Dowagers, Celebs Schlep To Sticks To Register Rubes

Agnes Gund, the president of the Museum of Modern Art and an elegant lady about town, sounded nervous, her voice high and hesitant. “I’ve never gone door-to-door for anything before, so I think this is going to be a real surprise for me. I’ve asked a lot of people what I am going to do if somebody slams the door in my face, and they said, ‘Well, it’s going to happen, so you’re going to have to get used to it.’ But I think my first reaction would be to burst into tears. I’m going to have to steel myself to that.”

Ms. Gund was talking to The Observer during a recent phone conversation, describing what she imagines it will be like to do the unimaginable: leave her cozy New York home and head to suburban Ohio to trawl for votes for John Kerry. This will be a new experience for Ms. Gund, who is known as a prominent art collector and heir to an impressive family fortune built on banking, beer and Sanka coffee. Though she grew up in Cleveland and has given generously to Democratic causes, volunteering with a grassroots organization like America Coming Together (A.C.T.) and knocking on doors is a different matter. As she said, “It’s not something I would usually do.” But this contentious campaign season has turned even the mildest-mannered voters into amateur activists—on both sides of the aisle—and so in late October, with tears or without them, Ms. Gund will head to Ohio.

“I guess I just feel very strongly that this has been a very harsh, disquieting Presidency. I think the war was a real mistake, I’m very frightened by the debt, and I think our health-care system needs help,” Ms. Gund explained. “So I’m planning to go [to Ohio] and do door-knocking or whatever they need me to do.”

Ms. Gund will be in familiar company. As the election enters its final stretch, some of the city’s most prominent movers and shakers have begun signing up for this strange new ritual. Working with groups like A.C.T., they have become unlikely foot soldiers in a growing grassroots movement, leaving their cushy urban cocoons for weeks at a time to wrangle votes for John Kerry.

For instance, Sarah Kovner, a longtime fixture of the Democratic fund-raising circuit, has already made two pilgrimages to Pennsylvania to register voters with A.C.T. Lisa Perry, the wife of hedge-fund guru Richard Perry, recently helped organize an excursion to a middle-class Philadelphia suburb to help get out the women’s vote (the trip, which was sponsored by NARAL, was canceled at the last minute because of bad weather, but Ms. Perry and her friends have the option to go again in two weeks). And Daniel Menaker, the editor in chief of Random House, said he plans to spend the last week of the election knocking on doors in Ohio, perhaps the most hotly contested of the battleground states.

It’s as if New York’s Democratic elite, which has historically preferred schmoozing with each other at fund-raisers to schmoozing with other voters, has been struck by some curious kind of civic-duty contagion. All of a sudden, they love Ohio. Pennsylvania has become the hot new weekend getaway. And Florida is once again at the top of their vacation lists, besting such exotic resort spots as Anguila and St. Barths. Not since Sissy Spacek starred as Loretta Lynn in 1980’s Coal Miner’s Daughter have so many New Yorkers cared so much about what happens in the heartland. But as John Kerry continues to struggle in the polls, and the election boils down to a few battleground states, Manhattan’s movers and shakers have decided it’s time to take matters into their own hands—and head for the Rust Belt.

“I personally have never seen anything like this,” said Sarah Kovner. “You never used to go out to dinner with friends and hear them say, ‘How do I go register people to vote?’”

Of course, along with the high-society types, young Hollywood will be touring the hinterland too, popping up in small towns and gladhanding voters who only know them from the big screen. “I didn’t even know where Cleveland was before, but now I really love Ohio!” said actor and producer Fisher Stevens, who made his first trip to the Buckeye State this summer. “My state, New York, is going to go Democratic, but Ohio is key. If we can get the northeastern part of the state, basically Kerry can win Ohio. So I’m just trying to do my little part, so to speak.”

For Mr. Stevens, that means teaming up with his old buddy Chad Lowe and getting some of their actor-friends, like Juliana Margulies, David Duchovny, Marisa Tomei and indie-film vixen Cristina Ricci, to join them on a bus tour through Ohio on Oct. 2 and 3. Working with a group called Bring Ohio Back, they plan to go door-to-door registering voters, handing out fact sheets and perhaps signing an autograph or two. And if the actors somehow miss a few voters along the way, they can rest assured that several hundred other New Yorkers will also be traipsing across the state that weekend with A.C.T., Downtown for Democracy and the Empire State Pride Agenda, New York’s largest gay-rights group. The Pride Agenda is heading directly (and rather boldly) for the famously gay- un friendly city of Cincinnati. (Cincinnati is the only city in the country which permits discrimination based on sexual orientation.)

“On a very basic note, we’re doing this because gays have been attacked by this administration, and what do you do when you get attacked? Fight back,” said the Pride Agenda’s executive director, Alan Van Capelle. “Besides, I hear Ohio is just beautiful in the fall; it’s no Paris in springtime, but the boys have just come back from Fire Island and they’re looking for things to do on the weekend, and this is exactly what we need them to do. Ohio is going to become the gay destination site of this campaign!”

But Ohio will also become the Republican destination site. The G.O.P. and a small armada of right-wing groups like the National Rifle Association and the College Republicans will be all over the Rust Belt in the coming weeks doing their part to swing voters toward Mr. Bush. Like their Democratic counterparts, these groups have been working hard to get out the vote in battleground states, building a network of volunteers that stretches from Texas to Minnesota, California to New York. Already, New York’s young, college Republican set have begun plotting out weekend excursions to Pennsylvania in October to mobilize voters. And during the three days before Election Day, tens and perhaps hundreds of New York Republicans will fan out across the country to “pull” voters as part of the G.O.P.’s 72-hour program—much as they did in 2000 to obvious effect.

That year, the Republican voter-turnout effort far surpassed the Democratic drive. But this year the Democrats are catching up, and key to their success is a multimillion-dollar voter-mobilization operation like A.C.T. urging people to grab their clipboards and head for the heartland. Throughout the last year, A.C.T. (along with dozens of other 527 organizations) has emerged as a powerful—and controversial—new force on the election landscape. With its millions of dollars in soft-money donations, it has launched voter-turnout operations in 17 swing states and claims to have already mobilized tens of thousands of volunteers. It does not have an official New York office (New York, after all, is expected to go Democratic without much cajoling), but several months ago Ms. Kovner set up a volunteer outpost in midtown to connect uppity New Yorkers to A.C.T.’s battleground operations. The result is a kind of activist travel agency, where Ms. Kovner and several of her well-connected friends hook volunteers up with housing, transportation and, of course, a canvassing gig in a swing state. (Ms. Kovner’s helpers include the artist Kathryn McAuliffe and philanthropist Anne Hessy.)

“So far we have commitments from 210 people who are spending a minimum of a week in a swing state, and we’re still getting between 10 and 15 calls a day,” Ms. Kovner told The Observer. On a recent Thursday evening, some 60 people—middle-age professionals and white-haired retirees, by and large—crammed into an airy Soho loft for a recruitment meeting to learn about volunteering with A.C.T.

On the official front, the Democratic National Committee is making new demands of their supporters. According to Alan Solomont, a close Kerry friend and chairman of the party’s Battleground Victory Fund, the D.N.C. and the Kerry campaign are organizing the largest voter-mobilization drive in the party’s history. And several Kerry supporters have reported that during finance-committee conference calls, they’re not only asked to donate money these days, they’re asked to donate time—for door-knocking.

These overtures have met with a mix of reactions from the campaign’s big rainmakers, from genuine enthusiasm to polite indifference to spluttering horror. “I assure you, I’m not leaving New York to go knock on doors,” supermarket magnate John Catsimatides told The Observer. “I can urge my friends to go and raise money to help Pennsylvania [with its voter drive], but I am not doing it myself.”

But Robert Zimmerman, another active fund-raiser and Democratic National Committeeman, said he was happy to head out to the swing zones. “I’m going to be knocking on doors in battleground states in October,” he said.

Of course, the big question is whether any of this will make a difference when Election Day rolls around in six weeks. Can a bunch of New Yorkers—no matter how zealous—really wrangle enough votes for Mr. Kerry to pull him out of the hole he seems to have fallen into this past month? And what about that New York attitude of theirs? Can a troupe of well-heeled Gothamites actually connect enough with suburban Clevelanders or inner-city Philadelphians to change their minds? Or will they inadvertently turn them off? (In what might amount to a tacit acknowledgment of this danger, NARAL’s New York office sent an e-mail to volunteers warning them “not to wear clothing that advertises we are coming in from New York” when canvassing in Pennsylvania.)

For all the unknowns, New Yorkers keep volunteering, keep shoving off for those distant swing states whose locals may or may not care if they even show up. And in a way that makes sense. Because in the end, the ones who benefit most from this new voter-turnout craze might not be the voters but the volunteers themselves who can head out to swing states and feel like they’re making a difference, like they’re doing something, while they wait to see if Mr. Kerry can regain his footing in the election.

Take Jane O’Connor, a writer and editor at Penguin USA, who volunteered to head down to Philadelphia to register voters with NARAL on a recent Saturday morning. “This is something I haven’t done since 1968 when I ‘got clean for Gene’ and went up to New Hampshire for the primaries,” she said, as rain battered the charter bus that was to take her to Philadelphia. “But I’m doing it now because I’m worried about the outcome of this election.”

Ms. O’Connor had gotten up bright and early to get a seat on the bus, so she was understandably disappointed when she learned the trip was canceled at the last minute because of stormy weather. Still, she managed to find the bright side. “Well, I guess I can feel virtuous at least for having tried to come today,” she said with a shrug. Five minutes later, she was happily ensconced at a table at Balthazar, eating breakfast.