Hospitality workers canvass for Biden, hoping to boost Black and Latino vote in Philly

Briheem Douglas, a union maintenance worker at Lincoln Financial Field, knocks on doors in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood to encourage people to make a plan to vote as soon as possible. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Briheem Douglas, a union maintenance worker at Lincoln Financial Field, knocks on doors in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood to encourage people to make a plan to vote as soon as possible. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

With just over three weeks until Election Day, hospitality workers are taking to the streets to mobilize Black and Latino Philadelphians on behalf of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.

The door-knocking effort is targeting infrequent voters.

“It’s time that we take it back, take our country back, take our city back, because great things happen in Philadelphia,” said laid-off hotel and casino worker Renee Wilson, referencing President Trump’s allegations of voter fraud during the Presidential debate.

Iris Sanchez is a housekeeper in Atlantic City with Unite Here, out in Philadelphia Monday knocking on doors with information on how to vote. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The push is organized by the union Unite Here, which is planning to have more than 100 canvassers go to 100,000 homes before November 3, targeting North and West Philadelphia neighborhoods.

It also launched door-knocking efforts in the battleground states of Nevada, Arizona and Florida.  In Pennsylvania, the union — which represents hotel, casino and food service workers — draws upon both local members and those from neighboring New Jersey to get out the vote.

In Philadelphia, more than three-quarters of registered voters are Democrats, and analysts say Biden’s chances of carrying Pennsylvania hinge on his margins, both in areas where he’s ahead, such as Philadelphia and its suburbs, as well as in more contested territory such as Luzerne and Erie Counties.

About a hundred hospitality workers with Unite Here rallied before heading out to knock on doors in a get-out-the-vote effort Monday morning. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Biden is trying to best Hillary Clinton’s margins in Philadelphia in 2016. Then, despite outperforming President Obama’s vote total in 2012, Clinton’s win margin slipped in the city because then-candidate Trump won more votes than his Republican predecessor.

At a rally Monday in Fairhill, Wilson, a union staffer, said her “number one stance for being out here is health care.” She described getting COVID-19 and being fearful of not seeing her family again, as well as the pain of losing family and friends to other diseases. She said she relates to Biden because she has also lost a child.

“I’m out on these doors because I lost a son to cancer,” she said to the more than 100 people assembled in Fairhill Square park. Other speakers included Mayor Jim Kenney, Illinois Congressman Luis Gutiérrez, and Unite Here local 634 president Nicole Hunt.

About a hundred hospitality workers with Unite Here rallied before heading out to knock on doors in a get-out-the-vote effort Monday morning. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Health concerns, or lack thereof, are a main theme of the election and are also driving very different get-out-the-vote strategies.

Nationally, Democrats have largely focused on small or virtual events and have promoted early and mail-in voting due to fears of spreading COVID-19 and of long lines on Election Day. Earlier this month, the Biden campaign announced it would begin a face-to-face ground campaign in key states, after months of relying on tools such as phone- and text-banking. Republicans have undertaken a more traditional campaign, emphasizing canvassing, rallies and in-person voting.

Unite Here is hoping to blend the Democrats’ message – COVID is real, take precautions – with a more traditional, face-to-face approach. The canvassers take their temperatures before going out, and ask anyone they talk to to wear a mask. They also move away from the door after knocking.

Briheem Douglas, a union maintenance worker at Lincoln Financial Field, knocks on doors in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood to encourage people to make a plan to vote as soon as possible. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Former Lincoln Financial Field worker Briheem Douglas, 36, wore two masks as he knocked on doors in Kensington on Monday. He opened an app called MiniVAN on his phone, which showed him the names and addresses of disengaged Democratic voters in the area, and whether anyone had tried to reach them yet.

“We’re trying to get rid of Trump,” said Douglas. At the height of the pandemic, upwards of 90% of Unite Here’s membership was out of work. Douglas is now an elected leader in the union, but many of the canvassers are out of work due to the pandemic and are getting paid for their time. Service jobs, predominantly in lower-paying fields, are returning more slowly than jobs in many other sectors during this recession. 

A couple of the houses on his list were unoccupied, the potential voters long gone.

Union members of Unite Here knocked on doors and handed out voting information to voters in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Gloria Valentin, 65, opened her door in a brightly colored fleece bathrobe. Douglas handed her a disposable mask wrapped in plastic to wear while they talk, saying, “I want to keep us both safe.”

Valentin said none of her family planned to vote for President Donald Trump.

“He don’t try to help nobody,” said Valentin, who said three of her family members died of COVID-19. “They dead because [leaders in Washington] don’t do nothing.”

Douglas commiserated with Valentin over a family member he lost to coronavirus. “My niece was 21,” he said. “She died because she had asthma.”

Douglas pressed her on when her family planned to vote. Because Black and Latino voters are expected to support Biden at greater numbers than Trump, canvassers are focusing heavily on making sure residents understand the mechanics of voting this year.

He handed her a map of the neighborhood, showing the nearest satellite election offices where people can register to vote and complete mail-in ballots.

“You can go today, tomorrow. It’s open seven days a week,” he said.

Valentin promised to go tomorrow.

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