Knock, Knock! Our resident political junkie goes door to door with Justine Caldwell

I abhor starting with cliche, but here’s one: You never know what someone goes through until you walk a mile in their shoes. Our streets are crowded in the evenings with activists, candidates and canvassers knocking on doors to spread word of their cause, but even for longtime news junkies, it’s hard to imagine what that experience is like. “I got my start in politics knocking on doors and talking to people,” says Justine Caldwell (D – District 30). “What a lot of people don’t realize, even though politics is very nasty, regular people are very nice.”

It was a perfect autumn evening when I canvassed a quiet East Greenwich neighborhood with Caldwell in District 30, which encompasses all of East Greenwich and parts of West Greenwich. Justine Caldwell is a first-time candidate who is 35 years old with a PhD and a history of political activism. She grew up in Warwick and got her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at URI. For her PhD in American studies, she went to Bowling Green University in Ohio. Caldwell got involved in activism in support of LGTBQ+ issues like same-sex marriage, met her future husband, did some more activism in Maine and moved back to RI.

Caldwell has two children with her husband, David; one is 6 and the other is 3. “That’s part of the reason I decided to run,” she says. “Women and parents of young children are severely underrepresented at our state house.” Caldwell is the primary caregiver to her children, and her husband is a software developer with a small consulting business. “The outcome of the 2016 election didn’t reflect the Rhode Island values that I know,” she said. “Of my neighbors, of my community, of my family and friends. My current representative, who is my opponent, is a Trump-supporting Republican.”

The current incumbent is Antonio Giarrusso (R), who most famously made headlines when he refused to sit through sexual harassment training at the state house. (Speaker Mattiello then appointed him to a study commission about sexual harassment; make of that what you will, oh, loyal reader.) He has an A- rating from the NRA and was endorsed by RI Right to Life during the last election cycle. Giarrusso had no opponent in the last two elections. District 30 in 2016 went for Hillary Clinton over President Donald Trump by a margin of 10 points. Representative Giarrusso co-sponsored a bill congratulating President Trump on his inauguration.

As we walked, Caldwell carried with her a clipboard and bag of letters. The letters serve as an introduction, and on the clipboard is a printout of what she calls the “turf” for our evening. It’s a map of the neighborhood she’s canvassing, plus a list of registered voters pulled from a database her husband created. All public knowledge, it lists registered voters and notes from other canvassers.

There was no one home at the first few houses we went to, which Caldwell said is typical. We started a little past 5pm, so a lot of people aren’t home from work yet, but there’s a hard deadline at dusk. Caldwell told me you lose two minutes of sun every day this time of year; some political types I know have a list of sunset time from now until election day.

If you’re telling yourself, “I could do this and faster,” then let me tell you, you are wrong. It’s daunting to go up to someone’s door. You don’t know how they’re going to react, and at some point you will talk to someone from your opposing party. “We always tell our volunteers not to make assumptions about voters,” says Caldwell. “You don’t know who they are as a person.”

We got a good response rate that night. We covered about dozen houses and spoke to half that number, if not more. For Caldwell, conversations are all about connecting with voters. She asked them what issues they care about and many of them are similar. In East Greenwich voters talked about healthcare, education and the need for good job opportunities. Some talked about the concern for more gun control, and a few expressed concern about protecting their right to own them.

District 30 broke for Clinton, but during the back half of the night we talked to a few Republicans. One Republican voter asked Caldwell some pointed questions about Governor Gina Raimondo, taxes and the Burrillville power plant. “I don’t see party,” he says. “I care about education, public works and energy, and when you figure that out, send me the bill.” The crux of the night, however, was a visit to local Nike boycotter John DePetro’s house. In the most polite terms, he’s exactly the kind of abyss you stare into that stares right back, and in no uncertain terms, Depetro told her he’s voting for her opponent.

At 6:30, we were losing light fast, so we walked back to the car. “You have to realize, voters are voters,” says Caldwell. “They’re just regular people at their doors, and we’re just regular people knocking on their doors. Everyone is coming from a different place. You have to try and meet them where they are.”

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