MT. LEBANON, Pa. — Step inside Vinnie’s Barber Shop on Monday afternoons and you’re likely to be greeted by Flo Gaskill. She wears an oversized bonnet ringed by buttons with the faces of President Obama and Michelle Obama and the logo of the SEIU.
“I’m a feminist, I’m a union member, I’m a retired state employee. I’m pro-choice. I think racism is a terrible problem in this country,” she said — before offering a slice of pizza.
Gaskill is one of about a dozen senior citizens who meet here each Monday for “Daytime for Obama,” as they call it, a modest effort to contact as many politically undecided senior citizens in nearby neighborhoods and convince them to vote for the president.
Vinnie’s simple storefront doesn’t suggest a hub of activity, but the scene inside is a bustling juxtaposition of young and old. Crammed into no more than 300-square feet sit elderly volunteers poring over data on Apple laptops and iPads. Amid framed photos of 50s-era pinup girls, movie posters for the “Attack of the 50 Foot Woman” and a display of old neckties, they use cell phones — even if some of them struggle to see the tiny numbers.
“I ran my minutes down to five minutes one week, because I always use my own phone,” said Joyce Walsh, 64, from nearby Bethel Park. “But I have four kids who live all over the country and that week I told them I can’t talk to you until my minutes roll over because I need to save them for my Obama calls.”
Eileen DeEulio, 55, owns the shop and gives the seniors free rein on Mondays. Several sit in the antique barber chairs, some at DeEulio’s desk in the back corner and others on the oversized leather couches in the waiting area.
“This is what I can do, and this is a good thing to do,” DeEulio said. “Everyone works well together and they make great use of this small area.”
DeEulio clearly relishes the opportunity to help Obama and said she likes it when customer chatter turns to politics. She argued a few weeks ago with a new customer about her “Dogs Against Romney” sign outside (the store is named for Vinnie, her late dog). The customer stormed out in frustration after he couldn’t prove to her that Obama has eaten dog meat. Once she even broke up a scuffle between two elderly gentlemen quarreling about Obamacare.
New polls in Pennsylvania this week give Obama a comfortable lead over Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Obama enjoys an eight-point advantage in a Mercyhurst University poll released Tuesday and ast week’s Allentown Morning Call poll gave the president a nine-point edge. A Philadelphia Inquirer survey two weeks had Obama ahead 50 percent to 39 percent.
The strength of Obama’s ground operation in Pennsylvania is due in part to volunteers like Ninamary Langsdale, 59, who said she began working on the president’s reelection just 10 days after his inauguration. Long before paid campaign field workers came to the Pittsburgh region, Langsdale said she was already organizing with friends and neighbors she worked with during the 2008 cycle. And when those paid staffers showed up this year, she gave them a place to sleep.
Before volunteers make calls, the Obama campaign provides call sheets with the names and numbers of undecided voters in nearby communities. Once the calls are made, the volunteers record the voter’s preference and relay the information back to the field organizer, who sends the information back up the chain to state and national campaign staffers.
And before volunteers make calls, Langsdale and the paid organizers provide basic training on how to speak with voters.
“We encourage people not necessarily to try to be encyclopedias about the president’s record, but to really talk from their hearts, to talk about why they support for the president,” she said. “I think we do a lot of good in helping people to understand the power of their vote, the importance of their vote and to help them clarify for their thinking.
As Langsdale explains the process, DeEulio could be heard shouting from the back of the room, “Are there anymore veterans here?” She had two more pale-blue “Veterans for Obama” campaign posters and wanted to ensure they went to the right people.
DeEulio is the daughter of a military veteran and her store’s collection of antique road signs, movie posters and photographs includes more than two dozen framed photographs of local veterans, whose tours of duty stretched from World War I to Afghanistan.
“These are the real 47 percent — this is who Romney was talking about,” she said. “I feel very strongly about these guys.”
Next to the photographs, Janice Wolk was working her way through a call sheet. When somebody in the back started strumming a Ukulele — yes, somebody brought along a Ukulele — she pressed her index finger up against her ear to keep the calls going.
And after so many months of cold-calling fellow seniors, can she recall her most memorable conversation?
“There was the gentleman who says he wishes that Pat Buchanan were running, or David Duke. I said, well sir, that’s your right,” Wolk said. “I don’t get into it with them – if somebody sounds like they’re 87 years old, you’re not going to argue them into anything.”
“I had one fellow today who’s 97, and I was willing to wheelbarrow him in if I needed to, but he didn’t want to vote,” Wolk added. “That’s his right – I don’t like that answer, but I don’t push him.”