Two years ago, Ricardo Fernandez was one of those passionate volunteers knocking on doors to help get Barack Obama elected.
But on Saturday, as volunteers across Florida start their final push for midterm election voters, the Tampa resident will be in Washington, D.C., meeting a new network of fellow, fed-up citizens basking in the glow of Daily Show host Jon Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear.
While Stewart may insist his rally on the National Mall is not about politics, for folks like Fernandez it couldn't be more political — an unabashed statement of how disgusted they are with the state of debate on both sides of the American electorate.
"It's so polarized, I don't hear my voice and my thoughts being spoken by a lot of people. I'm just seeing crazy people going nuts out there," said Fernandez, 55, an executive recruiter for a local law firm. While reading message boards devoted to the event, he has befriended a small group of Floridians who plan to rally together, bound by their love of Stewart's satire and a longing for more civilized political discourse.
"It's almost like a retreat; my reward for having suffered through this campaign season," he said. "After all this, we need to go somewhere, have a good laugh and find some perspective."
Stewart and his Comedy Central compatriots haven't said much about the rally since he announced it on the Daily Show Sept. 16 with fellow satirist Stephen Colbert. Presented as a seeming satire of conservative Glenn Beck's religious-themed Rally to Restore Honor, Stewart's rally promised a get-together for "the Busy Majority … who feel that the loudest voices shouldn't be the only ones that get heard."
Citing the rally's National Park Service permit, the Christian Science Monitor reported Wednesday that The Roots, Sheryl Crow, Mavis Staples and Sam Waterston are scheduled to perform. At press time, more than 225,000 people had promised to attend on the rally's official Facebook page, while events outside Washington through Meetup.com were organized in more than 1,000 cities worldwide.
Indeed, by using Facebook, Meetup and other social media, Stewart's fans have built their own meaning around the rally, networking with each other for their own purposes and building bonds that may transcend the original focus of the event — whatever that eventually is.
In Tampa Bay, Josette Valdes traded messages online for days with fellow Stewart fan Sally Leonard, trying to organize a local event. Last week, they scheduled two: Leonard's get-together at the Whistle Stop Grill & Bar at 915 Main St. in Safety Harbor, and Valdes' Tampa event at ABC Pizza House, 13508 University Plaza St.
The two parties are a bit different. Valdes wants to bring in local activists to speak, while Leonard's event centers on fun. But Valdes hopes the whole day reveals a better way than fear or anger to motivate politically oriented masses.
"I want to look past the negative ads and the people on TV who tell you what to think," said Valdes, a self-described news junkie who works at ABC Pizza as a cook. "I just hope it brings everybody back to where we can talk to each other in a civil manner."
Watching Stewart announce the Rally to Restore Sanity in her Venice home weeks ago, Kathy Payne felt its meaning like a bolt from the blue: Suddenly, she wasn't alone.
"We're so surrounded by people willing to spew their negative opinions regardless of whether they're asked," said Payne, 46, a part-time student at State College of Florida who planned to drive to Washington Thursday night with friends. "But we're here, we vote, and now we all know each other. If nothing else, that's what we've got; this big network of people who have been talking to each other and want to keep talking to each other."
And even though she's headed to the rally, Payne has spent weeks helping others organize their own local events by working on one of the biggest online sources of information of rally-related events, RallyMAO.com (short for Rally My A-- Off, in geekspeak shorthand). Working with the site's founder, an Arkansas resident who declined to give his name, Payne helps collate information while passing along advice on putting together such events (establishing an event page on Facebook, for example, is a big plus).
Those kinds of connections are what she hopes will survive Saturday's rally, allowing moderate liberals, independents and conservatives to reward candidates who avoid extreme rhetoric and policy positions. "I didn't understand the power of the Internet on a personal level until I started this," added Payne.
Many of the rallygoers admit they fall on the liberal side of politics, though they also reject the notion that Stewart and Colbert may hurt their images as equal-opportunity satirists by leading the event.
"It just seems like nobody has given this big broad group in the electorate a voice," said Fernandez, who compared his trip to Washington to planning a family picnic with a dozen people he never met. "It's a leap of faith. We're just going to show up and see what happens."