Passion, commitment to change drive volunteers

Legions of volunteers fuel political campaigns — from the presidential race to local contests

Andrea Nemecek, of Cedar Rapids, walks door to door to speak with voters on behalf of Obama for America, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Saturday, July 14, 2012. (Nikole Hanna/The Gazette-KCRG)
Andrea Nemecek, of Cedar Rapids, walks door to door to speak with voters on behalf of Obama for America, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Saturday, July 14, 2012. (Nikole Hanna/The Gazette-KCRG)

CEDAR RAPIDS — According to an Associated Press-GfK poll, fewer than half of us think the outcome of the 2012 presidential election will have much effect on the economy, unemployment and the federal budget deficit.

Andrea Nemecek and Karen Fesler are in the other half.

Months before the Nov. 6 election, Fesler and Nemecek are among the legions of volunteers fueling political campaigns — from the presidential race to local contests.

Nemecek, 20, who will be voting in her first presidential election, was one of those youngsters who got caught up in Obama-mania a few years back. She saw the future president at Cedar Rapids Kennedy High School — now her alma mater — in his first campaign appearance after formally entering the campaign for the Democratic nomination back in 2007.

“I was inspired by him, by his ‘world-as-it-is versus the world-as-it-should be’ vision,” the Grinnell College English major said recently. “I wanted to be involved, to make that a reality.”

Fesler, who traces her work back to Dick Gephardt’s 1976 Missouri congressional campaign, doesn’t use words like “vision” and “empowerment” as often as Nemecek, but she shares her passion for making a difference.

Although she grew up in a family active in St. Louis Democratic politics, Fesler now works for Republican candidates at the state and federal levels.

“The rule was that you always leave a place better than you found it,” said Fesler, 58, of Coralville, after spending an afternoon scouting for barn sign locations for 2nd District Republican challenger John Archer. “Unfortunately, our generation may not be doing that.”

The former North Liberty business owner, who once served on a Missouri city council, has no interest in putting her name on a ballot again, “but you have to look at things, and if you’re not going to be happy with what’s going on, you better be involved.”

Most volunteers’ experiences are in stark contrast to the slick, high-priced TV ad campaigns and scripted candidate appearances seen by couch politicos. For the volunteers, it’s hours, days and weeks of making phone calls, knocking on doors and stuffing envelopes. Even as spending on costly staples like TV ads, polling and consultants keeps rising, campaigns continue to rely heavily on unpaid staffer to “get the grunt work done,” as Fesler describes it.

After a brief stint as a paid staffer for Rick Santorum in Missouri, Fesler has a great deal of respect for the paid staffers who live a “gypsy lifestyle” moving from campaign to campaign. However, she’s still partial to volunteers.

“They make things happen,” she said.

The work is hard and it’s not always fun, Nemecek said.

“Sometimes you feel like you are the only person in the world who cares,” she said.

Then imagine being a Republican campaign volunteer in Johnson County, where Republicans are outnumbered two-to-one by Democrats.

“You have to look at the bigger picture, the whole picture,” Fesler said philosophically. “If we can pull a few thousand more votes out of Johnson County, it could mean a victory” in a congressional or statewide race.

Still, Fesler said, “it’s an extreme high when your candidate wins. There’s a true sense of accomplishment no matter how small of a part you played.”

After being involved in one presidential campaign, Nemecek finds it hard to imagine not being involved.

“The Obama campaign empowered me to make a difference and taught me the potential I had to positively impact social change,” Nemecek wrote in an email. “Everything about the campaign is inspiring, and it has taught me that people can change the world when they work together.”

That’s made her less cynical about politics.

“You might think it would be the opposite, but there’s something about seeing people work together and to see it lead to real change and you know you played a part,” Nemecek said. “I can’t see myself not doing this.”

There are other things Fesler would like to do — volunteer at an animal shelter, for example. She taught elementary school for 18 years and would like to spend more time listening to children read at school.

For now, however, the campaign calls.“Everyone needs to give something back. This is my way of doing that,” she said.

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