Shauna Swearington waited tables for 23 years at the Sundial, a revolving restaurant atop a downtown Atlanta hotel, before getting furloughed in March 2020. A diabetic single parent putting her daughter through college, she lost her income and then her employee health insurance as the pandemic stretched a temporary layoff into months.
Her story turned her into an effective weapon against two now-former Republican U.S. senators in the Georgia runoff elections on Jan. 5.
Swearington was among more than 1,000 laidoff hotel workers who fanned out across the state to tell their stories on doorsteps, helping deliver control of the U.S. Senate to Democrats in two races many thought they couldn’t win. Over a little more than six weeks leading up to Jan. 5, a multiracial, multiethnic army of canvassers knocked on almost 10 million doors, according to organizers. It was a marked contrast to the mostly digital strategy that pandemic-leery Democrats used for the November general election.
Paid by her union, Unite Here, Swearington stuck literature in doors, knocked, and then moved 6 feet back, as she’d been trained to do: “I would say, ‘It’s Shauna from Unite Here. I am a furloughed worker from Marriott. I have been displaced out of my health care. My medicine is very expensive. I want to get back to my job when it’s safe. I need somebody to take some responsibility in Washington.’ ”
People often responded with their own stories, and Swearington tried to coax them to the polls. If someone had no way to get there, she called and paid for an Uber. Then she followed them to the polling place and paid for another Uber to take them home.
Many factors went into the surprise double win of new Senators Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, including changing demographics and President Trump’s strong-arm tactics to overturn the state’s November election results. But one of the most important was Democrats’ decision to carry out a ground game that was 10 times larger than in the November general election, says Gwen Mills, secretary-treasurer of Unite Here. The effort was oiled with a staggering amount of cash. Warnock and Ossoff raised more than $210 million between them, according to their most recent Federal Election Commission reports, not counting the tens of millions that flowed through independent groups.
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