There was considerable chatter among my peers as we went back to work. The state senator from Illinois had just introduced himself to the nation. His epic keynote address, during the 2004 DNC, mixed with his life story and choice words, brought all of us into a civil political conversation. In all honesty, it was because I was left without much to say, and I was that guy—the one who was unashamed to support the war in Iraq and quick to argue my position with a mix of Cold War policy, geopolitics and concern over our nation’s strategic and economic interest in the region. Of course, I was wrong, but did not know it yet.
So it would surprise many of those gathered that day to learn that I ever even attended Camp Obama. The crash course in community organizing was offered by the campaign to train volunteers who wanted to become Deputy Field Organizers. Because for me, and countless others, change was more than a slogan. It was a promise that I made to myself that day, after that speech, which went along the lines, “If Barack Obama ever got close to the White House, and still held the same principles, then I would do whatever I could to help the cause.” And I was not alone.
As far as I know the first Camp Obama was held in June 2007 in a downtown Chicago office building. It was a four-day session that trained mostly young, first time volunteers, in the science of electioneering. At the time, Hans Reimer, the national youth vote director of the Obama campaign, told an NPR reporter, “The most important thing is that they understand they are an important part of our strategy to win the election. This is not for show, this is not to feel good; this is to get trained and help us to win this election.”
Those initial campers then spread across the nation to states that fell early in the primary line up: Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina. Then the campaign did what it always did once it was on the ground. It grew bigger and stronger.
As it turns out, I was a late camper and not able to attend Camp Obama until a year later. It was held in the cafeteria of a technical trade college in Los Angeles and condensed into a two-day session that pieced out the nuts and bolts needed to win the general election. If the organization was without a soul, the seminar might have been called “Campaigning 101: Organizing for Dummies” because of the simplicity and accuracy of the curriculum.
We signed in, were given a training manual, and were seated by congressional districts at round tabletops that packed the venue. Over the weekend we were trained in methods of voter persuasion and the essentials of how to get out the vote. Before we left, each congressional district organized themselves into teams of five, with each member of the team assigned a task and title for the duration of the campaign. On paper, each team represented a fully functioning campaign staff.
The State Field Director, Mary Jane Marshall, was clear on the strategy from the start. We were not going to spend energy on the 55 Electoral College votes offered in California, our candidate was ahead by 20 plus points in state polls. Our focus was going to be on swing states, and our first mission was next door in Nevada.
The Inland Empire was organized a little differently. I was one of the few in attendance from the region, and we did not have enough people to build one team, so our Regional Field Director offered us the role of Congressional District Coordinator. It was the start of a 90-day marathon to Election Day for a mountain resident who lost her home in one of the recent wild fires, an Iraq war veteran preparing for graduate school, and myself, an aspiring journalist unfulfilled by corporate employment. With our new acquired knowledge, we set off to make an impact on the campaign.
There are two ways to make a personal contact with voters: knock on their doors or ring their phones. So it makes sense that the first “ask” the campaign had was to host a phone bank. I knew it was coming before they asked, and still I was not able to get anyone to show up. As a consequence, I spent an entire Sunday afternoon by myself calling Republicans in Nevada to ask them if they knew which candidate they were going to support in the upcoming election.
I dialed 83 phone numbers before the no answers, hang-ups, laughs and ethnocentric comments got to me. Besides I had to go to work, but I did talk to one person that whispered his/her support of my candidate softly into the receiver—the voter told me that they did not want their family members to hear. He worked two jobs and did not have time to volunteer but thanked me for my efforts. So in the end, it was worth it.
While my numbers looked miniscule when compared to the other phone banks in the region, I did get other things accomplished that week. One of the first calls I made was to a friend, a Ron Paul supporter, whom I thought would be good at volunteer recruitment. He was an extrovert and would do well on the phone. He was on board, and in his first phone bank to recruit local volunteers, contacted a supporter in Wrightwood, who ended up being of the seven people that showed up at my first house meeting.
She went on to become one of our most reliable volunteers. During her first week, she contacted a supporter in Rancho Cucamonga and invited him to a house meeting. He showed up, attended Camp Obama a few weeks later at the Carousel Mall in San Bernardino, and helped me organize the eastern region of Congressional District 26 until the last phone bank ended. The inertia of the campaign had set in.
During his camp experience that I was asked to attend as a facilitator, or counselor, if you will, I heard the story of a woman who organized for Bobby Kennedy. In fact, it was the last time she volunteered for a campaign, and because she was not old enough to register voters at the time, she knocked doors in her neighborhood to determine who was eligible to vote and who supported her candidate. She would mark an “X” on the sidewalk in front of their house, and an adult would follow behind and finish the process.
It was stories like that which reminded me that I had the privilege to be a part of something that was bigger and more complex than I could appreciate. My generation never faced the certainty of a draft nor had our campus dorms gassed by the National Guard to curb protesting. And we had never been organized before.
It was clear history books were going to document the campaign, but I wondered what the chapters were going to be named. This struggle, like all struggles, was unique. Our condition was not as desperate as the one faced by immigrants who organized for workers’ rights at the turn of last century. Nor did we ever come near the danger and hostility that trekked along the side of civil rights marchers. And, of course, we had iPhones and the Internet. Any Obama supporter who had one, held a campaign office in his or her hand. We had it easy.
We were merely attempting to agitate voters and push them to the ballot box. So the campaign organized attorneys to watch polls, trained supporters to observe proceedings in caucus rooms, and had volunteers encourage voters not to leave long lines on Election Day. For me, it seemed our biggest obstacle was to engage voters who felt insignificant in a post Bush vs. Gore America and convince them that our movement to the polls on Election Day was the answer that our democracy required. And yes, their votes, all of them, would count.
So if this section of our nation’s history has to be labeled, then I would suggest it be called the voter’s rights movement. And when critics minimize our newfound knowledge as subversive propaganda, I might feel inclined to politely remind them we followed an ideology that was more aligned with Ronald Reagan’s “trust but verify” doctrine, not Che Guevara and a socialist revolution.
That was the first and last Camp Obama that was held in the Inland Empire. It proved to be worth the investment as new teams were formed in all the region’s congressional districts. Plus, I was now working with a full team, and our goal was to be a model that new teams could plug into and follow in their neighborhoods. There were four of those teams, and all of us were hosting phone banks throughout the week.
At the best of times, it was controlled chaos. I lost phone numbers, forgot to respond to emails, and let my voicemail get full, but I never missed a conference call. And as Election Day came close, one thing became clear: I was not going to be in Las Vegas. It was official when I received an email blast from the state field director. It asked certain personnel to stay in California and host large centralized phone banks on election weekend.
I was frustrated. I know it sounds selfish but it has nothing to do with the lure of the Strip. I would have gladly loaded up my car, and drove to Albuquerque if the campaign had asked. I’d just grown fond of this idea that I would be able to volunteer in a swing state on Election Day. I wanted to experience the energy that was present on Super Tuesday when the campaign first came to the Inland Empire and organized canvassers in Riverside, the empowerment I felt when the campaign trained us to observe proceedings in Texas caucus rooms on election night during the primary.
And then I thought about the campaign leaders who were organizing before I got there. The ones who were patient with me, trained me and brought me along—I know there were times when they would rather be elsewhere. So I am embarrassed that I ever contemplated ignoring the email and skipping out for Nevada on election weekend. After all, this was my first campaign. And when I was honest with myself, I only got my current role because I lived in an area with less Obama supporters per capita than Los Angeles.
Besides, I was really starting to appreciate the way things worked. I had recently made an issue over resource allocation, and instead of being brushed off, the campaign listened to me. It was after that incident that I was offered two tickets to attend an economic panel anchored by Warren Buffet. I took my campaign partner who had a degree in Economics from Stanford.
Our biggest concerns involved the campaign asking us to consolidate our neighborhood phone banks to large centralized ones. I understood the logic; it was just that we now had a few hundred volunteers who wanted action but could not secure a permanent phone bank location with necessary resources that were affordable. We ended up walking the halls of the David Dreier wing of Central Park in Rancho Cucamonga twice looking for a location.
We were playing phone bank hopscotch when we needed to plan for a 96-hour “get out the vote” strategy. I felt like the campaign was passing over our head and would land in a swing state or a large centralized phone bank in Los Angeles.
No matter the location, the volunteers continued to show up. We were able to organize a phone bank in the back of a screen print shop in Rancho Cucamonga on our first weekend. That Sunday, a high school student, an Asian female who was too young to vote, called the second largest number of people in Southern California. I was told the Inland Empire made more phone calls that day then Obama-Biden Headquarters in San Diego. Our superstar volunteer almost won a ticket to a banquet with Joe Biden. We never saw her again.
The next week we organized a last-minute phone bank at a church, again in Rancho Cucamonga, but with the suboptimal preparations, our numbers plummeted. It takes a phone bank to get people to phone bank. If you do not make calls and invite volunteers to a location, they cannot participate, and emails lack that personal connection, or don’t get read at all. So I was pleased that we even had volunteers present on such a short notice. It should have made sense though, at Camp Obama they told us that one day there would be a large amount of volunteers who wanted to help the cause, and we needed to have an organization in place to utilize their energy.
There were 18 days left in the campaign when we found out that we had a permanent location where we could organize six phone banks. A union hall in Claremont that would let us organize all day events. The first two would be a trial run for election weekend. We were asked to have a solid leadership team in place that was ready to handle a capacity of 80 volunteers at a time. We needed to be prepared because we were going to be calling every swing state in the nation.
By the last house meeting of the campaign, my garage was full of volunteers. I was called by a regional field director from Los Angeles and told that Adrian Grenier was calling volunteers and pushing them to our phone bank. There were others calling for us too from as far away as Escondido. And that last weekend we again grew bigger and stronger, new leaders emerged, and first time phone bankers showed up, and all I had to do was answer my phone. It was bombarded with calls from supporters that were directed to me by the Obama for America Web site.
Our region performed so well that on Saturday afternoon we were informed that collectively we were out calling the San Francisco bay. The volunteers were proud to learn that our phone bank in the western tip of the Inland Valley was responsible for 20 percent of the call volume.
It was during that last round of phone banks that I met an older gentleman. He wore thick glasses and needed to use a cell phone with large numbers, and he told me that in his youth he’d organized for Gandhi. He volunteered for three days in a row and on Election Day his effort was counted in the 10,500 phone calls that our phone bank made. Even after the election outcome was clear volunteers hung out because the campaign asked if we had people to call Alaska and help agitate voters in a Senate race.
The next morning the phone calls ended, the emails stopped, and the most pressing responsibility I had to the campaign was to pick up tables and chairs that we left behind at the union hall. I spent the day watching news clips of the world celebrating and my wife bought airfare for our son and us to go to Washington D.C. for Inauguration Weekend.
I was not concerned about tickets—I went to the Convention in Denver and did not have a credential to hear the acceptance speech until six hours before it began. I was in limbo until a supporter I organized with in Texas offered me her spare. Somehow, I ended up sitting at the 50-yard line and could have read the speech as it was delivered off the teleprompter. I had weeks to work on tickets, and besides, I would have been content standing anywhere on the National Mall on Inauguration Day.
The campaign sent out an email a few weeks later and told us to make accommodations. There was a good chance tickets would be available for us. So I was surprised when I was given the chance to attend an Inaugural Ball as well. I watched history unfold from the silver viewing area behind Third St., then walked from the Capitol Building to the Pentagon and hooked up with a ride.
I thought of all the IE volunteers that I had worked with to realize this moment, and wished that they could be there with me.