If you want to see the boots of the Oregon AFL-CIO political operation, look no further than Chellema Qolus. Qolus is a paid canvasser for Working America — the AFL-CIO’s at-large affiliate. Most of the time, her job is to go door-to-door to build Working America’s membership list. But during election season, it’s to elect AFL-CIO-endorsed candidates.
On Tuesday, Oct. 7, a scorcher of a day, Qolus is in Gladstone to help state representative Brent Barton and state senate candidate Jamie Damon. At 4 p.m., she and a coworker are dropped off on the evening’s turf. They’ll split up and spend the next five hours knocking on doors, checking off names from a voter address list on a tablet computer.
Qolus, 51, has been a Working America canvasser since 2012. On the doorstep, she’s seasoned and friendly. She’s a dog and cat lover. And she’s unfazed by signs that say “No Soliciting.” Those signs might be aimed at salespeople, or might have been left by the previous homeowner. Qolus says she gets half her donations from houses with “no soliciting” signs at the door.
“We’re not trying to disturb anybody,” Qolus tells the Labor Press. “I’m giving people an opportunity to participate.”
At 4:30 p.m., a voter named Paul is home and answers the door. A Republican, he says he doesn’t vote the party line, but considers candidates on their merits. “Schools and jobs,” he answers, when Qolus asks what issues are most important to him. Qolus next names the candidates for state house and senate in his district, and asks if he knows which one he’ll vote for. He favors Democrat Barton for House, but is thinking about voting for the Republican for Senate.
Qolus explains that Working America, a nonpartisan organization, has endorsed Barton and Damon, both Democrats. Damon is a professional mediator, and that may be just what the closely divided Senate needs to get any work done, Qolus says. Paul takes her flier, promises to consider it, and agrees to share his email address. She thanks him, and is on her way to the next door, making notes on her tablet about the encounter.
Next to answer the door is Lois, an 83-year-old Republican who says national security is her top issue.
“What about issues for the state legislature?” Qolus asks.
Jobs and schools, Lois replies. She thinks schools could use more money.
Qolus delivers a rap about Barton: He helped get more money for schools this year.
The money will probably go to overpaid higher-ups, Lois says.
Actually, Qolus says, the Legislature told districts the extra money had to be used to reduce class size. In other words: Hire teachers. Barton also got the state to commit $5 million to redevelop a closed-down paper mill nearby, Qolus adds, and required that any work done on the site be paid a living wage.
That sounds fine, Lois says … if it ever gets built. Lois says she watches Fox News, and is fed up with all the political negativity.
“You haven’t heard me say anything negative, have you?” Qolus asks. Qolus says she’s met Barton. He’s direct and honest and approachable.
Lois takes some literature and follows Qolus out to the street, adding that she doesn’t like Obama, or Obamacare, or Clinton. Maybe they don’t agree on some things, Qolus says. But Lois can tell Qolus believes in what she’s doing.
“It’s our impression that matters,” Qolus tells the Labor Press afterward.
Qolus and her coworkers have been out helping candidates in close races since Aug. 25, talking to Democratic, Republican and independent voters.
For the state labor federation, it’s an investment in people power. Gone are the days when an Oregon AFL-CIO endorsement meant a check to a candidate’s coffers. Today, the labor federation wages its own election campaign, in which union volunteers and employees supplement a full-time field operation — staffed by Chellema Qolus and 24 other Working America canvassers.
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