figure out what they care about and underscore Cori’s position on it. “I’m a Black mom. I’m still waking up at midnight to the pop of a gunshot, still fearful that my son could become the next Mike Brown. We’ve had politicians tell us for years that things would change, and that they would be the ones to change it, but they never have. I live in North St. Louis, I can barely afford healthcare, and I got laid off two months ago. I belong to the worst-treated group in this country. I’m done showing up for more of the same.” The anguish in her voice was discernible; I ditched the script and fumbled for the right words to say.

Shanice was right. It was unfair for me to sit there and expect her to be as excited about an election as I was when electoral politics had failed to cure a single one of her problems, as if working-class faith in American democracy had not diminished long ago. She was the type of person with the most to gain from someone like Cori in power but also the most reason to be skeptical of self-proclaimed progressive candidates and their overzealous armies of canvassers.

After a momentary pause, I took a breath and told her what I knew to be true: nationwide, self-aggrandizing politicians who put themselves and their donors first had rigged the system against everyone else. I mentioned that I firmly believed Cori was not one of them, but I knew that Shanice’s vote was to be earned rather than expected — after all, constituents like her are neglected, time after time. Cori wasn’t going to Capitol Hill to meaninglessly co-sponsor legislation she would fall short of fighting for and then come home to a cushy salary. As a non-career politician who had shunned corporate contributions, Cori was going to Capitol Hill to build a movement against evils she herself had faced: sexual violence, police abuse, poverty, homelessness, and more. That was why Cori inspired people, I concluded my response, and I could solemnly pledge that this was not another one of the many campaign calls I was sure Shanice had received on behalf of candidates who would sell out. The call ended with her expressing that she would be requesting an absentee ballot later that night, and that she hoped that what I said about Cori would turn out to be true. But more broadly, it wasn’t just her whose disenchantment was almost palpable — I had taken note of every time a voter responded with “I don’t care for politics” when I called. Phone banking helps fix that.

The results of the MO-01 primary shook up the congressional universe and revealed an undeniable truth perhaps most evident this election cycle: progressive energy and dedicated voter outreach are an unstoppable combination. And the 2020 presidential match-up, boasting record-high numbers of voter participation, was defined by the Black voters in battleground states like Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Michigan who pushed President-elect Biden over the finish line. But even as people of color still overwhelmingly favored Biden, a more granular analysis indicates that between 2016 and 2020, it was white men and women who swung to Biden while Trump made unprecedented gains with Black, Latino, and Asian-American voters.

The knowledge I gleaned from down-ballot races like Cori’s should be applied to campaigns closer to the top of the ticket, and on the day of the Georgia runoffs that will unilaterally decide party control of the Senate, these lessons are more important than ever. The power of a sincere conversation with a voter can’t be understated. As an epidemic of political disaffection continues to strain Democrats’ relationship with the voting blocs they’re indebted to for their electoral successes, we must make a concerted effort to speak to Black and Brown people the way we desperately work to win over suburban white voters. We now know that demographics are no longer destiny. Decades of fruitless leadership and broken promises have left the status quo virtually unchanged for those who the status quo most pathetically fails; the people we’ve for far too long taken for granted deserve our investment on the campaign trail. Shanice taught me that true service delivers results and uplifts everyone, whether they’re a mom terrified of the speed at which police brutality could reach her family, a newly unemployed American hit hard by the pandemic, or a struggling minimum-wage worker buried under mountains of medical debt. I can only hope that the balance of power shifts to people like Cori and empowers people like Shanice in future cycles.

*Names changed.

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