Mary Shull, of Highland Park, is a quiet, demure, unassuming stay-at-home mother of two. Or at least she was until last year, when the Presidential election drove her to join up with political advocacy group MoveOn.org. Now, Shull is a full-bore political agitator on causes both national and local: She helps MoveOn's continuing efforts to tweak Republicans, and this May, she was the campaign manager for Erin Molchany's failed bid to win the District 2 seat on Pittsburgh City Council.
How did you get interested in politics?
From the time I was 13, I was involved in Greenpeace and PETA and everything I could find. I was that kid who dressed in black and listened to The Smiths; I admit it. In college, I spent some time in Bangkok teaching English to sex workers. I was a women's studies major, and I got funding from the Vira Heinz Foundation for an independent study. I worked with a Thai organization that provided support for women and men in the sex industry. The office was above a bar called "Super Pussy." They had classes in things like sewing, the travel industry and English.
I asked some of the women I worked with if there was one thing they wanted people in the States to know. They wanted the State Department to change the visa program so it would be easier to come to America, where they had American boyfriends. It was like, "Can't help you there." It was a powerful lesson: The things that would be most helpful to people can be the last things you'd think of. I came back with a big identity crisis, academically speaking. I left school in my final semester. I hope the Vira Heinz Foundation doesn't read this and want their money back, because it's gone.
Tell me about doorknocking for MoveOn during the 2004 election.
[Before the election], I wrote letters, but I never did any organizing. I didn't want to go to meetings. I'm a women's studies major who is a stay-at-home mom, which is an isolating experience. I had never door-knocked before. I'm someone who hides from doorknockers.
But by the time I finished canvassing Highland Park, I was addicted. I was raised to be friendly with your neighbors, but not to be friends with them. But going out there changed that. I would ask people, "What's the issue that's most important to you?" They were so grateful to be asked, because no one had ever bothered to do that before. People would say, "You're voting for Kerry too? Can I talk to you for 20 minutes about how freaked out I am that the people I work with are all for Bush?"
Was it tricky doing all this with kids at home?
My kids -- they were 10 months and 3 years old -- came along. My daughter liked to ring people's buzzers and explore their porches, looking at bricks and sidewalks. We were the slowest canvassers in North America. We had a little European Porta-Potty with us. When she had to go, she'd go in that. But I wanted my shield of babies: People are only going to be so rude when you have two kids with you.
Were you tempted to give up after the election's outcome?
I admit to being totally blindsided by the loss. I was like, "They're not going to know what hit them. There's no way we're not going to win."
The Republicans were doing the same things we were. And they were doing it more organized. The assholes. But what's exciting about MoveOn is that it's people like me: A year ago we were all just watching TV and hanging our heads. When we lost the election, the MoveOn leaders just disappeared. We felt dumped. We were really motivated and interested in continuing this. The leadership was like, "Really?" And then two months later they called back.
I've had similar experiences in my personal life, I think. What are you and MoveOn doing now?
Just the other day, we delivered petitions to Melissa Hart and other local House Representatives asking for [House Majority leader] Tom DeLay to be fired. What MoveOn is really good at is claiming the mainstream -- saying, "This is what mainstream America really believes." We aren't taking on Iraq now, for example, because there isn't a clear pressure point or position about what to do next. It's all about making Republicans as uncomfortable as possible.
Have you gotten any bad feedback for your efforts?
I did get a piece of hate mail. It was in response to a letter I wrote to the Post-Gazette about mercury, of all things. It came to me at home, and I knew before I opened it that it wasn't good: an envelope with no return address and this crazy old-lady tight cursive. You could see it folded up over and over and over. Evidently, I'm a "gooney yuppie fart-stain," which I already knew. They didn't personally threaten me; they just said I made them nauseous. I was pretty proud. I was like, "Badass! I'm an outlaw!"