My time as an organizer for Barack Obama in southern Ohio
Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek. –Barack Obama
Yep, I’m home from southern Ohio where I served as a field organizer for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, probably the most challenging three months of my life. After being back for almost three weeks, I’m happy to report that I no longer awaken in the middle of the night with an alarming sense of urgency; I’ve taken some time to decompress physically and emotionally; and I’m now better able to really grasp the significance of what we accomplished. So I guess it’s about time to tell my story.
In my youth I truly believed in the aims of the civil rights movement, but though my heart may have been in the right place, my butt remained firmly implanted on the couch. During the peace protests of the late ’60s, I grew my hair long and participated in a few marches but was content to drink cheap wine and bitch about old LBJ rather than really work to end the war in Viet Nam. I got “clean for Gene” McCarthy (at least in physical appearance) during the 1968 elections and was inspired by Bobby Kennedy’s soaring speeches but never really committed myself to their campaigns. I habitually talked a good game, but when it came to putting my ass on the line, I hemmed and hawed and made up lots of plausible excuses for inaction.
Upon turning 65 last April, however, something shifted. Perhaps it was the realization that my time on this planet is limited. Perhaps it was the acknowledgement of the mess we humans have made of the planet. Perhaps it was the inspiring vision Barack Obama put forward. Whatever the impetus, I decided that I would take my stand when called to do so, even if that meant leaving the comfort zone of my family and my progressive little city of Asheville, North Carolina. Going forward, by God (or substitute the deity of your choice), I would have the courage of my convictions.
So after successfully working with my wife Shonnie as Obama precinct captains in the North Carolina primary (Asheville Precinct 3 went 74% for Obama!), I decided to continue my efforts on Barack’s behalf. In this time of crisis, I intended to wake up on November 5 satisfied that I’d done everything in my power to elect Barack Obama president of the United States and change the course of our nation before we do further harm to ourselves.
Toward that end I e-mailed and called around trying to find an Obama campaign insider I could talk with about getting hired, preferably someone who would champion my efforts. But to no avail. I did, however, locate an online job application for the campaign, so I completed it, attached my resume and clicked “submit” believing it highly unlikely I’d ever hear from anyone.
A few weeks later, however, I listened to a voicemail message from an Obama staffer in Ohio who wanted to talk with me about a position with the campaign. We did a telephone interview the next morning; the staff member called my references that afternoon; and then she called back that evening to make an offer. I asked for some time to consider the implications of this opportunity with Shonnie, and the next day, I called back to accept. Though I had no campaign experience and was several decades beyond the average age of the other field organizers, remarkably I was on my way to Ohio.
On the ground in Ohio
Having made the seven-hour drive from my home, I arrived in Chillicothe, Ohio on August 3, a 65-year-old rookie with very good intentions and a near-total lack of knowledge of what this job would entail.
Upon my arrival, my 24-year-old supervisor assigned me two rural counties in southern Ohio, both part of Appalachia—Adams County and Highland County—both of which had gone heavily Republican in presidential elections since 1964. My job in these counties was to recruit and empower volunteers to participate in contacting voters via phone banks and door-to-door canvassing and persuade them to vote for Obama. Then, near Election Day, our attention would turn toward getting our supporters to the polls to vote.
I had a handful of names of Obama supporters from earlier spadework by my fellow field organizers, and hoped that the county Democratic parties would help me out. However, with a few notable exceptions, the party ranks were filled with Hillary supporters who resented the fact that Obama had beat out their heir apparent. While the Democrats in Adams and Highland Counties allowed me to work out of their offices (the Obama campaign actually paid a fee for this privilege), most offered little assistance, at least early on. In fact, some Dems urged me not to organize phone banks or canvassing at all for fear of whipping up a Republican and fundamentalist backlash that might overwhelm Democrats up and down the ballot.
One long-time Democratic activist in Adams County told me that, because Obama was black and had a funny name, he would be lucky to get 25 percent of the vote there (Kerry had received 35 percent in 2004); he thought it more likely that the percentage would be closer to 22 percent. I was also warned of overt racism in the area and of possible intimidation by local hooligans. Needless to say, I was a bit wary of putting my Obama flag on the little blue Kia I’d borrowed from my friend Jay. But after a couple of weeks, I threw caution to the wind and unfurled my banner for all to see.
To say I had serious self doubts about what I’d gotten myself into would be a gross understatement. I was working 14 to 16 hour days almost every day, and all my assigned tasks still didn’t get done. I made daily reports on campaign goals that seemed unattainable—number of calls to voters, number of doors knocked, number of volunteers recruited, etc. And with my focus split between two counties, it was even more challenging. What’s more I was eating on the run and living out of the trunk of my car, relying on the generosity of local supporters for a bed and an occasional meal. More than once, my inner dialogue would sound something like: “What the hell was I thinking?”
To keep going, I sought out the support of my fellow staff members and, of course, Shonnie, who visited me three times during the first two months and sent care packages in between. And despite the challenges I was confronting, I kept telling myself that I was in the right place doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing. One day at a time. One day at a time. One day at a time.
I spent a great deal of my time calling and meeting prospective volunteers with varying degrees of success. Many begged off because of family and work responsibilities. But one or two at a time, Obama supporters stepped forward to call their neighbors and knock on their doors. And in a region where very few people of color lived, these “early adopters” served as the first white validators for the African-American candidate for president. Through their efforts and their visibility, they made it more acceptable for others to join in supporting his candidacy.
Things begin to shift
By mid-September, I began to get a better handle on my role in the campaign, and as the pieces of the strategy began to make more sense to me, my self-confidence grew. To further the reach of our efforts, I asked a core group of volunteers to take on leadership roles, and before long, the phone banks grew from three or four volunteers calling on weekday evenings to six, then eight and finally ten or twelve folks contacting hundreds of undecided voters every week. In addition, our weekend canvassing efforts began to take shape, and we knocked on the doors of voters who had probably never been approached like this by a presidential campaign.
Nevertheless, skepticism and uncertainty were still prevalent among many volunteers. Some of the voters they contacted would hang up when the name of Obama was even mentioned. Others were extraordinarily rude, some even bellowing some variant of, “I’ll never vote for that n#&&@*.” Plus there were lots of Hillary supporters who remained adamantly undecided. Thus it was easy for volunteers to get discouraged, and a few never returned after their first shift. But I reminded them that every single vote counted. “If you only persuade one person to move toward voting for Obama tonight, that is a win,” I declared. “We want to do well in this county. And when we do well in Adams, Highland and surrounding counties, we’ll win Ohio. And when we win Ohio, we’ll win the election. And when we win the election, we’ll change the course of our nation.”
Gradually I witnessed the doubt and hesitation of folks in my counties shifting to excitement and enthusiasm. Obama yard signs popped up around the region and bumper stickers adorned Ford pickups as well as Priuses. People from all walks of life—farmers, union members, teachers, students, homemakers, retirees and others—joined in the voter contact activities, and these volunteers enrolled family members and friends into volunteering themselves. Many of the volunteers gave two to three hours of their time every week for months. Others gave 10, 20, 30 hours on a weekly basis. And these were people with jobs, families and other responsibilities. Most had never worked in a political campaign, yet here they were, week after week, giving generously of themselves and their resources to a movement that was obviously more to them than just a presidential campaign.
After a measured start in southern Ohio, things seemed to break our way in October. Governor Ted Strickland, a native of the area, toured our region in support of Senator Obama, as did Senator Hillary Clinton. And finally, our extraordinary candidate spoke at two well-attended rallies nearby—one in Portsmouth and one in Chillicothe. Sarah Palin’s star rose and, just as abruptly, fell. The U.S. economy was in turmoil. McCain stuttered and stumbled. And it seemed to me that, barring further unforeseen events, Obama was going to win and win big. But I was brought down to earth by the candidate himself on a mid-October conference call with staff members. Obama reminded us that the campaign had been confident of success before, only to see it slip away. “For all of you who are feeling giddy or cocky or think this is all set,” he said, “I have just two words for you: New Hampshire.”
Some pundits and politicians have questioned President-elect Obama’s ability to lead our nation, wondering if he has sufficient experience to do so. Having been a part of his campaign for president, I have no doubt that he will be a powerful, effective and inspiring leader. For a demonstration of his capacity to lead, you have to look no further than the planning, preparation for and execution of the campaign’s get-out-the-vote (GOTV) strategy.
There are many reasons for our GOTV success in southern Ohio, and two of them were my deputy field organizers—Shonnie Lavender and Carolyn Baehr. My wife Shonnie came to Ohio to visit and to work for three long weekends before arriving for the entire final week of the campaign. Carolyn Baehr, devoted family friend, came to volunteer for a week, got hired by the Ohio Democratic Party in early October and was with me for the duration. Carolyn’s support during the weeks leading up to the election and Shonnie’s during the week before November 4, proved invaluable. Each brought their unique ability to connect with the volunteers, to organize and to deal with whatever issues arose.
The first phase of GOTV was comprised of the closing attempts to persuade unconvinced voters to vote for Barack. For five days prior to Election Day, dozens of volunteers called hundreds of undecided voters and knocked on their doors, frequently with considerable success. It was obvious that many, though not all, of the undecideds were moving our way.
The Monday before the election (Phase 2), volunteers put door hangers on the door of every Obama supporter who had not voted early, urging them to be sure to vote on Tuesday, November 4. Each door hanger had the address of the polling place for that voter along with information about Senators Obama and Biden.
But Election Day, Phase 3, was the pièce de résistance. In every county in Ohio, including the two counties I worked in, there were a number of staging locations run by volunteer leaders from which campaign activities took place.
Canvassers fanned out across their precincts to remind Obama supporters to get to the polls. Phone bankers called supporters in areas too rural to canvass. Volunteers drove to each precinct in the county surveying polling locations and reporting any problems (only minor) and any delays in voting (up to one hour waits at some precincts due to large turnout). Other supporters brought food and drink for their teams. And reports went up the chain of command every three to four hours so that leaders in Columbus and Chicago could see how things were proceeding and if adjustments were needed.
Toward the end of the day, we had reached our supporter-contact goals in three of our four staging locations but were lagging at one. So we shifted some canvassers to that location and ultimately we were on target there as well. We had done everything the campaign had asked us to do . . . and more.
Victory is at hand!
After the polls closed at 7:30 P.M., I drove from my command center in northern Adams County to West Union, the site of the staging location where Shonnie had set up shop, and we began making the rounds of election night gatherings. As states began to go blue early that evening, it was apparent that Barack Obama was going to be the next president of the United States. Shortly after 9:00 p.m. Eastern time, Ohio was called for Obama. Cheers went up. Congratulations were given. And heartfelt goodbyes were shared. I was elated at our win. I was relieved the campaign was finally over. And I was totally exhausted.
The outcome I’d envisioned had come to pass: a win in Ohio (including Barack doing better in my counties than Kerry had done in 2004), an overwhelming victory in the presidential race and the election of six to seven additional Democratic Senators along with 20 to 30 additional Democratic House members.
Tears fell as Carolyn, Shonnie and I watched Obama’s victory speech together late Tuesday night.
I was never the likeliest candidate for this office. We didn’t start with much money or many endorsements. Our campaign was not hatched in the halls of Washington—It began in the backyards of Des Moines and the living rooms of Concord and the front porches of Charleston.
It was built by working men and women who dug into what little savings they had to give five dollars and ten dollars and twenty dollars to this cause. It grew strength from the young people who rejected the myth of their generations’ apathy; who left their homes and their families for jobs that offered little pay and less sleep; from the not-so-young people who braved the bitter cold and scorching heat to knock on the doors of perfect strangers; from the millions of Americans who volunteered, and organized, and proved that more than two centuries later, a government of the people, by the people and for the people has not perished from this Earth. This is your victory.
On Wednesday Carolyn, Shonnie and I drove to a statewide staff victory party in Columbus. Free drinks and pizza! Woohoo! Plus Shonnie got to demonstrate her latest dance moves. It was good to spend some time celebrating and hanging out with my fellow field organizers, but for me the scene was a bit frenzied and the music too loud to talk. Truth be known, I was ready for some solitude.
Leaving southern Ohio on Thursday to head for home was a bittersweet experience for me. My joy to be homeward bound was tempered by a sense of sadness at leaving the volunteers I’d connected with and the community we created together.
I will be forever grateful for their willingness, their courage and their spirit. They took a stand for what they believed in, and in the end their efforts paid off in a huge way.
After watching members of the media stand up as he entered his first press conference, the full realization that Barack Obama has actually been elected President of the United States and will take office on January 20 finally began to sink in.
Now the real work begins. As President-elect Obama said in his victory speech on Election Night, this victory, important as it is, merely provides the opportunity for change. Each of us in our daily lives will be called to support our newly-elected President and to work diligently toward a nation and a world of greater compassion, justice and sustainability.
See y’all at the Inauguration!
My deep gratitude to . . .
Barb and Kathy Finnegan who provided me with a place to stay in Adams County and a hot meal almost every night I was there
Doug and Susan Seipelt who graciously opened their home in Highland County to me and to campaign activities
Dave and Judy Lanning who gave me room and board when I arrived in Chillicothe and furniture for my infrequently-used apartment
Jay Joslin who loaned me his 2004 Kia for the duration of the campaign
Donna Sue Groves who continued to work for the campaign even under physical and emotional strains
Carolyn Baehr and Shonnie Lavender for service above and beyond the call of duty
My fellow Region 3 staff members—Meagan Gardener, Brady Quirk-Garvan, Seth Bannon, Courtney Frogge, Richard Becker, Emma Levine and Graham Vesey—who were there when I most needed them
All the volunteers in Adams and Highland Counties too numerous to mention who gave so generously of themselves and their resources
All my friends and family in Asheville and around the nation who supported me during my time in Ohio with their energy, prayers, cards and financial aid, and those who have been so acknowledging . . . during the campaign and since I’ve been back home