Outside the Allen House senior citizen home in Northeast, residents Maria Parker and Ruby Darkis sit on a bench, canes in hand, waiting for a stranger to pick them up and take them to vote. Shortly before noon, their lift arrives: a minivan plastered with the face of Vincent Gray, candidate for the Ward 7 D.C. Council seat.
The driver, Rayford Wyder, will be cruising the ward’s streets today in search of elderly voters who could use some help getting to the polls. He’s not supposed to make any pitches for his candidate during the ride, but he’s hoping that a friendly, complimentary lift to the precinct might tip an undecided voter toward Gray. Wyder and his partner, also manning a minivan, have just barely beaten another shuttle to the Allen House—the one driven by campaigners for Kevin Chavous, Gray’s incumbent opponent.
To Wyder, an affable 61-year-old in a plaid shirt, Parker is his “sweetheart” and Darkis his “darling.” He loads their canes into the trunk of his Pontiac and helps the pair aboard. “I gotcha, sweetheart,” he tells 85-year-old Parker as he gently bear-hugs her from behind and loads her into the van. “Sweetie, lemme come back here and buckle you up.” On the way to the polls at the Benning branch of the D.C. Library, Wyder manages to scoop up another elderly straggler on the side of the road, strap her into her seat, and take her along for the voting session.
Today the library walkway is like a red carpet for seniors. Once Wyder opens the minivan doors, the three women look out at a gantlet of campaigners awaiting them with candidate pins, campaign literature, and enthusiastic chants.
Reps from the Gray and Chavous camps swarm each voter, occasionally breaking into testy rants against the other candidate. A member of Chavous’ senior ferry, a bear of a guy who identifies himself only as “G,” laments the fact that Gray’s camp beat them to the constituency at the Allen House. “We were right behind them,” he says. But even though Gray’s supporters have taken them to the polls, the seniors are now fair game for anyone—and G’s people surround them with their fliers.
Darkis, 75 and salt-and-pepper-haired, quickly learns that the campaigners at this precinct forgo the usual arm’s-length pamphlet pass in favor of a more aggressive style. Seniors used to sitting companionless at the bingo table won’t feel lonesome today: Campaigners here like to crowd the elderly voters, taking them by an arm and talking directly into an ear.
“Some people can’t get to the polling place because of the people campaigning,” says 71-year-old Charles Brooks, an election official working his 30th year at the polls. Each year, Brooks establishes the boundary for campaigners with placards that read “Notice: Electioneering Beyond This Point Prohibited by Law.” But campaigners flagrantly breach that line, often following voters a good 20 feet beyond it to the library door, all the while pushing pins and pamphlets and T-shirts. He says part of his job is to protect incoming voters, especially seniors. “That’s why they have me here,” he says. “If you hit me, you ain’t gonna have a good reputation for hitting a skinny man.”
Parker, a petite woman with Coke-bottle glasses, looks confused in the whirlwind outside the library door. Her hands are filled with pamphlets, and her escort, Wyder, finds himself debating with Selma Duncan, a Chavous campaigner. Duncan, miffed by Wyder’s suggestion that a “change” is in order in Ward 7, decides to join the entourage as it heads inside to the polls. Wyder has no choice but to allow Duncan to take Parker’s other arm, turning his electoral twosome into a threesome. Behind them, another Gray supporter walks Darkis in baby steps to the end of the library, where the entire group of five crams into an undersized elevator.
So long as they don’t wear any partisan clothing or pins inside, escorts such as Wyder and Duncan are free to walk anyone they want directly to the voting booth, according to Brooks. The unspoken aim is to be as influential as possible without being overtly influential. Outside the elevator, as Wyder momentarily lags behind, Duncan deftly slips Darkis a Kevin Chavous T-shirt to counterbalance the Gray paraphernalia she’s carrying.
As the women go to vote—Parker taking a traditional paper ballot, Darkis opting for the newfangled computer—Duncan says she doesn’t know how the women will vote, and isn’t supposed to. Similarly, Wyder says he and other escorts try to stay out of the selection process. “We try to back off,” he says. “We’re picking them up to get them here. Hopefully that in itself might do something.”
Once the ballots are cast, the Chavous camp shows a less proprietary side, asking Gray’s people to haul the seniors back to their home. “And can you take one more?” asks G.
Outside, the elderly who’ve already voted lean along a fence with their canes, largely ignored as they await their rides, while incoming seniors brave the mob with their escorts. Once Wyder loads up his van, he realizes he’s one woman short. “We lost one,” he says. It’s the straggler they picked up on Minnesota Avenue.
“She shouldn’t have left without telling someone,” says Darkis, who has a sewing class and a water aerobics session to get to this afternoon. Wyder heads back inside in search of the woman, who, it turns out, is having trouble with her ballot.
Parker gushes over the good graces of her escorts. “They were so nice and courteous,” she says. But in the end, they had no effect on her vote. Perched in the front seat of the Vincent Gray van, she says she cast her vote for Chavous. “I had my mind made up already,” she says. CP