A Family Of 'Boots For Newt' Hits The Ground In South Carolina

Jan 18, 2012
Originally published on January 18, 2012 4:27 pm

Sometimes it takes a family to campaign for a presidential candidate, and that's just what Melissa Block, co-host of NPR's All Things Considered, discovered while in South Carolina this week ahead of the state's Saturday primary.

Sondra Ziegler, a volunteer for GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich's campaign, is making herself useful any way she can — along with her three children and her mother.

Sondra decided to pack up her family and drive 22 hours from Lubbock, Texas, to Greenville, S.C., to volunteer for the former House speaker's presidential campaign. She persuaded her mother, Carolyn Ball, to volunteer as well. Ball drove from Lexington, Ky., to meet her daughter at a Greenville Holiday Inn, where they're all staying in one room.

It's not the first time Ziegler has followed Gingrich along the campaign trail this primary season: She also volunteered during the Iowa caucuses, traveling to Des Moines with her three home-schooled children, ages 5, 9 and 10.

"What I said to the kids was, 'If there's campaign work to be done, you can do campaign work, but otherwise you have to get your schoolwork done.' So of course they're hoping for campaign work every day," says Ziegler.

Ziegler says that at the age of 39, she had never been involved in a primary campaign. And at first, she didn't think Gingrich had a chance. But his early debate performances won her over, big time.

"It's what really tugged at my heart, made me think this is the guy, this is the candidate that we need to take our message and to win that argument with Barack Obama. I'm here because I feel like it's put up or shut up time," Ziegler tells Block.

And Ziegler's two older children are actively campaigning as well.

On Tuesday afternoon, they piled into a car and then filed out, ready to knock on doors. The Ziegler girls, blond ponytails bobbing, canvassed from house to house, pressing "21st Century Contract With America" leaflets into doorways. If someone answered the door, they responded with a personal appeal.

"Hi, my name's Abigail, and I'm volunteering on behalf of Newt Gingrich, and I was just hoping that you could tune in and watch the debate. It's on Thursday night at 9, and it's on CNN," said 10-year-old Abigail Ziegler.

"OK, I'll see what I can do. Thank you," said the prospective voter.

"OK. You're welcome," Abigail replied, and then moved on to her next duty as part of the grass-roots "Boots for Newt" team, a nickname for Gingrich volunteers.

Back at the campaign headquarters office, Sondra Ziegler and her family listen closely as Gingrich calls in to thank the volunteers around the state for all their work.

"It's exhausting to be here," Ziegler says. "But it's a good tired."

Ziegler and her family will stay in South Carolina through Saturday. Then it's back into their SUV, and home to Lubbock.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Elections are won through expensive TV ads, through candidates' commanding debate performances and through the sweat of legions of volunteers who bring their passion and muscle to the grassroots campaign. Our co-host Melissa Block is in South Carolina this week. And today, she introduces us to one of those foot soldiers.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Walk into Newt Gingrich headquarters in Greenville, under the blue sign that says: Rebuilding the America We Love, and meet Sondra Ziegler making herself useful any way she can.

SONDRA ZIEGLER: OK. So right now, we're boxing up phones to send to Florida for the phone bank there.

BLOCK: She is a long way from home.

ZIEGLER: I am a home school mom of three. We're from Lubbock, Texas.

BLOCK: And those three kids, ages 5, 9 and 10, they're here with her too.

ZIEGLER: We have an SUV that's pretty trashed out at this point from living in it all the way here.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ZIEGLER: We drove 22 hours.

BLOCK: Oh, and Sondra got her mom, Carolyn Ball, to come volunteer too. She drove in from Lexington, Kentucky.

CAROLYN BALL: So I said, go where and do what?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BALL: But my second thought was, yeah, I'm ready to go. Let's do it.

BLOCK: Sondra Ziegler is 39. She tells me she's never been involved in a primary campaign before. And at first, she didn't think Newt Gingrich had a chance. But his early debate performances won her over big time.

ZIEGLER: It's what really tugged at my heart to make me think this is the guy. This is the candidate that we need to take our message and to win that argument with Barack Obama. You know, I'm here because I feel like it's put up or shut up time, really.

BLOCK: So right after Thanksgiving, she had an epiphany and a conversation with her husband.

ZIEGLER: It's kind of funny. He actually had gone deer hunting. He came home, and I said, I want to go to Iowa and can I go? And he said, well, can I take a minute to process this? And I said no. You have to say yes right now. You know I've been wanting to do this. So he did. And we were gone at the end of week.

BLOCK: She was gone with the three children heading to Gingrich headquarters in Des Moines with a simple message: Put us to work.

ZIEGLER: We'll clean toilets. We'll set up tables and chairs. We'll do anything.

BLOCK: And they did do just about everything, except clean toilets. Now, they're all here in South Carolina - mom, kids and grandma - all five of them in one room at the Holiday Inn.

ZIEGLER: What I said to the kids was if there's campaign work to be done, you can do campaign work. But otherwise, you have to get your schoolwork done. So of course, they're hoping for campaign work every day.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Thank you so much.

SONDRA ZIEGLER VOLUNTEER, GINGRICH CAMPAIGN: (Unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED KID: (Unintelligible).

ZIEGLER: All right. Have fun. Thanks for taking care of them.

Oh, OK. I mother hen them. Don't worry.

CAMPAIGN: OK.

BLOCK: Yesterday afternoon, Sondra Ziegler's two daughters piled into a minivan, and off they went to knock on doors.

ALEXANDRA GRACE ZIEGLER: My name is Alexandra Grace Ziegler, and I am from Lubbock, Texas.

BLOCK: And how old are you?

ZIEGLER: I'm years old.

BLOCK: So, Allie, what do you about Newt Gingrich?

ZIEGLER: Well, not really much. I do know one thing, that he is a strong man for a big job.

BLOCK: Allie and her 10-year-old sister, Abigail, march from house to house, blond ponytails bobbing. They press 21st Century Contract with America leaflets into doorways. And if someone comes to the door, they make a personal appeal - because really, who can resist an angelic 10-year-old?

ABIGAIL ZIEGLER: Hi. My name is Abigail. And I'm volunteering on behalf of Newt Gingrich.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Uh-huh.

ZIEGLER: And I was just hoping that you could tune in and watch the debate. It's on Thursday night at 9:00 and it's on CNN.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATIONS)

BLOCK: Back at Gingrich headquarters, Sondra Ziegler steps into the kitchen to talk about her commitment as a conservative evangelical Christian to Newt Gingrich. After all, he's the candidate who, if you believe the negative ads, carries more baggage than the airlines. And she says his admitted infidelities and multiple marriages did give her pause.

ZIEGLER: You know, I think his is a story of redemption. And if he's asked forgiveness from God - and I believe he has - and if he's made peace with the people in his life that were hurt by that, then I don't know what more I can ask.

BLOCK: What do you think the kids are getting out of being here?

ZIEGLER: I think they're going to have a different view of what's possible when they see something that needs to change or they need to make a difference or a candidate that needs help, they're going to think, I can go. I can do that. You know, I can go knock on the door and engage a complete stranger in why need to vote for whoever it may be. They're going to have a whole another world of possibility because of being here.

BLOCK: A few minutes later, Sondra Ziegler, her daughters and her mother listen closely as Newt Gingrich calls in to thank the volunteers around the state for all their work.

NEWT GINGRICH: And your work, your enthusiasm, your attitude really helps me. Thank you all very, very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

BLOCK: It's a strong jolt of energy for these Boots for Newt. And I notice that Sondra Ziegler's eyes get teary as she listens. It's exhausting to be here, she tells me later, but it's a good tired.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Give a hoot for Newt.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: Sondra Ziegler and her kids will stay in South Carolina through Saturday, then it's back home 22 hours to Lubbock, Texas. I'm Melissa Block in Greenville, South Carolina. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.