The headlights of the pickup trucks cut through the pre-dawn darkness of Election Day. The destination: Prince Hall in Dorchester. Four beefy union laborers in jeans and work boots strode inside, eager for an assignment before their 7 a.m. work shift.
Ryan FitzGerald was waiting for them.
He was a lieutenant preparing to send political foot soldiers into battle. FitzGerald, taking a vacation day from his post as Boston’s recreation director, grabbed a folder labeled Ward 14, Precinct 2, a cluster of streets east of Franklin Park. There were precision driving directions and a map with the target streets highlighted in light blue.
“Just hit every door,” FitzGerald said, pointing to a stack of doorknob hangers reminding people to vote for President Obama and US Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren. “This is about blanketing an entire neighborhood.”
Over the next 18 hours, the political machine of Mayor Thomas M. Menino cranked as hard as ever. By the end of Tuesday, 251,339 voters had gone to the polls, the largest turnout in Boston since 1964. Three out of every four ballots went for Warren, a first-time candidate running against a popular incumbent.
There were 21 staging areas, combining the efforts of Menino’s people, organized labor, activists, and Warren’s campaign staff. It included 2,289 volunteers who knocked on 117,000 doors. The forces called target households three times and delivered more than 300 voters to the polls. Minivans outfitted with speakers broadcast get-out-the-vote messages in four languages.
Menino’s people brought almost two decades of expertise that allowed them to master the nuances of Boston’s vote.
“We have sure-handed operatives that know what they are doing, especially in this city,” said Menino’s field general, Michael Kineavy. “Part of that is melding with the political infrastructure on the ground. The Warren campaign and labor did a tremendous job.”
No one expected US Senator Scott Brown, a Republican, to win Boston, but Warren’s lopsided victory helped propel the Democrat to an 8 percentage-point victory statewide. Warren got 20,000 more votes in Boston than her campaign had expected.
Menino monitored the operation from a hospital room, where he is recovering from a viral infection and a back injury. The surge to the polls served as a reminder of his electoral potency to would-be challengers who think the mayor might be vulnerable next year if he runs for a sixth term. It was also a stinging rebuke to Menino’s predecessor, former mayor Raymond L. Flynn, who aggressively campaigned for Brown.
The effort went into high gear well before Election Day. Over the weekend, Kineavy and the machine’s 10 lieutenants started early each day with a meeting of what they called their kitchen cabinet. Talking over breakfast sandwiches, they included longtime operatives, each of whom had developed a specialty. One had mastered the construction of sound trucks, consisting of a speaker anchored on a wooden plank and lashed onto the roof of a rental van. Another focused on outreach to voters in Spanish, Cape Verdean Creole, Vietnamese, and other languages.
Then there were lieutenants who oversee what’s called the “foot pull,” volunteers who knock on doors, reminding people to vote, and pull them to the polls. One woman was responsible for the network of “closers,” a system of 220-plus volunteers assigned to polling places who call in results to the boiler room at the end of the night.
The group spoke of elections like athletes who thrive on competition. Get-out-the-vote was their baby, their hobby, their adrenaline rush. In jest, they often repeated an adage from a campaign years before: If you don’t wake up in the morning feeling like you have to vomit, you’re doing something wrong. “It’s the pressure,” Kineavy said. “The task at hand is enormous.”
Their work could be heard in Spanish-speaking sections of Jamaica Plain. A sound truck rolled slowly through Jackson Square broadcasting salsa music, merengue, and a recorded voice that declared, “Barack Obama presidente! Elizabeth Warren para senadora!”
In East Boston the night before the election, a diehard Menino soldier went to work. He is known as “The Great One.” Anthony Albano, 64, earned the nickname decades ago when he pitched seven softball games on the same day. On Monday, Albano balanced a 4-foot-by-8-foot Warren sign on his head outside East Boston High School, where he is head of discipline. He eyed the entrance to the polling place like an artist.
“I’m going to put a sign on this pole, that pole, that pole,” Albano said. “They come from all over. And they’ll say, ‘Albano was here,’ because they saw the signs. It’s like a trademark.”
On all the Warren signs, he stapled a smaller green placard that made it clear who authorized the work. “Mayor Menino supports Elizabeth Warren,” the placard read. Warren had been seeking the mayor’s help, Albano said, but he demurred until making his endorsement official in September.
Before dawn on Election Day, FitzGerald and others prepared Prince Hall to channel the energy of an influx of volunteers. They removed most chairs so people would not be tempted to remain idle.
The team included political operatives from the Service Employees International Union, which also provided a battalion of volunteers. They made a scoreboard on the wall to track each “turf,” a segment of a precinct that could be walked by one or two people. The operation there targeted 65 precincts in Roxbury, Mattapan, and Dorchester, Democratic strongholds packed with sporadic voters. The goal was to knock on the door of every registered voter two or three times.
Leslie Stafford, 47, a member of the service employees union, walked an early morning turf on Glenway Street. “One of the biggest keys,” Stafford said, “is keep smiling.”
On the other side of Dorchester, at International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 103, another large hall buzzed with activity. Scores of union members ran a phone bank, calling fellow members and voters across the state. In the South End, Warren volunteers served coffee and doughnuts to voters waiting outside the polling place at Cathedral High School.
As the sun set, the army continued knocking on doors, checking off names of voters who cast ballots. In the Bowdoin/Geneva neighborhood, Judy Coughlin, 66, worked methodically through her list with a cheerful determination. Coughlin carried a clipboard and used the iPhone she received as a retirement gift as a flashlight. Her list pointed to a three-decker that sat on a hill 31 steps above the street.
Coughlin looked up and climbed slowly onto the porch. She found seven doorbells. Coughlin pushed each. Then she knocked. A woman answered and told her she had already voted.
“Beautiful,” Coughlin said.
Coughlin checked the name off the list and then asked by name about every other registered voter in the household.
At another door, Coughlin met a woman named Gwen White waiting for her two daughters to return from work so they could all go to polls.
“We were planning on voting anyway,” said White, 50, who broke into a smile. “Barack Obama and Elizabeth Warren!”
When polls closed at 8 p.m., more than 300 waited outside at the James F. Condon School on D Street. Brown had strong support in much of South Boston, but this line was for Ward 6, Precinct 1, a mix of ethnic minorities and young professionals. It covers a swath of South Boston including the West Broadway housing development and the burgeoning neighborhoods in Fort Point and the Seaport. Menino’s troops believed many of the voters shivering on that sidewalk were their supporters, and they did not want them to give up.
A crew of Warren volunteers worked the line with incentives to stay. They handed out slices of pizza. They poured cups of steaming coffee and hot chocolate. They offered bottles of water, hand warmers, cookies. The campaign sent a food truck that served cookies and soup. Two female volunteers held opposite ends of a cardboard box filled with chips, Hershey Kisses, and peanut butter crackers, joking that they were stewardesses serving snacks on a flight.
The extras helped keep Davi Martinez, 20, in line. Campaign volunteers gave Martinez hand warmers to stuff in her shoes and thaw out her feet. She nibbled on the food, bouncing from foot to foot and waiting two hours to vote for Obama and Warren.
“Hot chocolate and pizza,” Martinez said. “They won my vote.”