Personal Story

Impact Feature Issue on Political Activism and Voter Participation by Persons with Intellectual and/or Developmental Disabilities

My Experience as a Campaign Volunteer


Cliff Poetz is Community Liaison with the Research and Training Center on Community Living, Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. He is also an Advisor with People First of Minnesota.

When Paul Wellstone was running for election to the Senate in 1990 he phoned me one night saying “I’m running for U.S. Senate. Will you be one of my honorary chairs on the campaign?” It was a way of saying the disability community was important to him. I said yes in a minute. That wasn’t a very difficult decision. He impressed me as someone who cared about people. We had met previously – I think when we were both involved with the self-advocacy organization Advocating Change Together. That’s how he knew me and I think that’s why he called me.

During the campaign he made an effort to get everybody involved in politics, like young people and people with disabilities. The most important part of the campaign was that he recognized people for who they were, and respected us all. For example, at the state Democratic convention a number of people with disabilities, including myself, disrupted the convention with a 20-minute demonstration protesting the fact that the building wasn’t fully accessible to us. People with disabilities went to the Wellstone campaign beforehand and asked if he wanted to be involved in the demonstration, and he said sure. And so Paul and others from his campaign, as well as other people who supported our position, marched in with us to draw attention to the accessibility issues. One of the convention chairs had a disability, and he knew ahead of time the demonstration was going to happen, and he was on our side and so let us go ahead and interrupt the convention. The demonstration got media coverage, and as a result of the demonstration the leadership of the party also knew more about accessibility than they did before. There’s been better accessibility at other Democratic party events in Minnesota since then. This event set the tone to get the campaign off on the right foot.

As a campaign volunteer I stuffed envelopes, went to rallies, and did door-knocking to hand out literature. I would come in once a week to stuff envelopes and do other things. I’ve been doing political activism about 20 years; in self-advocacy I’ve been involved 30 years. I’ve been a volunteer in state senate campaigns as well as the Wellstone campaign. I think it’s important to volunteer for campaigns. If you volunteer for their campaigns and then later want to call them and talk about issues, they’ll listen to you because they know you. They’ll listen to you as an expert on what you’re talking about. It’s important to build relationships with people in political office at the national, state and local levels because that’s where decisions are made about things like funding for the services we need. And it’s important that direct care staff and our families also get involved in building relationships with legislators so that they can let them know how policy decisions affect us.

To other people with disabilities who may be thinking about volunteering for a campaign I’d say that before you work with a campaign find out what the candidate stands for. Go to a house party or rally and hear the candidate speak. If you like what you hear you can contact them and ask to join their campaign as a volunteer. Sometimes you need to educate the candidates or their staff on disability issues. You can do that as you work on the campaign.

And most importantly people should exercise their right to vote. Like my t-shirt from the 1996 Wellstone campaign says: “Mumble. Grumble. Complain. Wallow. Hope. Despair. Worry… Vote.” Get out and vote!