Hang-ups and door slams: The life of a campaign worker



Arnaud Armstrong, a political science major, has been engaged in the political circus since he was barely older than a toddler. John Hamilton | Senior Staff Photographer

By Janine Faust / Staff Writer

When Arnaud Armstrong, a Pitt junior, makes phone calls for Republican local and state candidates, he’s often on more than one phone at once.

The student campaigner even knows a woman who can handle four phones at the same time, a true expert. He said it’s easier than it sounds — people only answer the line about a quarter of the time.

“If you hear someone pick up, you pick up,” Armstrong said. “There are cases where two people will actually pick up the phone at the same time, but there’s really no trick to that, so you’ve got to hang up on one of them or play a pre-recorded message.”

With the election less than a week away, campaign workers have been focusing on pushing people to get out and vote.

They’re calling as many people as they possibly can each day, asking, “Have you considered so-and-so? Can we count on your support for them on Nov. 8?” Most of the time, diligent campaign workers like Armstrong will hear a click, and then the dial tone before they even get past their first question.

Many members of Pitt’s student political and advocacy groups, including NextGen Climate, Socialist Alternative Pittsburgh and Pitt Students for Liberty have volunteered for or worked with election campaigns at the local, state and national level. Whether it’s a person running for a seat in the county council or the Oval Office, politically active students dedicate time and energy stumping for their preferred candidates — usually, for free.

For some of them, like Armstrong, it’s experience for a career in politics. For others, it’s just about getting the right person in office.

Arnaud Armstrong: Hang ups, door slams

Disclaimer: Armstrong has been a columnist for The Pitt News.

Armstrong, a political science major, has been engaged in the political circus since he was barely older than a toddler.

“My dad’s always been very involved in politics, especially locally in my hometown of Allentown, [Pennsylvania]. I remember being three or four, going around to different campaign meetings,” Armstrong said. “I could name everyone on the city council.”

During the 2012 election, Armstrong became specifically interested in campaign work. He was 16 at the time and said it was the first election where he was able to keep up with current issues and make his own informed decisions, even if he couldn’t vote.

The busy political atmosphere was pretty exciting, and I really got into it. That’s when I decided I wanted to make a career out of campaign work,” Armstrong said.

Armstrong plans on starting as a low-level staffer doing ground-level organizing for Republican campaigns after graduation.

The first big campaign Armstrong worked on was Republican Steven Ramos’ 2014 campaign for state representative. Armstrong worked in his hometown, the left-leaning Allentown.

“It’s essentially always a lost cause for Republicans who run there, but I’m kind of devoted to it. I did a lot of door-knocking, working for him. He only got 25 percent of the vote, but it was a good experience nonetheless,” Armstrong said. “I like working for people who are in politics to fight for what they believe in, not to do whatever’s politically expedient.”

Once he came to Pitt, Armstrong joined College Republicans and became involved in bigger campaigns, such as Tom Corbett’s 2014 campaign for governor. As a field worker for Corbett, he did phone-banking, where he’d get involved in some interesting conversations.

“This one guy, he was very upset and kept telling me he didn’t have time to talk, even though he kept bringing up political issues and then staying on to listen to what I had to tell him about them,” Armstrong said. “After five minutes of that, he told me, ‘Fine. I’ll consider [Corbett].’”

During the fall of 2015, he and a few other Pitt Republicans went to Philadelphia to spend the weekend door-knocking for Michele Brooks, a Republican campaigning for a particularly competitive state representative seat in 2014. The Pitt volunteers all slept on the floor at the home of a consultant’s parents.

“It’s a lot of sleeping on couches and getting up and out early. [Field work] may not be comfortable, but you get to see a lot of new places and meet new people,” Armstrong said. “There’s no shortage of work to be done in politics.”

Chelcie Alcorn: “Hillary Burnout”

Pitt senior Chelcie Alcorn spent DNC weekend bouncing from Philadelphia to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to Pittsburgh, following Hillary Clinton and Democratic Senatorial candidate Katie McGinty.  John Hamilton | Senior Staff Photographer
Pitt senior Chelcie Alcorn spent DNC weekend bouncing from Philadelphia to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to Pittsburgh, following Hillary Clinton and Democratic Senatorial candidate Katie McGinty. John Hamilton | Senior Staff Photographer

Pitt senior Chelcie Alcorn spent DNC weekend bouncing from Philadelphia to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to Pittsburgh, following Hillary Clinton and Democratic Senatorial candidate Katie McGinty.

The weekend put her on “Hillary burnout” — but in the best way, she’ll assure you. Alcorn, a psychology major, is an intern for McGinty.

Despite the extensive traveling, she said she was thrilled to see the number of people who turned out for the Democratic candidates’ events.

“I remember we had to turn 2,000 people away [that Saturday],” Alcorn said. “It was exhausting, but awesome, because I got to see [Clinton] in action as a nominee … It was really uplifting to see how many people supported her, too.”

Alcorn is also the founder and head of Pitt Students for Hillary –– a group on campus dedicated to supporting Clinton’s campaign –– which Alcorn founded in the spring of 2016.

“Right now, we’re focusing on turning out the people who support the Democratic Party through phone-banking and door-knocking, classic voter outreach, stuff like that,” she said.

Alcorn says one of the toughest parts about her campaign work is how busy she’s become.

“I’m constantly sending emails and taking calls,” Alcorn said. “I have to communicate with my superiors and stay informed with what’s going on in the campaign. I also need to constantly be reaching out to prospective volunteers. It’s worth how busy it makes me, though, because I’m encouraging people to get out and vote and to care about what goes on in the country.”

Alcorn is currently on the pre-med track with plans to be a trauma doctor, although she can see herself running for office some day, either in the state House or Senate.

According to Alcorn, her position as the head of Students for Hillary has been a beneficial networking gig. She was informally offered her internship after making a connection with the western Pennsylvania director for McGinty’s campaign, Jason Henry, last January at a fundraiser supporting Planned Parenthood.

As an intern, Alcorn helps with everything from helping with event set-up to inviting people to attend campaign events to supporting McGinty at press conferences.

When she runs into McGinty at rallies and fundraisers, Alcorn said she always stops to chat.

“[McGinty] always remembers who I am and asks how I’m doing,” Alcorn said. “It’s amazing, and it reminds you that these politicians, they’re people, too.”

Benjamin Sheppard: Call me Ted

On a hot morning in mid-August, Benjamin Sheppard was sound asleep when he was woken up by a call from David Nelson, the then-president of Pitt Students for Liberty.

Nelson had been in conversation with a director at Youth for Johnson/Weld –– an organization dedicated to spreading support for the Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson at schools and colleges. Nelson wanted to know if Sheppard was interested in getting in touch with the director, who was looking for a student interested in starting a Johnson/Weld chapter at Pitt.

Sheppard was.

“I’ve supported Johnson since last May, but I didn’t even know that youth chapters for him existed when I got the call,” Sheppard said. “Obama and Sanders, their campaigns relied a lot on college students, so I figured it’d be a good idea to start a chapter for Johnson here.”

Sheppard, a junior history and political science major on track for pre-law, is the current president of Pitt Students for Liberty, head of Pitt Students for Johnson/Weld and the Region 9 Youth Coordinator for the Johnson/Weld campaign. According to Sheppard, this job requires him to create new Johnson/Weld student chapters at local high schools and colleges.

Recently, Sheppard attempted to start a chapter at Carnegie Mellon University –– but it did not garner enough interest to succeed. He was able to get one up and running at HACC-Lancaster in early September.

In the past, Sheppard has been a Republican, but is supporting the Libertarian party this election season because he feels dissatisfied with the other candidates. In addition, Sheppard supports Johnson’s stance, which he described as “socially liberal and fiscally conservative.”

“I dislike [Donald] Trump’s temperament, and Clinton just doesn’t seem to have the ability to make correct judgements as president,” Sheppard said. “I feel pretty strongly about Gary’s cause, and that’s what counts.”

Attending events and recruiting are the two main parts of Sheppard’s job, but he’s also participated in field work such as phone-banking. Sheppard said, most of the time, people either hang up on him or get mad at him.

“One guy in New Mexico started going off on me about how Johnson was the worst governor he ever had,” Sheppard said. “I usually use a fake name –– Ted –– when I call people, just in case they try to trace the number.”

Sometimes, campaign workers get creative.

Recently, Sheppard and others in Pitt Students for Johnson/Weld plan were at the Students for Liberty’s “pot brownie” sale, where they put brownies in flower pots and advocated for the legalization of marijuana. Sheppard represented Johnson/Weld there, handing out bumper stickers and flyers and encouraging people to vote.

“I believe it’s important that everyone votes. It’s a fun and educational experience, and it’s good to support causes you’re passionate about,” Sheppard said. “If you don’t vote you can’t complain, anyway, and I always vote, so I can complain.”

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