• December 20, 2014

Volunteers for District 55 candidates thrive on the focused energy of the race

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Posted: Sunday, March 30, 2008 12:00 pm | Updated: 10:10 am, Mon Feb 17, 2014.

By Justin Cox

Killeen Daily Herald

Stepping through the glass door of the campaign headquarters of Texas House District 55 candidate Martha Tyroch is reminiscent of a scene from Oliver Stone's "Wall Street" – people are coming and going in and out of the hallways, most with papers in hand, all walking with a purpose. The close quarters of the corridor are vibrant and hectic, while at the same time, very focused. Phones are ringing, passers-by greet visitors warmly as they come and go, though they don't stop without a reason to do so.

Nearly all are volunteers.

Walk two doors from the front entryway on the right, and you may find Martha Tyroch sitting at her desk, a phone in one hand, a pen in the other, taking in the scene from her office.

"It's like this every day," she said cheerfully on Monday, as if in awe of the autonomous machine that is the coordinated effort sprouting around her.

It is one week before the early voting period begins for her District 55 runoff against opponent Ralph Sheffield. About a dozen volunteers come and go as Tyroch steps into the hallway; some are piecing together mailer inserts for potential voters, others are placing stamps on envelopes.

Across from Tyroch's office sits campaign manager Steven Schar, who might be called the mastermind of the coordinated chaos that lives and breathes behind the scenes of the campaign. Schar said about 100 volunteers are participating in every conceivable way, many doing tasks that to some would seem like busy work, but is nonetheless vital to supporting a campaign.

The jovial atmosphere hardly reflects the vicious nature of the two campaigns in their public image, as both Tyroch and Sheffield have recently engaged in heated attacks against one another. But you'd never know such a war existed by the faces on these volunteers.

The same goes for the atmosphere at the Sheffield camp on the other side of town. On Wednesday, even as Sheffield readied himself for a press conference to address the negative campaigning in what he called a personal attack on him, the folks sweeping and setting the chairs at his campaign headquarters presented a welcoming environment, speaking casually, seemingly unconcerned about the impending start to early voting.

Sheffield's campaign manager, James Walpole, gives directions to the volunteers, of which there are more than 60, he estimated. Walpole said the volunteers who take part in the campaign act just like the infrastructure of a working city; they are the streets, the piping and everything in between that allow the campaign to run efficiently.

"Folks come in when they're available, and you just have to get them when they're available," he said. "They assist with database building, working up walk lists, those who we keep cycling in to go on walks with Ralph to give the opportunity to meet voters in their homes."

Walpole said that what draws volunteers in to give away their time and effort is nearly always rooted in their shared political beliefs, a personal friendship with Sheffield or simply a connection they may feel with him.

Walpole and Schar both scoffed at the notion of running a campaign without volunteers.

"All the material that needs to be assembled, whether it's door hangers, counting out walk lists, numbers of houses the campaign needs to visit in a given week – (they perform) all the typical, sometimes mundane, but nonetheless extremely important tasks needed to run a campaign."

He, like his counterpart Schar, agreed that the comparisons to the inner workings of a city fit.

"It's very much logistic-oriented; you have to do those essential functions," Walpole said. "They make sure that people can circulate around and help build your 'city.'"

Walpole has been responsible recently for integrating the volunteers who switched campaigns following the March 4 primary, when candidates Mike Pearce and John Alaniz finished third and fourth, respectively, and were eliminated from the race. Both have recently endorsed Sheffield, and many volunteers from both camps have taken up the call with Sheffield's campaign, often showing up at the front door with one simple question: "How can I help?"

"They were already exercised, and when they come here, they realized it was a great opportunity to continue to campaign," Walpole said. "They come in, start getting to know each other, and the next thing you know, they're sharing recipes. So in that way, it's kind of a neat community that develops."

Back at Tyroch's headquarters, the seven-year veteran of the Temple City Council dodges the quick-paced volunteers, many of them retired, some not, as they skip from room to room.

"Volunteers are grassroots," Tyroch said. "When they believe in a candidate, they come walking through that door, either because of issues, things that you believe in, things that they believe in that match them with the candidate. It's a whole array of things. When you touch someone's life, whether it's helping someone's dad, or just listening to their problems, sitting down on the city council level and discussing their needs in the community, ... you can't run a campaign, this kind of operation, without them. These volunteers have come because they believe in the mission."

But Tyroch said though her support base may be large and her army of helpers expansive, it's key to always say a little thank you to each person who donates their time.

"We have probably a little over 100 volunteers come through here in a week," she said.

In one of the several side rooms, four volunteers sat around a table stapling and folding campaign materials to prepare it for the big week ahead. Some of them, like 35-year Temple resident Phil Leibowitz, assist by driving Tyroch for several hours in the afternoon as she stops by the residences of area voters.

"I've known both of the candidates for 35 years," Leibowitz said, packing together the last of a stack full of envelopes before heading out to the parking lot to drive his candidate of choice on her tour of the homes. "I got on the bandwagon of this campaign because of my knowledge of what Martha has done and her service to the community. ... I think Martha not only needed the help, but I wanted people to understand why I believe her to be better qualified."

There is no shortage of strong, biased opinions from these volunteers, as they are quite passionate about their candidate, particularly now as they are in the midst of a campaign accused of being negative.

But most opinions only come if solicited, and the overall tenor of each campaign headquarters, though hectic at times, is decidedly cordial. Residents such as Temple's Helen Haisler, who is retired, help out on a 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. schedule on a daily basis.

"I've been coming here pretty much every day (since January) to answer the phone, put together mailings," Haisler said. "It really doesn't ever get boring, because we always have something to do. I thought this would be interesting, and I've known her for a while. And because I'm retired, I had a little time to work here."

Even folks like Betty McMillen come to help out her candidate of choice, all the while balancing the duties of her job. She doesn't come every day, just a few times a week, but she still enjoys contributing to Tyroch's effort.

"I've known Martha for 30 years," McMillen said Monday. "She's just as hard-working today as she was when I first came to know her."

Meanwhile, Schar, in the office across from Tyroch, said the importance of volunteers can be seen on a daily basis in that office. He added that throughout nearly 10 years of working with campaigns, the importance of solid volunteer participation is one of the few constants he's seen.

"If you don't have volunteers, you can't run a campaign," Schar said. "History proves that."

Contact Justin Cox at jcox@kdhnews.com or call (254) 501-7568

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