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When it comes to getting senior citizens to the polls, longtime D.C. organizer Bob King is, well, king.
“They call me ‘the senior guru,'” he says. “Whenever a campaign is having a meeting, they say, ‘Do you know about King? Have you talked to Bob King at all?’ They know they can’t win without the seniors.”
The Fort Lincoln resident has shepherded Ward 5 elders to voting locations since Walter Washington ran for mayor in the 1970s.
For King, 73, this year is little different. He arranged for six private buses and two vintage cars to pick up people at more than a dozen senior buildings across Northeast on Wednesday morning, and drop them off at Mount Horeb Baptist Church on Bladensburg Road NE.
At the church, the seniors will enjoy breakfast and campaign literature courtesy of five Democratic incumbents whose campaigns have paid a few thousand dollars each for King’s get-out-the-vote services.
In exchange, Mayor Muriel Bowser, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds, Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, and D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine will likely bag scores of votes in one fell swoop during early voting for the June 19 primary. With the odds largely in their favor, they all had more cash than their opponents as of March.
Early voting began on Monday and runs until June 15. It will expand to other locations after Friday, but for now is taking place only at One Judiciary Square, a District government building.
That’s where the seniors will head after munching on eggs, sausages, potatoes, bacon, and fruit, and sipping on juice and coffee, delivered to one of Mount Horeb’s large conference rooms by a hired caterer, explains King. “These are no pastries, man!” he says.
King is a former advisory neighborhood commissioner who served for 32 years. More than 300 seniors turned out for Wednesday’s electoral fête, which is more than the 200 to 250 he had expected as of Tuesday. “What a day,” he said from Mount Horeb. “The place is packed.”
He planned the event for three months. He met with campaign managers and distributed flyers throughout Ward 5, home to D.C.’s black middle class for decades, but quickly gentrifying. He also coordinated with the Ward 5 Democrats on voter education.
“It’s just a good day for seniors because voting is a right that a lot of them have fought for,” says Gordon-Andrew Fletcher, a Ward 5 Dems member and an ANC commissioner attending the breakfast as a candidate for Ward 5 committeeman of the D.C. Democratic State Committee.
“Bring identification to vote!” King’s flyers advise above photos of the five incumbents. Judiciary Square offers old-school paper ballots in addition to more-modern electronic touchscreens, and many seniors prefer paper, Fletcher and King say.
As part of the event, the current and former Ms. Senior D.C. winners will ride in the vintage cars. “We’re going to cruise down Bladensburg Road going like 20, 25 miles per hour,” said King on Tuesday. “We want those who are in their homes, in cars, out for lunch to say, ‘Oh wow, there’s something going on today.’ We’re not going to Atlantic City.”
The buses have capacity for 50 passengers apiece. King has helped seniors with disabilities get absentee ballots because the transportation he can afford is not wheelchair-accessible.
Although he demurs when asked how much the mission costs, he does some math aloud suggesting the price is over $10,000. He says he reduced his consultant fee to under $400 per candidate, citing $5,000, $4,000, and $1,700 figures for catering, printing, and the church rental, respectively.
The buses cost $450 each to rent for four hours, which includes bringing the seniors back by the afternoon. “I call the plan simple-stupid,” King quips. “I’m not talking about four pieces of chicken and biscuits and all that.”
Assuming the total cost is $15,000, this would come out to $3,000 on average for the five campaigns. “That’s no money to do the GOTV,” King argues. “If you don’t do GOTV, I don’t care what you do—the bottom line of any campaign is GOTV.”
King downplays his efforts as “small,” but says he has organized the 65+ vote for so long because seniors “are the most reliable voting bloc” anywhere. “The city stands on their shoulders,” he says.
He is also waging a crusade to boost voter turnout. In 2016, a presidential election year, about 100,000 people voted in the primaries, or less than a quarter of registered voters. In 2014, a mayoral election year, less than 27 percent of registered voters voted in the primaries.
“I’m trying to wake up the whole city and say, ‘Look, how can we ask Congress for control of our own destiny when our voting numbers are going down?” King notes. “This is a political blood transfusion. I wish I could do this in every ward.”
But he is not sanguine about turnout this year, saying it may be lower than in 2016. “With some of these candidates having no competition, it just hurts us,” he says. (A Democratic operative at Judiciary Square on Monday put it this way: “It’s bad. Nobody’s voting today.”)
King says the lack of robust contests in 2018 is why—for the first time since Walter Washington’s campaign—he has no funding commitments for his GOTV services on the dates of the primary and the November general election.
“I’ve been telling seniors, ‘Try to vote on the 6th, I don’t know if I’ll be able to do something after that,'” he says. “If I’m unable to, thousands of seniors who are marginalized will be disenfranchised. That pains me more than anything.”
King does not endorse candidates through his work, but says his job is to provide people a platform. He has received criticism for that kind of reasoning in the past. Several years ago, when the D.C. Council considered same-sex marriage, King unsuccessfully pushed for a referendum on the issue and sent letters to Congress requesting an intervention.
“This is the most contentious issue of the 21st century,” he said in 2009, a year before his company accepted more than $60,000 from the conservative National Organization for Marriage to flyer against incumbents who supported marriage equality.
King’s actions earned him the “anti-gay” label from LGBTQ advocacy nonprofit GLAA and the Washington Blade. By the time he worked for Bowser’s and Vince Gray‘s 2014 mayoral campaigns, he said he recognized same-sex marriage as the law and never publicly supported or opposed it as an individual.
Still, King knows seniors are elections’ secret sauce, noting that former Mayor Anthony Williams called them his “secret weapon.” “Even Racine put money in this piece,” he says, referring to the unopposed attorney general. “If you’re a smart politician, you invest in the seniors because if you don’t, you’ll get a check back marked ‘insufficient political funds.'”
One-time investments do not cut it either. “The seniors are not fooled by the candidates,” King adds. “They have a ‘What have you done for me lately?’ mentality. The mountain don’t come, you have to go to the mountain.”