BlueWave Interview: Pat Gunn on canvassing for a special election

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This week our BlueWave Interview is with Pat Gunn in Washington. Pat worked to help Manka Dhingra win a Senate seat in the Washington legislature last year, a win that flipped the control of that Senate and turned the entire West Coast into a “Big Blue Wall.” I spoke to her about her work on this special election.

Here is our interview.

How long have you been volunteering for campaigns?

I’ve been working on campaigns since 1980. (Laughs) I was young and volunteered for John Anderson’s presidential campaign (who received 5% of the vote).

What kind of activities have you been involved in more recently?

I’ve been a PO (precinct officer) for my district, but I primarily like to canvass for candidates. I love to walk and talk about issues, so it’s perfect for me.

Last year, the WA Senate District 45 seat became vacant when the Republican incumbent passed away. When and how did you connect with Manka Dhingra’s campaign?

I was involved with Fuse Washington (a progressive group) and had done canvassing for them in the past. They were early backers of Dhingra’s campaign.

When her campaign reached out to me, I was more than happy to help canvass for her. The 45th has been a swing district. I got started in May and her general election was in November.


Tell me more about canvassing for Dhingra. Also, is it different when it is a special election?

When I am going to canvass for a candidate, I take a little time to get to know them better. I go through their website carefully, read their position statements, and of course get to know the script they provide.

That said, I often go off-script. I like to go a little slower, and really have a conversation with the person at the door.

Special elections do feel different. Turnout is low, so it really comes down to who turns out. I tell people why there is a vacancy and when the election is. You find that so many people have no idea that there is an election happening at all.

Since this was the first election you were working on since the 2016 presidential election, was it different at all in your precinct?

This might just be me, but it felt like there are people out there who are quite scared at what is happening in our country. The Republican agenda is scary.

And there was so much at stake for this election. Flipping this one seat could flip that majority in the Washington Senate to the Democrats. The difference it makes when your party controls the committees cannot be overstated.

I think many people I spoke to in the district were happy to hear about the impact their vote could make. That it wasn’t hopeless; that change really could happen if they voted.

Manka pic

Manka Dhingra on the campaign trail (Photo via Northwest Progressive Institute)

What did you know about the potential for flipping the seat?

I got involved with Dhingra’s campaign because I liked her as a candidate. I didn’t know what the probability was—I just went into it knowing that we HAD to flip the seat. I guess I thought it was winnable.

When I was talking to people, I generally focused on the local issues first, as those are really important. But in this case, I did talk about the impact of flipping the seat as well.

Did you help Dhingra’s campaign in other ways besides canvassing?

I have been involved in immigrant and refugee issues for a long time, and there was an organization I was a part of that I thought should be connected to Dhingra’s campaign, so I put them in touch with each other.

I was also involved in another social justice organization that put out a great calendar of events. I really wanted to get her elected so I helped get her events onto their calendar to extend her campaign’s reach.

What great ideas! Every bit helps, right? So how did you spend election night?

I watched the returns at home that night. The early returns looked good and I was so pleased that we won the seat in the end. Dhingra was a great candidate, but I also think it really hurt the Republicans that they ran a super-Trumper.


Manka Dhingra at her election night victory celebration (Photo via IndiaWest)

I kept updating the election returns online. There were a lot of us excited to see the seat flip and turn the whole West Coast blue! In the months since her win, you’ve already seen the impact of that flip, right?

Oh yes, the Democrats brought up legislation for Automatic Voter Registration and it passed the Senate easily. Also, before, the Republicans wouldn’t involve the Democrats with the budget, and now they have to listen to us.

What are you working on now?

We have six Democrats running for Reichert’s (WA-08) seat in midterms. I have a candidate that I really like and I’m already volunteering for her.

Are you at all concerned about having so many Democrats running for this one seat?

I am supporting one particular person for the primary but to win the seat, we all have to vote in the general election. In the end, I will vote for whichever Democrat wins the primary.

Do you have any final advice for us?

I think a great way to get people registered to vote is to canvass. Even though you’re knocking on the door of a registered voter, a friend might answer the door, of course people rent or move away, or you might see a landscaper in the front yard (true story!)

When I want to help a candidate, I want to help them as much as I can, so my personal preference is to focus on one candidate at a time. I know working locally can make a big impact. 

POSTSCRIPT: I want to thank Pat for sharing her story and giving us an inside look at working on a special election.

Thank you for reading this BlueWave Interview. Follow our site to get future interviews sent right to your inbox. See you next time!

Categories: Explainers, Interviews

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