On an overcast Saturday morning, Darlene Turner gathered up her husband and two teenage sons for a drive from their home in Brandywine to President Obama’s Organizing for America campaign office in Fairfax, some 50 miles away. Along with dozens of other Prince George’s County residents who made the trip, the Turners received maps of the Fairfax neighborhoods where they would spend the day knocking on doors and registering voters.
“When I received an e-mail alert from the Obama campaign saying Maryland would be helping to get our neighbors in Virginia registered for November, I wanted to participate,” said Turner, a security clearance investigator. “Republicans are trying to turn back the clock on civil rights, women’s rights, human rights, and I don’t want my children to have to say that their mother and father just stood by and let it happen.”
To hear Turner speak with such passion, you’d think that the presidential election was being held on Super Tuesday. There are 10 Republican primaries — including Virginia’s — slated for that day. But Turner and other volunteers are looking ahead with a time-compressing urgency, sensing that there is not a moment to lose in preparing for a contest billed as a battle for the future of America.
The choices are clear, with the contrasting views of progressives and reactionaries on display in their own back yard. On Thursday, while Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) was signing a bill allowing same-sex marriage in the state, the Republican-led Virginia General Assembly was passing a bill requiring women to have ultrasounds before abortions.
Only after thousands of women staged one of the largest protests in Virginia history did the legislators drop a provision in the bill that specified invasive, transvaginal ultrasounds. They also relented and exempted victims of rape and incest from the mandatory procedure.
The lawmakers are still considering a proposal that would require Virginia residents to show a photo ID before being allowed to vote — a measure that reeks of Jim Crow-era efforts to suppress the black vote.
“What had been enthusiasm among our volunteers has become determination,” said Leathia West, a Beltsville resident who volunteers as regional director for the Obama campaign in Prince George’s. “People are responding from the heart, from the gut, saying that the stakes are too high and that they have to get involved.”
During the weekend, Obama supporters held more than 100 campaign events in Virginia, many of them supported by volunteers from Maryland and the District. Since he announced his bid for reelection in April, the campaign has hosted about 6,500 events in Virginia and made more than 370,000 calls to potential voters and volunteers.
Although Obama won Virginia in 2008, the subsequent rise of ultraconservative tea party activists means that he will have to fight even harder to win this important battleground state — with its 13 electoral votes — a second time.
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, one of the main contenders for the Republican nomination, has virtually no volunteers in the state. But he can make up for the late start in part with his super PAC-financed advertising apparatus, infamously known as the “Death Star.” As Romney demonstrated during the Florida primary, a barrage of well-placed negative ads doesn’t take long to obliterate a rival.
The Obama campaign will be relying heavily on volunteers such as Turner to counter the threat. She doesn’t campaign so much as chat with residents, helping them register to vote and sharing personal stories about issues that will be debated before the election.
“I’m one of those women who had to take birth control pills because of a medical issue,” Turner told me. “I didn’t grow up with a silver spoon in my mouth, so I had to go to a government clinic to get treatment and prescriptions. When I hear men threatening to cut back on health services for women, attacking our reproductive rights and even hurling personal insults, I am appalled.”
Her husband, Kelvin, manages a warehouse and sometimes complained about what he thought were unreasonable demands from labor unions — another issue in the campaign.
“I came to see his point,” Darlene Turner said. “But I used to be a social worker, and I know from the people I’ve met what it’s like to live at the mercy of callous employers, where you can’t have an opinion or speak out without putting your job in jeopardy. And he came to see my point.”
The Turners had knocked on 55 doors before calling it a day. But there were fewer than 245 days before the November election and, as far as Darlene Turner was concerned, many more doors to go.
To read previous columns by Courtland Milloy, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.