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Primary Colors: What I Learned Knocking Doors for Bernie in a Working-Class Neighborhood

Primary Colors: What I Learned Knocking Doors for Bernie in a Working-Class Neighborhood

  • A year later, Biden is president. What will it mean to the people I met on the trail? Will the Democrats deliver? Can they be bold?

The first few doors that I knock on remain unanswered. It was in Dearborn Heights, Michigan. Clearly, people are too tired to open. After going through about 10 or so houses on my roster I run across Sophia. I would have missed her, but she waved at me when I was hovering in her driveway, wondering if I should walk through her fenced yard or not. She was sitting in a lawn chair, in the sun, her head resting on the palm of her folded arm. A posture that reminded me of my grandmother from many years ago when as a little boy I used to see her rest her head the same way, as she worried about the well-being of her family. 

The houses here are set close to each other. This is where the middle-class expanded during the glory days of the auto industry when kids graduating high school would get a job on the shop floor and spend their entire work-life there. The middle class of middle America grew out of here. Of course, the images are a little different now.  Some houses are refurbished and look newer, others show the many signs of aging, the cracked concrete steps, the rusted awnings, the uneven sidewalk, the broken aluminum sidings, the peeling paint, and the occasional overgrown yards. Rusty fences protect yards that are strewn with old chairs, overturned benches and children’s toys. This is a working-class neighborhood where people work all day and sleep late on Sunday mornings. This is a Sunday morning. The daylight-saving change of clocks happened last night. People’s body clocks haven’t adjusted yet. The entire neighborhood sleeps. 

Bald Guy

When I ring the bell of one of the newer houses fully expecting no one to answer, a young boy holds the door ajar. He is barely six or seven and he worries me, the father in me. Why is this young kid opening the door for a stranger?  To my query he says his parents are still sleeping. I quickly give him a Bernie flyer for his parents and linger till he safely locks the door. On the sidewalk I run into a bald guy with a speaker in his hand. His knurled white car lying with its hood open in the sunny driveway somehow resembles a sunbathing crocodile about to pounce on its unsuspecting prey. His house was on my list, so I strike up a conversation. He has no time to vote, neither Monday nor on the Election Day. “Man, I have to put food on the table, I have to work all day; I don’t have time to vote.” It was clear that the civic duty argument will not work on him. His self-assurance was obvious, this man has come to terms with his condition a long time ago. Time to move on.


I come up to a small building that doesn’t quite look like a house. This is part trailer-home, part rickety shack. Someone called Priscilla is listed as the resident. A woman opens the door when I knock. I ask for Priscilla as my list indicates I should be looking for a much younger woman. The frail woman says she is the one. She has heard about Bernie and likes what she has heard. “I will try my best to go and vote but I have my step-dad to take care of, so I am not so sure,” she thanked me and closed the door. A well-meaning responsible family member who is barely able to keep up with her own life and has to also be the caregiver for a sick elder. Seemed like she is struggling to do the right thing, and has aged in a hurry. 

One common experience of door-knocking is meeting dogs. I am not a dog owner, though I love the animal. It seems there are dogs in every other household. As you walk up to any door a feeling of anxiousness starts creeping up,” Will there be a dog?”  The barking usually starts before the knock happens. Once, I remember knocking on a Republican door where the owner, a burly man dressed in all black comes out and is closely followed by a huge black dog who gnashes his teeth and barks loudly as I try to entice the owner to consider my candidate, a Democrat. The man was very nice but kept saying “we need to keep this seat in Republican hands.” He was set in his opinion and I wanted to leave. Being quite chatty though, he would not end the conversation. I had to make an awkward backpedal and get out leaving him quite astonished.


Now, as I walk up the cracked steps of John’s small house, I could clearly hear his dog. He goes through the same routine that I see dog owners go thorough. The owner has to open the storm door wide enough to get out and at the same time keep an eager, excited animal indoors. John is a big man but eventually manages to squeeze out. He is in his Sunday casuals, a couple of days of stubble on his cheek and a Detroit Tigers hat on his balding head. He is a Bernie fan waiting to go out to vote, wants Tulsi Gabbard to be Bernie’s running mate. That’s a surprise but I don’t comment on it. He speaks of all kinds of conspiracy theories, follows some lefty guy online, who is a proponent of wild theories. He gets into this monologue about his ex-wife from California who is supporting Biden. Eventually, he wonders what the government is plotting this time, looks up into the blue, sunny, Sunday- sky and says, “maybe they are spreading the Coronavirus onto all of us.” As he ponders on that question, I see an opening, thank him, and leave.


Sophia lived next door to John. The first sight of Sophia reminded me of my grandmother. I walk the long length of the driveway to reach her way back in the property. The sun glistened on her silk hijab as she blocked it with her left palm to get a closer look at me. A puzzled look on a smiling face! We chat for quite a while, she tells me about her family leaving Iraq many years ago, the brutal regime of Saddam, the hardships they went through, and the sad life that her relatives in Iraq are still living. She worries about her children, “will a vote for Bernie mean my family will be safe?” On my assurance, she is all in and promises me six votes from her household. The more I talked the more she seemed like my grandmother, with her very simple thoughts and worries, those of the well-being of her family and children. I request to take her picture, but she refuses, smiles and refuses again, “My husband will divorce me if I let you take my picture.” And she laughs. I laugh too. And somewhere, perhaps, the spirit of my grandmother laughs too.

Finally, I see a Bernie sign in a yard. As I walk up the driveway a truck pulls up; the driver rolls down the window. He sees Bernie flyers in my hands and starts laughing. He was coming home from knocking on doors for Bernie, in a different neighborhood. We exchange stories. He complains about his family and friends and how they don’t always vote. He is on their case and scolds them. We have a good laugh and take some selfies. 

Tall Guy

The last house on my list is right at the end of this street. The house is a little extra worn. The awning is rusted, the storm door is coming off the hinge. The patio is full of old dead leaves and other wind-swept debris. A tall guy in a veteran’s hat opens the door, a beer-bottle in hand. The living room behind him looks dark and dirty. Matt says he hasn’t voted for anyone in years. He hates all politicians. But he is polite, listens to my pitch for Bernie. In the end he says, since you have taken so much trouble to come and try to convince me, maybe Bernie is not that bad, maybe I will vote for him.


Michigan’s primary election is in a day. Biden has the late momentum, so Bernie probably has little chance of winning this time. I am realistic, I will not be personally affected with either of these two winning. I intend to work for whoever is the nominee.  As I get in the car for my ride home, I reminisce about some of the people I came to know on this journey. Duncan is an upright young man who runs the all-volunteer campaign office for Bernie. He repairs furniture for a living. A self-employed man who can work flexible hours. His wife is qualified but has to stay home with their daughter who has cerebral palsy. He is fighting for universal healthcare and shared so many healthcare horror stories; he and his wife will be stuck dealing with the private insurance world’s challenges the rest of their life, without universal healthcare. “If Bernie loses, I will pack up and go home, perhaps not even vote in November,” he said. 


I think of my student, Ed, who despite all the financial aid doesn’t have enough money to get by. His parents cannot support him, so he has to work. To make a decent amount of money he has to work many hours on minimum-wage jobs. He doesn’t get time to study, so does poorly in classes. He often runs late and ends up getting speeding tickets, which usually means hefty fines from the police. A classic case of spinning the wheel hard just to stay in place. In the meantime, his student debt piles up. I am reminded of Liz, a student activist I came across on Facebook who runs around all over Detroit canvassing for Bernie. Her posts are very emotional, she lost her sister to some illness and due to some mishap in the healthcare system. Emotionally, I think, she is extra-vested in Bernie and seems to be on the edge all the time. I wonder what will happen to her if Bernie loses?

See Also


The above piece is based on my experiences from early March of 2020, right before the Michigan primary election. Almost a year has passed since then. A lot has changed around us. We went on lockdowns a few days after the Michigan primary and the pandemic still rages strong. Vaccination has started in full swing under new leadership in Washington. Ed, the student I talked about in the piece has since dropped out of college with a heavy debt burden. Liz, the activist shut down her Facebook account shortly after Bernie’s loss in Michigan. I don’t know if she is OK. I hope Duncan and his family are soldiering on.   

January 6th happened. Biden is now the President and Bernie is chairing the powerful Budget committee. Democrats have the House, Senate and Presidency. But Mitch McConnell remains the most powerful politician in Washington. Democrats are on the verge of passing a $1.9T rescue package. But raising the minimum wage will not be part of that and the stimulus check income-cutoff is going to be worse than what happened under Trump. Democrats are already negotiating hard with themselves and giving up on popular items. 

Raising the minimum wage is highly popular across the country but looks like the Democrats would be failing at this promised goal. “What would Mitch do (under the circumstances)?” should be the gold standard. If Mitch was in their place, he would pass it, for sure. It is not impossible to pass the minimum wage rise, as it is not impossible to pass the HR1 (that the house just passed) in the Senate, or forgiving student loans, or creating two new states out of D.C. and Puerto Rico, or increasing the size of the Supreme court. All are heavy lifts, but not impossible, and Mitch would have done it. Democrats have a year-and a half of window to be bold. After that they are going to be hit by a perfect storm, a combination of newly gerrymandered districts in states all across the country and newly minted voter suppression laws in states. 

Despite all the talk of Republican fracturing, they are focused on their goal of keeping the Democrats in perpetual minority. For instance, the Georgia Republicans are not only about to pass a bill that will make vote by mail nearly impossible and early voting restricted, but also making giving people food and water when they are in line to vote, illegal. In the meantime, Mitch is asking the Supreme Court to kill the Voting Rights Act. Democrats have an opportunity, once again, to be bold and take long-lasting measures around issues that are extremely popular among the voters. Mitch would do in a heartbeat. Will the Democrats be able to deliver?  Their window is short. Can they be bold? I sincerely hope so, but I won’t bet my money on it.

Shuvra Das is a Professor of Mechanical Engineering. He has lived in the greater Detroit area for over two and a half decades. He is interested in reading, writing, photography, travel, theater, and politics. He is a founder-member of SAMOSA (South Asians of Michigan Organizing for Serious Action), a grassroots organization in Michigan that works on making South Asians a stronger presence in the American political process. 

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