Maria Elena Mestayer, 44, who lives in Park Merced, is a Bay Area native who spent her adolescent and teen years in Nicaragua, and she sees a reflection of the 1970s and '80s Central American wars in the current presidential contest. In 1986, John Kerry pursued a personal staff investigation that first unearthed information about a White House-linked military officer illicitly working with former members of the Nicaraguan National Guard to overthrow their country's Sandinista regime; it was information that eventually led to the Iran-Contra scandal. In 2001, President George W. Bush appointed some of the Iran-Contra ghouls whom Kerry unearthed to top diplomatic positions in his administration.
"It's not just George Bush. It's a whole lot of other people who I think are like The Sopranos. Those people are very scary. I remember them from the 1980s," Mestayer says.
Mestayer's girlfriend, Bryn King, is a 31-year-old social worker who directs a substance abuse program for adolescent girls. She lived in New York at the time of the September 2001 attacks and is still rattled. King believes Bush's invasion of Iraq has put America at greater risk of terrorism.
"I'm frightened about where we're going and what's happening," she says. "I don't want to wake up in mid-November and say, 'I didn't do enough.'"
Glen Park social worker Pippa Gordon, 58, recalls growing up in South Africa. She sensed echoes of her native country's apartheid years in the 2000 Florida vote count controversy.
"The United States had this election where so many people seemed to be more interested in power-grabbing rather than making sure we kept the democratic foundation of this society," she says.
Dale Harvey, 48, of Russian Hill, answers customer service calls at a telecommunications company. Other call center divisions at his office were recently outsourced to India and the Philippines, and Harvey fears his division might be next.
"I'm very close to retirement, and I'd like to actually be able to retire and not be laid off and have my job sent to another country," Harvey says. "I don't think under the current administration there's anything being done to keep those jobs in America."
Talk to any four San Franciscans and you might get a quartet of different reasons, voiced with equal fervor, about why George Bush shouldn't be president. But the four I've mentioned have something else in common: They know that if they stay in San Francisco, their opinions won't matter very much, because California is already solidly in the Kerry column.
That's why Mestayer, King, and Gordon will travel to Phoenix on Nov. 2, and Harvey will go to north Florida, as swing-state poll monitors, making sure the million-plus new voters liberal nonprofit groups have registered during recent months are allowed to cast ballots. These poll watchers are part of a national, coordinated effort -- in the style of Third World poll-monitoring operations organized by Jimmy Carter in places like Haiti -- to make sure poll-worker mistakes or even outright vote suppression doesn't produce a tinged election result in the manner of Florida 2000.
If you are a San Franciscan concerned about the presidential race, can take a couple of days off work, and don't mind parting with a tax-deductible $500 for a plane flight, hotel room, and rental car, I urge you to file an absentee ballot and direct your Election Day passion toward a swing state, too.
"If I go do the voting-protection thing, I will be partaking in this minute, little way," Mestayer says. "That's how I'm going to give back all this passion I have that doesn't have any place to go."
Last week, Newt Gingrich told the Los Angeles Times, "We don't understand this election. No one does." He was talking about the unpredictable effect of a quiet yet massive national voter-registration, vote-canvassing, and poll-watching operation, in large part financed, organized, and executed out of the Bay Area, and in large part supporting John Kerry. These are the "527" political groups, named after their section of the nonprofit tax code, that the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform laws made one of the most important phenomena of the 2004 elections. Putatively independent of either the Republican or the Democratic Party, these groups have channeled tens of millions of dollars to television commercials and get-out-the-vote drives to the benefit of the Kerry and Bush campaigns, depending on the groups' ideological bent. In this election, these groups are where much of the action is, and most of that action appears to be on the liberal and Democratic sides of the political landscape.
The San Francisco phone-service marketing company Working Assets, in conjunction with left-friendly groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, has registered a million voters in traditionally Democratic communities during the previous year; the registration program has focused largely on swing states. Now, the company is coordinating Jimmy Carter-style poll-watching efforts in nine such states, under the rubric of the Election Protection Coalition, to make sure the newly registered voters are actually able to cast ballots.
The ad hoc group Driving Votes, meanwhile, founded by Sunset District grad student Leighton Woodhouse, has during recent months ballooned into a nationwide, 700-volunteer organization that will ferry vote-canvassers from liberal metropolises such as San Francisco to swing-state cities such as Las Vegas. Once the Driving Votes caravans arrive in target locales, groups such as America Coming Together -- bolstered with a recent $1 million check from Esprit de Corp. founder and San Francisco icon Susie Tompkins Buell -- will coordinate Democrat-friendly canvassing operations in these swing-state cities.
The mob of first-time voters expected to converge on polling places Nov. 2 presents a problem for county poll workers, local volunteers who are sometimes unversed in the minutiae of voters' legal rights. According to a recent story in Newsweek, New Mexico has received more than 100,000 new voter applications; in Washington state, the figure is said to be 300,000. Officials are attempting to get the new names onto mailing lists, to tell them where to vote, and to put them on the voting rolls so they aren't turned away once they get to the polls.