Knocking on doors

Our left-leaning writer goes campaigning with a Conservative MP

Since I turned 18 I’ve voted in every election I could — and never for a Conservative candidate. Consequently driving up to northwest Calgary to go door-knocking with Michelle Rempel a Conservative Member of Parliament feels… strange.

I arrive at an average-looking house on a cul-de-sac; I guess I thought a Conservative campaign stronghold would be more… stronghold-y. A smiling middle-aged man waves me downstairs where I find Sean Schnell manager of Michelle’s nomination campaign. “That was my dad” he says. “This is my folks’ place.”

The basement is an odd mix of campaign office and cozy suburbanity. The phone bank is set up around a treadmill and an old Nintendo system. There are stacks of paper everywhere — pamphlets membership forms sticky notes that say “Sorry I missed you!” in Michelle’s handwriting. “Next election we’re going paperless” Sean vows.

Sean’s mom brings down a fresh-baked apple pie. This is not at all what I expected.

I ask a nagging question: why are we door-knocking today? We’re 19 months out from the next federal election and besides nobody else is running for the Conservative nomination in Calgary Nose Hill.

“It’s not a dogfight riding but we still need to put in the work” says Sean. “We want to keep up a robust membership.” That’s a revelation: I’m door-knocking for a Conservative campaign and selling Conservative Party memberships. Oh joy.

In election time there would be a squad of volunteers zig-zagging the street with Michelle spending 30 seconds at each door. Today is “slow” door-knocking at the homes of lapsed party members. This campaign will roll straight into the nomination then gear up for the general election. Sean pulls up NationBuilder the software they use to co-ordinate 1100 volunteers and I realize that despite the warm suburban trappings this is a lean mean election-winning machine.

Michelle arrives and we pile into her car. Driving to Edgemont she regales me with stories from the campaign trenches — door-knocking in northern Manitoba at -40 C the half-naked stoner who emerged in a cloud of pot smoke. “Sean remember when that guy chased us down the street with a frying pan?”

Sean is all business. “This is our first stop” he says handing me a sheet with the family name address and membership history. I realize I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. “Help explain the membership form” Michelle says “and if I get stuck in a long conversation pull me out.”

The first house is a gimme: the family knows Sean’s mom. We chat with a mother and teenage son who at 15 is eligible for a membership. The whole family signs up and Michelle invites the teen to volunteer. “It’s never too early to get involved.”

A chorus of barking greets us at the next house. “Oh yeah” Michelle grimaces “you’re also on dog duty. Remind me to tell you about the Rottweiler.” An older gentleman opens the door holding back five small dogs. Michelle launches into her spiel and I’m swarmed by adorable over-enthusiastic canines.

After a few more houses the man behind our last door is grimly excited to see us. “I’ll report this conversation back to the guys” he says. He cancelled his membership because he was so mad about government waste and overspending. I tune out as he talks about his hard-earned tax dollars and Michelle responds with economic policy. Then he drops the bombshell.

“I know you’ve got an uphill battle” he says to Michelle. “I mean 50 per cent of people won’t support you because you’re blonde and attractive.”

I freeze. What the hell did he just say? I want to scream You’re talking to a cabinet minister jackass! Instead I clench my first around the membership forms.

“I would rather people judge me on my record” says Michelle evenly “than on my appearance or gender.” She segues into a recap of her career pre-politics and he renews his membership.

“Annnd there’s the sexism” says Michelle as we walk away. “Happens all the time. I didn’t used to say anything but now I always respond.”

We head back to HQ. In 90 minutes we’ve sold 14 memberships and snagged a donation — a good haul. (I make a note to donate to the Green Party in penance.) Politics aside I’m impressed. I’ve caught a tiny glimpse of this campaign: its hundreds of volunteers phone calls mail-outs and so so many doors. I can’t help but feel that if every politician worked this hard our democracy would be in better shape.

Every month Mark Hopkins steps outside of his comfort zone and writes about the experience. Do you have an adventure to suggest? Email mark@swallowabicycle.com .