BALTIMORE – Jess Sarmiento depended on the daily hat ritual.
“I traveled through nine states, lived out of my car and hardly had any money,” Sarmiento recalls. “So a friend and I got a hat, put all the money we had in it. And whatever money we pulled out determined what we ate for the day. It was kind of like pulling a meal out of the hat.”
That was in 1991, when Sarmiento hit the campaign trail for then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton.
These days, as press secretary for Maryland’s Clinton/Gore ’96 campaign, Sarmiento no longer needs the hat. Pollsters show her candidate commands a solid lead in the drive for the presidency. But Sarmiento and other state Clinton workers take nothing for granted.
“We can’t concentrate on the polls,” says the North Potomac resident. “We are working really hard to make sure people know their polling places and get out and vote.”
It would be easy for the Clinton/Gore camp to be complacent. In 1992, Clinton won 50 percent of Maryland’s vote in the three- way race with Republican George Bush and independent Ross Perot. And state election records show there are roughly twice as many registered Democrats as Republicans.
Steve Heyman, Clinton/Gore state director, says the campaign’s challenge “is to remind people about the good things that President Clinton has done.”
Heyman, of Bethesda, came to the Clinton re-election effort via Gov. Parris N. Glendening. Until recently, he directed Glendening’s Washington, D.C., office.
“It is a unique opportunity to make a difference working on a campaign,” Heyman says of his current service. “Clinton and [Vice President Al] Gore support things I believe in strongly. And I wanted to be a part of it.”
With only days before the election, the Maryland Clinton/Gore team is focusing on undecided voters.
“We have to remind voters that Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave and Student Loan Reform acts and many others that have made a difference to people,” says Heyman.
Sarmiento says the strategy is a traditional one.
“We have volunteers knocking on doors, passing out literature, going to different clubs and organizations to make sure we energize Clinton supporters, but also convince the undecided voter…. We believe the undecided voter will make the difference on election day.”
The campaign kicked off a statewide caravan Friday on the Eastern Shore. The tour borrows “a very successful idea Clinton and Gore used during their 1992 campaign,” Sarmiento says, referring to Clinton’s use of a bus for old-fashioned whistle- stops.
The ’96 caravan features Glendening and U.S. Senators Barbara Mikulski and Paul Sarbanes in daily rally stops through Nov. 5, election day.
The Clinton/Gore headquarters in Baltimore has Democratic roots: the Rotunda Office Building, in the 700 block of W. 40th St., housed one of Glendening’s 1994 campaign offices.
The fourth-floor offices are spread between two suites dominated by the ringing of phones and sounds of shuffling papers. Most staffers are in their 30s. Only three — including Sarmiento — are paid; the rest are volunteers.
Daily communication with national headquarters in Washington, D.C., helps develop strategies.
“We have the entire state covered,” Sarmiento says. “We have field coordinators in every district where a Democrat is running for office. We also have people in places that don’t have anyone up for re-election.”
Although Clinton has done no campaigning in Maryland since the Democratic National Convention in August, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton has made two campaign stops here. In September, she spoke at Johns Hopkins University and the Women’s Leadership Forum in Baltimore. In October, Gore spoke to business leaders in Annapolis.
Along with the state campaign, there is a Coordinated Campaign, which focuses on electing the entire Maryland Democratic ticket. Both campaigns have made stops at Columbia Union College and sponsored a rally in Anne Arundel County.
“We work closely with the state campaign, but we make our focus broader,” says Greta Creech, coordinated campaign press secretary. “Our job is to not only make sure voters support Clinton, but to make sure they are well informed about the other Democratic candidates that need their support in Maryland.”
Creech, a Tennessee native, is employed as NASA’s travel director and was Gore’s press secretary when he was in the Senate. She was appointed to her campaign post by Clinton.
“In order to do this, I had to use three weeks of my vacation time,” Creech says. “I believe that Clinton and Gore are the bridge to this country’s future. So it doesn’t matter if I only have one vacation day left when I return to work….
“What Dole wants to bridge us to is the past. Well, we already lived through that once. Why would anyone want to return to those days again?” -30-