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Out of Towners

“You schlepped?” How activist New Yorkers are playing in the heartland.

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Three weeks before the election, the Grey Dragon, a fifteen-passenger van bearing a load of the most exhaustively groovy young people in New York, snaked its way toward the heartland. Eleven hours later, they were in Toledo, planting the flag for Downtown for Democracy’s Frontier: Ohio project. “It was amazing,” says James Ryang, a photographer who led the group. “We made 1,118 voter contacts in two days. We each talked to probably 100 people.”

It’s liberal missionary work: going out into the forbidding hinterlands, spreading the word, trying to save the swing-staters. “Ohio is the epicenter of all left-wing activity in the country,” says Jim Trakas, the Republican county chairman in Cleveland. “We’ve had people from all over the world, speaking all sorts of languages, including New Yorkese, wandering the streets of Columbus, Ohio . . . The hotels are very happy, but it’s getting pretty doggone annoying.”

Still, the D4Ders have had fairly warm receptions at swing-state college campuses, where they answer questions on issues and organize parties with imported D.J.’s. “I had a lot of kids say, ‘Wow, you came all the way from New York to do this?’ ” says Ryang. “We’ve had strategies built from the beginning; we don’t go out there like some crazy liberals.”

The proselytizing isn’t limited to Ohio. The national pro-Kerry group America Coming Together is sending 32 buses from New York to Philadelphia the weekend before the election. And Michelle Schimel took a day-trip with other Democrats to Allentown, Pennsylvania. “Being New Yorkers, we were wondering how they would react if we came to their door,” she says. “But everyone was very pleasant. One woman seemed a little annoyed at all the New Yorkers in her backyard. I told her we schlepped three hours out here because her vote is so important. And she said, ‘You schlepped?’ And I said, ‘I’m from Long Island. We schlep.’ ” She was voting for Kerry anyway.

“People were most concerned that New Yorkers would come across as culturally elitist,” says artist Robyn Siegel, who went on another van trip with D4D. “They were worried that they would have to dumb themselves down in some ways and that [the locals] wouldn’t get it.” The culture clashes turned out to be much milder, though, as when a volunteer in rural Pennsylvania tried to order salad with raspberry-walnut vinaigrette.

But are these missionaries actually converting anyone? “Certainly in rural areas there are people who don’t appreciate the opinions of outsiders,” says Janice Knasel of Columbus, “no matter where they’re from.” Except maybe if they’re from TV. Adrian Grenier, the star of HBO’s Entourage, was talked into joining a D4D trip by a friend. “I don’t think anybody on the bus knew who I was,” he says. But the Buckeyes recognized him. He e-mails a picture of himself surrounded by four beaming co-eds from his camera phone. “I think they’re all Republicans, but I think we convinced them to vote Democratic.”


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