Kerry Backers Target Arizona

Times Staff Writer

As the motor of the big white charter bus idled in anticipation of its nine-hour haul to Sedona, Ariz., Daniel Tamm rose to rev the spirits of the Southern Californians aboard.

“People ask, ‘Why Arizona? It’s a red state,’ ” he said. “But some of the latest polls show we’re only a percentage point behind.”

The 51 John Kerry volunteers filling every narrow seat cheered.


What’s more, continued Tamm, a Kerry campaign leader in the San Fernando Valley, “internal polls show that independents there are breaking 2-to-1 for Kerry-Edwards.”

Bus passengers whooped and hollered.

“Remember,” he concluded, “you are the face of the Kerry-Edwards campaign in Sedona this weekend.”

Tamm disembarked into the morning sunlight at the Burbank Airport Hilton parking lot. The front door sucked closed, and the Democratic busload was on its way to the historically Republican but now “swing” state next door.

Those aboard were among an estimated 2,000 California Democrats who, confident of a Kerry victory here, have, like volunteers from other so-called safe states, been journeying to states where the presidential election is more closely contested.

This trip, which took place earlier this month, was organized by a volunteer group called Kerry-Edwards SoCal Grassroots. Spokeswomen for the California GOP and the Bush-Cheney campaign in the state said they know of no such efforts by Republicans.

One of the bus riders was a trim man wearing a navy blue Cal baseball cap.

Ahmed Kassem, 64, was born in Cairo, and now lives in Sierra Madre. An engineering consultant and onetime Fulbright scholar at UC Berkeley, Kassem has been a U.S. citizen for more than 30 years. He was a registered Republican until earlier this year. He became a Democrat because he opposed the invasion of Iraq.

A Son in Iraq

Since February, Kassem said, he has had difficulty sleeping. His only child, Tarek, a 25-year-old Army reservist, was sent to Iraq that month. He is a member of the 425th Civil Affairs Battalion, which is rebuilding schools and sewers in Baghdad.

Whenever there are reports of American soldiers killed in that city, Kassem and his wife, Katherine, can scarcely breathe.

When they learn he is not among the dead, he says, “you get elated for only a couple of seconds because then you start thinking about the poor parents who did lose their children.”

This bus trip was his fifth to Arizona to knock on doors for Kerry.

A few seats behind Kassem, 18-year-old Sonseeahray Good and her boyfriend, Eric Stein, teased each other and fiddled with their cellphones.

Stein, an eager 29-year-old sometime actor/filmmaker who works days as an office assistant, described his success turning Republicans into Democrats.

Motivated initially by what he considers Bush’s poor record on the environment, he filled out a voter registration card this summer and mailed it to his Republican father. His dad signed it, he said, and changed parties.

His most dedicated convert is his girlfriend, a fashion store clerk. A self-described “daddy’s girl” whose father is a “hard-core Republican,” Good had adopted her father’s political ways without much thought.

“When Eric and I met, I said, ‘Oh, George Bush is great, a real man’s man,’ ” Good recalled. “And Eric said, ‘Uh, no.’ ”

So Good began reading political websites, she said, “and now, I’m a Democrat -- a big, fat liberal.”

The couple, who live in Sherman Oaks, were on their first campaign bus trip, but they had ventured on their own to Kingman, Ariz., Good’s hometown, to hand out Kerry literature in July, August and September.

Outside, the Inland Empire slipped past the bus’s windows, obscured by yellow-brown smog (“Bush air,” riders called it). Inside, the voices of Kenneth Starr, Bill Clinton, James Carville and other figures of a bygone presidency boomed from speakers. The film, “The Hunting of the President,” was playing on the bus’ video monitors.

As the bus rolled through the desert, the group’s leaders took turns at a microphone, instructing the volunteers about what lay ahead.

On arriving in Arizona, they would watch that night’s second presidential debate, then staff a telephone bank. Early the next day, they would canvass neighborhoods using lists compiled by the Arizona Kerry-Edwards campaign. Their targets were “persuadable voters” and “low-efficacy Democrats” -- registered Democrats who often skip voting.

They were to focus on getting people to fill out applications for vote-by-mail ballots.

Hours later, the bar of the Vista Cantina in Sedona periodically exploded in cheers or laughter as the bus riders ate dinner and watched the second presidential debate.

On the restaurant’s patio, Jennifer Axsom, 22, spoke about the California volunteers. She is the out-of-state volunteer coordinator for the Arizona Democratic Coordinated Campaign.

Axsom, who graduated from Harvard University in June, said more than a thousand Californians have come to Arizona to volunteer, by far the largest out-of-state group.

“It doesn’t matter how many doors we send them to knock on, how much canvassing we tell them to do,” she said, “they keep coming back.”

When the debate ended, the volunteers were bused to the Democratic Party’s Sedona field office to do “rapid response” phone banking.

The office, a small one-story structure in a woodsy setting, doubles as the headquarters of a company that offers Jeep tours of Sedona’s stunning red rock formations.

Working the Phones

The office’s six phone stations were quickly occupied by volunteers. Other Californians took up positions on couches, the floor or the small patio with their private cellphones and lists of telephone numbers.

They used a prepared script, which began: “I’m volunteering for John Kerry because as he showed us again tonight, he has what it takes to lead as America’s next commander in chief.”

Good, calling herself “Grace” for simplicity’s sake, presented her spiel into the ear of an ex-military man who wanted none of it.

Stein, with dramatic inflection and a few unscripted flourishes, played dramatically to a teenage boy who assured him everyone of voting age in that household was supporting Kerry.

The voices of the volunteers formed a kind of spoken rondo that lasted until 9 p.m., 12 hours after the bus had rolled out of Burbank.

The next morning, Axsom stood barefoot on two picnic coolers outside the Kerry field office, giving final instructions to the Californians, who had spent the night with local Democratic hosts.

An hour later, Kassem and another volunteer were marching through a neighborhood of houses fronted by large, fenced yards, some with horses.

“You’re wasting your breath,” 65-year-old retired oceanographer Loren Haury told the Kerry campaigners. “Because we’re all voting for him. We already got our ballots and mailed them in.”

“Gosh, this stirs me up,” added his neighbor, 88-year-old Jessica Danson, mother of actor Ted Danson. “I’m so enthusiastic that you’re going around.”

A Tough Sell

At another house, the volunteers were met by a frantically barking dog and a polite but wary white-haired woman, who announced, “I’m not voting for Kerry.”

“Are you sure we can’t convince you?” Kassem asked, proffering a Kerry flier.

“No, no,” the woman responded, waving her hands in front of her as if to ward off evil.

When it was nearly time for lunch, Kassem checked his clipboard.

Three vote-by-mail ballots filled out, three already voted by mail, seven not home, one rejection, one moved, he reported. “That’s very good. It’s very encouraging.”

Later, with the mid-afternoon Arizona sun baking the landscape, Stein and Good conferred. They were surrounded by vistas of distant, gigantic red rock formations. That morning, the pair had accounted for 18 applications to vote by mail.

A strong breeze rose to push the hot air through the tall evergreens lining the street. The whoosh of it was all that could be heard in the afternoon stillness.

Stein, the pockets of his cargo shorts sagging with water bottles, headed off undaunted in one direction. A weary Good, her pale skin cooking beneath a layer of exhausted sunscreen, went off gamely in the other.

At a house decorated for Halloween, a man of retirement age answered Stein’s doorbell-ring. He chewed what smelled like peanuts and stayed behind his screen door.

“I’m ex-military,” the man explained.

“Oh,” said Stein, figuring the man was a Republican, “that must mean you’re for Kerry.”

He’s a liar, the man responded. “A womanizer who hangs around with Heidi Fleiss.”

Stein was momentarily taken aback.

“You get your news from the Fox Channel, don’t you?” Stein retorted.

At a nearby house, Good rang the bill, and a middle-aged woman with a small barking dog came to the door.

“Are you Janelle?” Good asked, consulting her list of names.

“No, I’m not,” the woman said.

“Is Janelle in?”

“No, there’s no Janelle here.”

“Am I at the right address?”

“I’ve never heard of a Janelle. There are several 20 Skyline Drives. There are, like, three of them in Sedona. So, you got the wrong one.”

The woman said she still hadn’t decided who to vote for, but as Good walked away called after her, “Keep up the good job.”

The sun was making a spectacular exit over the desert as the bus rolled west. The volunteers had spent the day in Flagstaff, canvassing the warrens of apartments occupied mostly by students of Northern Arizona University.

In the back of the bus, volunteers amused themselves by selecting members of Kerry’s future cabinet. Kassem pushed for Robert Rubin as secretary of the Treasury. The group settled on Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) for Defense.

Good, meanwhile, braided the hair of 11-year-old Elsa Gibson of Los Angeles.

“Are those French braids?” someone asked.

“No,” joked Stein, “they’re freedom braids.”

The trip had proved the most successful of the 10 bus journeys SoCal Grassroots had mounted to Arizona. The volunteers had knocked on more than 2,600 doors, trip organizers said, and set a one-day record of soliciting 215 applications to vote by mail.

When Kassem returned to his Sierra Madre home, he got even better news. His son Tarek’s Army unit had been moved out of Iraq the day that Kassem and the others had set out for Arizona. Forty-eight hours later, Tarek was back in the United States.