Caissie St. Onge will never forget the day her younger son Lincoln was born. It was the same day the family moved to Westport. While she was in the hospital, friends hauled furniture into her recently purchased home.
Back in Brooklyn, Caissie — a TV industry veteran, who is now co-executive producer of Bravo’s “Watch What Happens Live” — usually worked right up to Thanksgiving.
Because it was hard for many young co-workers to get home for the holiday, Caissie and her husband, Matt Debenham, hosted a few for the turkey meal.
Several years ago, they revived that tradition here.
“We live in one of the smallest houses in Westport,” Caissie says. “But we can fit 20 people in our living room.”
Friends loan tables and chairs. This year, for the first time, Caissie and Matt got a tent for the deck.
The living room, ready for guests.
Some guests take the train from New York. Caissie’s son Eli shuttles them back and forth from the station.
Eli is now a freshman at Southern Connecticut State University; Lincoln is sophomore at Staples High. As they grow older, they like the event more. Both are good at talking with adults — though the guests include random children too.
Each year, the number grows. Caissie does not know some of them. “They’re friends of friends of friends,” she says. “Everyone is welcome.”
One newcomer tomorrow will be a woman spending her first Thanksgiving away from her now-grown children.
Thanksgiving can be pressure-filled, Caissie notes. “It can be lonely. Even if you stay home and cook with your family, it can be stressful. So I figured, since I’m cooking, I might as well cook for everybody.”
Clockwise from top left: Eli, Lincoln and Matt Debenham, Caissie St. Onge.
Caissie’s family provides turkey and ham. Some guests bring wine or dessert. It’s all served buffet-style.
In the past, people started coming at 2 p.m. This year they’ve pushed it back to 3.
“We’ve had snafus, like blown fuses and the timing for cooking being wrong,” Caissie says cheerfully.
Many guests stay until 9 or 10.
“It goes by in a flash,” Caissie says. “I wish it could last longer. We really enjoy welcoming people into our home.”
Tomorrow is zero hour for 2 candidates. For over a year, they’ve campaigned to be president. They rely on national staffs, pollsters, and family members offering free advice.
But presidential campaigns are won or lost at the local level. Phone calls drive enthusiasm and turnout. Something as simple as a ride to polls — replicated thousands and thousands of times — can spell the difference between the White House and history’s dustbin.
Since mid-August, Hillary Clinton’s most successful phone bank in Connecticut has operated from a cramped Westport storefront, across from Stop & Shop.
Remarkably, it’s organized entirely by 2 Staples High School students.
George Kane (left) and Eli Debenham run Westport’s Democratic headquarters phone bank and volunteer operations.
George Kane rowed with the Saugatuck Rowing Club. He skis for Staples, and teaches skiing to people with disabilities.
His mother Melissa chairs the Westport Democratic Town Committee — but for years he did not share her interest in politics. “I always felt dragged to events,” he says.
In the spring of junior year though, his Advanced Placement Government class inspired him. “It just hit me,” he recalls. “I thought, if there’s anything I can do for this election, I’ll do it.”
He called Clinton’s statewide director of field operations. Soon, he was running Westport’s Democratic phone bank.
Eli Debenham — like George, a Staples senior — serves organizations like Builders Beyond Borders, and works at Gilbertie’s. He’s been fascinated by politics for a long time. Now Eli is the volunteer coordinator for Westport’s DTC.
The storefront opposite Super Stop & Shop.
The 12th graders work like a well-oiled machine. Together, they’ve gathered up to 40 people a night to the Westfair Center office. One evening, they logged 3,500 calls.
Not just for Clinton. Volunteers phone in support of local races. They also call voters in New Hampshire, the nearest battleground state.
A couple of days ago, I watched the phone bank in action. Our conversation was punctuated by questions — most of the technical kind. The volunteers — coming from as far as Stamford and Ridgefield, some of whom could be George and Eli’s grandparents — asked for help with the calling software on their laptops and cellphones.
The duo solved every problem. In between, they told stories of their months of work.
It’s been eye-opening. A man with military ID asked for Hillary posters and lawn signs. They apologized; there were only a few on hand.
“That’s okay,” he said. ” I just want it for target practice.”
Most other encounters have been far more positive. Though few people like being interrupted for a political call, there have been enough willing to listen that George and Eli feel like they’ve done some good.
“When we get a Republican who thinks Trump’s a maniac, but doesn’t want to vote for Clinton, we may be able to have a conversation,” George says. “Some people really are undecided. We’ve had 20-minute phone calls where we really think we make an impact.”
“If we have 5 to 10 calls a night light that, it makes a measurable difference,” Eli adds.
He called a 24-year-old Greenwich man, who planned to vote for neither candidate. After 25 minutes, Eli says, “he was actually crying on the phone. He said that a protest vote would help give the election to Trump.”
He and George know they won’t reach everyone. But they’re encouraged by little examples, like the volunteer who took her phone into the headquarters bathroom to speak quietly with a retired man who originally did not want to talk at all. At the end of the conversation, he said he would “think about” Clinton.
Eli Debenham, answering questions last week.
With Election Day almost — and finally — here, Eli and George describe their mood as a mix of anxiety and optimism. They know the race has tightened, and it’s been vitriolic. But, George says, “I’ve seen far more positivity than negativity” at the phone bank he runs.
“I’ve made real connections with people I’m excited to share Westport with,” Eli notes. “I’ve seen a whole new layer to this town that I love.”
There’s no school on Election Day. George and Eli will be up at 3 a.m. They’ll deliver signs to polling places. They’ll oversee one final round of canvassing. Then they’ll watch the returns — maybe at the headquarters that’s been their home since August, perhaps at a bigger venue.
The 1st presidential campaign for either of them has changed them both.
George says, “I never enjoyed conflict. But this election opened me up to seeing that differences are important. I’ve seen how I can make an impact. Politics is now a love of mine. Plus, my mother is happy.”
Eli always wanted to go into politics. This experience has only enhanced his interest.
“It’s exhausting, discouraging, challenging and satisfying,” he says. “It’s what I want to do.”
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