Meet a FLIPster: Claudia Koonz

An Orange County resident, Claudia is an author and retired professor of history at Duke. Back in her grad school days, she did some telephone sales and door-to-door opinion surveys. She hated being intrusive and swore she’d never solicit again. “Over the last four decades, nothing made me reconsider until the 2016 election,” she says. “Knocking on doors is still challenging, but the community spirit in FLIP NC inspired me to venture out of my comfort zone.” To date, she’s canvassed with us about six times.

Here, a Q&A with Claudia. And be sure to sign up to join her at an upcoming canvass!

What has surprised you most about canvassing?

That I could do it at all. Before knocking on my first door I was terrified – even though my first canvassing partner, Jeff King, promised it would be fun. Whenever no one was home at one of our addresses, I felt secretly relieved. Gradually, however, I began to enjoy meeting so many people from so many backgrounds. My fear turned into curiosity. You just never know if someone will be grateful, grumpy, cynical, rushed, chatty, enraged, or eager. They might even become FLIPsters.

Do you like to recruit a friend or relative to sign up to canvass with you, or do you prefer to be paired with a stranger to add to the fun?

Claudia (far right) with fellow FLIPsters at our 2018 launch party at Motorco.

Claudia (far right) with fellow FLIPsters at our 2018 launch party at Motorco.

Even when I round up a friend to join us, we don’t canvass together. Why miss out on the chance for both of us to meet someone we would never otherwise get to know? 

How did you find out about FLIP NC?

At the first post-election DFO Action meeting, I heard about this savvy group of statistical wizards with a targeted strategy.

Have a funny story or touching moment to share? Maybe something that happened while you were going door to door? A conversation you remember?

One Sunday in 2017, when Jeff and I received a walk map north of Durham [while canvassing with another organization], we pictured the brick ranch houses near Guess Road. When we noticed the preponderance of women’s names on our list, we imagined widows. Then we arrived at the imposing entrance to Treyburn and realized we’d be talking to people in an almost-gated community with a median house price of about $600,000! The women were not widows, but wives of Republicans. What conversations we had! When the husbands jumped in, we often felt like marriage counselors.

What's your top canvassing tip?

I’ll repeat what our coaches told us: We’re there to listen. Rephrasing what people tell us encourages them to talk more and taking notes by hand sends the signal that we value what they say. As the election approaches, it’s important to answer questions about the candidates.

What is really motivating you to get involved? Obviously, you want to FLIP NC, but tell us a bit about the "why."

As a historian of Nazi Germany, I devoted decades of research to understanding how ordinary people became attracted to Nazi ideals. Colleagues studied die-hard Nazis, but I gathered evidence about mostly apolitical women, academics, health care professionals, students, church groups, and others. America is on the brink of a takeover by forces hostile to the democratic values we cherish. In the Great Depression of the early 1930s, observers said Germans just were not loyal to democracy because their democratic constitution had been forced on them as the result of German defeat in World War I. For them, democracy was too new. For many Americans, democracy is too old – so dysfunctional it’s corrupt or so stable it’s indestructible.

How are you feeling about the 2018 election? Optimistic?

Nope. I hate it when Democratic Party leaders go on about a “blue wave.” They don’t realize that we face a red tsunami. FLIP NC, with its modest goal of breaking the veto-proof Republican legislature, seems like the right way to go. If we outperform our goal, we’ll cheer. But not until then. And even if we celebrate in November, we dare not pause. Rescuing our democracy from the corrupted GOP will be a tough battle.

Other than politics, what’s a passion of yours? 

Great escapes: reading, cycling, and skiing.  

Tell us a little bit about your background in political activism.

During the ‘60s and ‘70s, I participated in teach-ins and demonstrations against the Vietnam war, signed petitions, organized rent strikes against slumlords in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and joined in occupying campus buildings at Columbia and Long Island University. Then I became passive, even as evidence of re-segregation and mounting militarism accumulated. The peril today is so much worse than ever before. I’m happy to have the extra time that comes with retirement to atone for my earlier complacence.

Who do you admire in politics? Why?

Elizabeth Warren and, yes, Al Franken. Read or listen to his “Al Franken: Giant of the Senate,” and you’ll see why.

What would you say to someone who is feeling totally dejected by our current state of politics? And how do you stay in the fight? 

Actually I share the pessimists’ gloom. But I remember what Grandpa used to say: “Don’t bleed until you have been cut.” We have not been cut yet. I also read Nancy MacLean’s book, Democracy in Chains. Just reading this review will fire up your activism because you will understand why the November election may be our last chance to rescue the country we cherish.

Tell us about a recent political moment that inspired you.

Listening to Obama’s memorial speech for Nelson Mandela reminded me that until just a year and a half ago we took human rights – and human decency – for granted as the bedrock of our nation. But reading Mandela’s recently published prison letters reminded me that the anti-apartheid struggle was waged for decades. FLIP NC is set up for the long haul.