RIGHT BETWEEN the henna booth and the tent that sells fake-diamond-encrusted scorpion necklaces, four women with Planned Parenthood clipboards are calling out to the crowd, "Hi folks, are you pro-choice?" A woman in a shirt reading "Shut Up and Drink Your Beer" gives them a thumbs-up, but wanders away. Ever since a survey commissioned by Planned Parenthood earlier this year showed that 63 percent of women voting for John McCain mistakenly think he is pro-choice or do not know his record at all, Planned Parenthood Advocates of Oregon have been racing to identify pro-choice women who are not usually engaged in politics. This means setting up shop in the land of corn dogs.
During the summer, Planned Parenthood volunteers have snagged signatures at 97 local fairs and markets, from the West Linn Old Time Fair to the Tualatin Crawfish Festival. The state fairgrounds in Salem seem to be full of women who don't care too much about politics—several women on Sunday night tell the volunteers they do not vote or aren't registered.
"What a fantastic opportunity," says Lindsay Swanson, the Clackamas County field organizer for Planned Parenthood's One Million Strong campaign, as she surveys passing families loaded down with jumbo prizes. "If we can come across one of those people, it might be the one time they meet a Planned Parenthood member."
So far, the outreach tactic is working very well. Last week, the organizers realized they had met their goal of gathering 25,000 pro-choice signatures in Oregon. A few weeks before, Swanson and her campaign co-leader won tickets to the Democratic National Convention by being Planned Parenthood's number one organizers nationwide. And while a day at the fair is spent meeting the glazed gazes of most passersby, in 10 days the 140 volunteers gathered contact info for 2,064 pro-choice voters.
"We're out here to connect with supporters. I'm not going to change the mind of a person who's convinced that abortion is murder," says Jenny Thurston, the most vociferous of the Sunday night volunteers. Thurston, a registered Republican, drove all the way down to Salem from her home "six-and-a-half miles up a mountain north of Scappoose" to talk to strangers at the State Fair about how McCain wants to overturn Roe v. Wade.
The State Fair crowd is a tad more hostile to the pro-choice hollering than, say, the Portland Saturday Market. There are some ugly interactions. Right before sunset, a man in a bright orange shirt pushes his wheelchair-bound daughter up to the booth. He leans toward Thurston's face and tells her about his daughter's Down syndrome and then hisses, "Tell her you want her dead. Tell her you want her dead." Swanson intervenes between them and issues a flat, "Thank you, sir, but we're not interested in debating with you." The man wheels the girl away. The volunteers seem unfazed.
For her part, volunteer Stella Shaffer says she enjoys the differing opinions of the fair crowd.
"We start conversations," she says. "I was across from the sock booth last year and suddenly those socks became really interesting to people walking by."
"We're not here to change people's minds. We're here to let people know that other people agree with them."