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Your Doorstep ... Where Elections Are Won 

It may be dangerous, unpleasant and exhausting, but campaigning door-to-door is a must in Humboldt

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Barking dogs, furious constituents, awkward moments and blisters. Door-to-door campaigning through the streets of Humboldt County can be a pain.

But what happens on your doorstep and thousands of others like it can also be the difference between winning and losing. And the interactions there — whether caustic or pleasant — can help forge candidates, pushing them to find their voice and preparing them for whatever elected office may throw their way.

Humboldt State University politics professor Kathleen Lee says the more local a race, the more important door-to-door campaigning becomes. "The thing about local politics is, it is personal," she explains, adding that while much campaign focus is put on phone calls, ad buys and shiny mailers, connecting with voters in a one-on-one setting can win votes. "You can sort through your junk mail and just toss it aside. You have caller ID so you can choose not to answer the phone, and you can mute the commercials. But if you answer the door ... and the candidate's there, you'll probably take the time to talk to them."

But relating to voters at their doorsteps is more art than science, and takes a certain skill. It pushes many candidates out of their comfort zones and, consequently, many are loath to do it. Local politicos, however, say it is the single most valuable thing a candidate can do. And those who have braved the yapping dogs, grow houses, lonely talkers and everything else that comes with knocking on thousands of doors in Humboldt County say they are better for having done it.

"It was a stretch for me personally," says former 2nd District Supervisor Clif Clendenen, adding he's not really one for "getting in people's faces" on political things. "It was the hardest thing to do, for me, but it's considered one of the most effective things to do in campaigning and it was really valuable."

Humboldt County Sheriff Mike Downey says he'll always remember when a supervisorial candidate showed up at his Fortuna doorstep a couple of decades ago. "He just came to my door and chatted with me," Downey recalls. "I voted for him just because of that simple thing of him coming to my door." When Downey first ran for sheriff four years ago, he says he remembered that message and made a point of extensively canvassing neighborhoods in Eureka, McKinleyville and Fortuna. Downey didn't take a sophisticated approach, he just picked streets and worked one end to the other, knocking on every single door. "It was probably the biggest thing that really helped me define what I wanted to do as sheriff," he says. "I had to go out and tell people, 'This is who I am and this is what I want to do as sheriff.'"

Richard Salzman, a local politico who's been involved with scores of local races and worked on Chris Kerrigan's campaign for 4th District Supervisor this time around, says he thinks door-to-door campaigning has the power to change candidates from political novices to seasoned professionals. "I think it's the most significant thing in the evolution of a candidate," he says, adding that it forces candidates to hone their message, keep a level head and respond appropriately to any curveballs. It also forces candidates to stop listening to their handlers and hear what voters have to say. "They start to hear what the concerns are and it helps them frame their arguments and their positions as a candidate," he says. "(Candidates) come back from going door-to-door and they start to talk about an issue and, all of a sudden, they find their voice. They've been able to figure out how to apply and convey their values in a constructive and tangible manner."

The one-on-one interactions can also help candidates learn what issues are important to voters.

Arcata City Councilman Michael Winkler is a self-described "computer guy" for whom door-to-door campaigning was a stretch. But Winkler says it's also been hugely valuable. In 2012, Winkler says he was canvassing neighborhoods during his campaign when he saw first-hand how Arcata's grow house problem was affecting neighborhoods. He spoke with one woman who told him about the terror she felt as someone tried to cut through her screen door, convinced her home was a grow house. He says another guy chased him off his porch, paranoid that Winkler was a home-invasion robber. Winkler says he was already supporting Arcata's excessive electricity tax aimed at clamping down on grow houses, but he says going door-to-door reinforced his position and gave him new insight into the problem.

"As far as personal experiences, [campaigning door-to-door] is one of the most fulfilling things that I've done in my life," he says.

But canvassing neighborhoods is also about winning votes, and can be a tremendously successful strategy when deployed correctly.

Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District Commissioner Richard Marks may know more about the art of going door-to-door than anyone else in the county. It was a cornerstone in his bid for the commission, as well as past campaigns for state Assembly and county supervisor and his wife's runs for local school board. Arriving unexpectedly at people's doors played a big part in Marks' previous career working for unions. In that role, Marks says he was tasked with meeting employees outside of the work place — often at their homes — to gauge support for unionizing. It's a role that brought Marks to doorsteps throughout the state and elsewhere.

Having trained in the art of doorstep conversations — learning how to evaluate people and relate to them using their body language and verbal cues — and having worked dozens of local campaigns, Marks knows how to squeeze the most out of door-to-door campaigning. Marks, who put his skills to use on 4th District Supervisor Virginia Bass's re-election bid, says the first thing is to have a strategy, or else door-to-door will become a massive time investment that yields little return. Voter registration data from the Humboldt County Elections Office can act as a kind of road map, telling you who is registered to vote, his or her party affiliations and how often he or she actually turns up to cast a ballot.

Marks suggests a tiered approach: Your first efforts should be to reach your likely supporters, which will help with fundraising and gathering more volunteers; Next, Marks says you should target absentee voters because their ballots arrive well in advance of Election Day; Finally, you go after the folks who vote every election but are undecided in the race.

Salzman agrees that having a sound strategy is vital and that it has to be focused on getting as large a return on your time investment as possible. Salzman even quipped that he doesn't mind hearing that a likely voter has pledged his or her support to his candidate's challenger because it means the campaign can cross that voter off the list and avoid wasting any more time or money calling, sending mailers or showing back up at his or her door.

Sometimes it's not quite that simple. Kerrigan says he's visited a lot of homes that have signs from both his campaign and that of his challenger, Bass, in the front yard. Kerrigan says he always asks about the apparent dual allegiance at the door, and hears all kinds of responses. Some are split households, with spouses or cohabitants voting differently. He says he met an elderly couple recently that said they never turned down a campaign sign when it was offered. "It was their way of thanking people who run for office," Kerrigan says.

In addition to learning not to judge a book by its cover, seasoned candidates have picked up some other canvassing strategies. Arcata City Councilwoman Alex Stillman was the first woman to run for and win a seat on the council in 1972, and has canvassed neighborhoods in each of her four bids for office. She says simple tricks, like having a volunteer drop her off at the top of a hill so she can work her way down, can save lots of time. "That's just strategy stuff," she says, adding that she was also schooled early on to avoid homes with a Jehovah's Witness symbol by the door because the religion prohibits its members from voting. "If someone doesn't vote, that can really take a lot of your time to be talking to them," she says. "You have to move along."

Sometimes that's easier said than done, especially after knocking on the door of someone eager to give you an earfull. Clendenen, known for his opposition of big box stores, says he'll never forget the tongue lashings he took from some on the issue while on their doorsteps.

"Some people, they were just visibly angry," he says. "Like, 'You don't like Walmart,' like I was against apple pie and mom or something."

It seems everyone who has gone door-to-door on the campaign trail has a few similar stories. "You find people at their most candid at home," Marks says. But most say folks are generally flattered to have a candidate at their doorstep and even disagreements are conveyed congenially. "I bet even some of the trolls on the blogs are probably pretty nice on their own front porch," Salzman jokes.

But candidates knocking on doors in Humboldt County never know quite what they'll find on the other side, and all have stories that range from interrupting smoke sessions and stumbling upon nude sunbathers to the truly shocking. Marks, for his part, says he's walked into uncomfortable situations that have included propositions and, once, even had a man open the door while he was pleasuring himself. "Just horrible," he recalls, adding that door-to-door canvassing is full of surprises.

Salzman recalls one time when he was going door to door in Ohio for Barack Obama's 2008 presidential bid in a white, blue-collar neighborhood. He says he knocked on one door to find a skinny woman looking like she came directly out of a Dorothea Lange photograph. Salzman says he told the woman he was working with the Obama campaign and the woman went to fetch her husband.

"This guy comes barreling out," Salzman recalls. "I stepped back off the porch and he just come swinging out the door, sticks his chest way out, arms back, and says, 'What do you want?'"

Salzman says he stammered that he was with the Obama campaign, just an "American citizen out talking to other American citizens doing my patriotic duty by campaigning." Salzman says he was scared, and pretty much ready to run when the man looked at him sideways. "He says, 'Yeah, well, I'm voting for the n----- all the way.'" Salzman says he thanked the man and got the hell off his property as quickly as possible. But, walking down the driveway, Salzman said he had an epiphany. "That was the moment I thought, 'We're going to win this election,'" he says. "All racism aside, this man could see Obama was the guy that identified with his plight."

It's that inherent uncertainty that comes with approaching a stranger's door that makes the whole thing so engaging for some. That's the case for former 3rd District Supervisor John Woolley, who says he loved going door-to-door, engaging constituents, hearing about their issues and getting new insights into their lives. "To me, it's kind of like going fishing," he says. "You don't know what the next stretch of river will produce."

The Journal's Thadeus Greenson, Grant Scott-Goforth and Heidi Walters contributed to this report.

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