On the campaign trail: Life outside the line

Theresa Bruskin

Some vendors travel the country for the election

As more and more people joined the line to enter yesterday’s rally with former President Bill Clinton, Detroit-native Knowledge Allah just stood and watched. Although he had arrived in Cleveland at 6 a.m., the length of the line didn’t concern him.

He never intended to attend the event.

As one of a growing number of vendors lining Cleveland’s Lakeside Avenue, Allah was part of an unofficial entourage of sorts, made up of men and women from around the country who follow candidates from campaign stop to campaign stop.

Undeterred by poor weather, distance or reception, they gather outside events, and armed with vendor’s licenses, they wait with their tables, boxes and bags of campaign merchandise for the crowds to arrive.

Some have put their lives on hold to be a part of what they consider history in the making. Allah, 33, a barber and part-time poet, joined the campaign trail about two years ago – “day one” of Barack Obama’s presidential run, he claims.

“The beauty of being a barber is I get to take the time off,” he said. “Fortunately, I have really loyal clients.”

He’s traveled across the country, funding his trips by selling T-shirts outside Obama events in Atlanta, Wisconsin, Missouri and Virginia, among other places. In return, he donates about 35 percent of the proceeds to the Obama campaign and keeps the rest because “nothing is for free,” he said.

“Fortunately the T-shirts pay for themselves,” he said. “But I don’t really worry about the money though – it’s the purpose and the motivation.”

Greg Bailey, of Cheraw, S.C., has followed campaign events for two months, juggling his travels with religious studies. He has invested about $1,500 in merchandise and donates about 10 percent back to the campaign – roughly $400 to date.

“I sell a lot more merchandise when they come out then when they go into events,” Bailey, 46, said. “That’s because they’re in better spirits.”

The media don’t pay enough attention to the positive nature of Obama events, which he sees the effects of as people leave, Bailey said.

Despite that, Allah said he’s not there to make money.

“My job is to give all that I have and is within my power to see in my lifetime what I’d like to see,” he said.

He said he has given away just as many shirts as he has sold because to him, his work is about being a part of electing the first black president.

“You do have people out here who are very competitive about it” and trying to make money, but it’s obvious that’s what they’re doing, he said, pointing at another vendor. But he said he tries not to judge people. “Everyone has their own particular reason to be here,” he said.

Mike Normole, 70, of Cleveland, sells only campaign buttons – no T-shirts or gimmicks. He said he handed out stickers for free during John Kerry’s campaign, but feels buttons are a better investment because people can keep wearing them.

He’s invested about three rounds of $500 in buttons and has been selling them for only a few weeks.

“Since the nomination, I wanted to push for him (Obama),” he said. “I get out and I can talk to 5,000 people.”

Normole, a retired Cleveland schools security worker whose first vote in a presidential election was for John Kennedy in 1960, said he views his work as a part-time job as well as activism. He donates some money to the campaign and said the guy he buys buttons from “kicks in,” too.

And even though people answer his calls of “Buy yourself a button, vote for Barack Obama,” with a smile and a “No thanks,” Normole, a cancer survivor, said “it’s worth the idealism.”

“I learned to appreciate life and my time to good use,” he said. “We take it for granted – how beautiful our days are.”

Contact metro editor Theresa Bruskin at [email protected].