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Democrats bustle to get the vote out

An army of volunteers is unleashed to phone voters, ferry others to the polls and wave signs to get the attention of passers-by.


© St. Petersburg Times, published November 8, 2000

TAMPA -- It's 7 a.m. on Election Day and and Mike Scionti is steering his presidential blue Cadillac DeVille from precinct to precinct -- Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Palma Ceia Presbyterian Church, Palma Ceia United Methodist Church.

He is driving past manicured lawns with Bush-Cheney signs and complaining.

The Hillsborough Democratic Party boss didn't like something he saw on television. One of the stations cut short from Al Gore's early-morning stop in Tampa to talk about the Bucs. "Who's talking about the Bucs?" Scionti says. "It's Election Day."

In a key state, in a key county, the outcome of the 2000 presidential campaign boiled down to how well the local party gets the vote out.

At the Democratic helm is the 64-year-old Scionti, a former high school political science teacher, former head of the state Athletic Commission, a man who leans forward when he talks, who took over the party machinery a year ago with one goal: deliver Hillsborough County to Gore.

"If the voter turnout is great, the Democrats win," Scionti says, driving past the West Tampa Convention Center, a precinct with long lines of voters. "The Republicans win when people don't vote."

The party spent nearly $105,000 on rallies, spaghetti dinners and fish fries; distributed 20,000 door hangers with Gore's face; and spent $16,000 on yard signs and Gore-Lieberman T-shirts.

"The Democratic party did something this year that it never did before," Scionti said. "It got involved in every candidate that was running for office."

And on Tuesday, the army was unleashed: 5,000 volunteers working the precincts.

The Democratic Party headquarters bustled like a train station. Volunteers telephoned registered Democrats until polls closed at 7 p.m. They drove nursing home residents to polls. They waved signs on street corners -- "working visibility," as the party faithful call it.

How useful is all that on Election Day?

Very, Scionti says.

An undecided voter might see someone he or she likes holding a sign and that will result in a vote for that person, he said. "But then, the reverse of that is also true.

"Let me tell you, that's how people vote. Nothing to do with issues. Nothing."

Scionti's day included a stop at the West Tampa Sandwich shop in the heart of the Democratic stronghold of West Tampa.

It is a key neighborhood for Scionti. And as coffee shops go, this one looms large. It is a gathering spot for people who consume politics with every meal. The Wall Street Journal has been here, Newsweek, Time -- and Tipper Gore.

The cup and saucer she used to drink cafe con leche is preserved under the counter, the red lipstick still intact -- wrapped in cellophane.

"I told them put it in a case and display it," Scionti says.

"Gore's the man," Scionti shouts over the political chatter.

At Highland United Methodist Church, he checks on poll watchers, patting them on the back, keeping the energy up from the Gore pep rally earlier in the day.

"How's voting over here," he says to a volunteer at Beulah Baptist Church, a mostly African-American precinct.

"Good," says the poll worker.

It's the answer Scionti wanted. "We vote, we win," he says. "And if we don't win, at least the people came out and voted and the will of the people has spoken."

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