I Was an Obama Volunteer

The elevator doors slide open into what feels like an adult kindergarten class. Campaign staffers pinball around the room like dizzied Duck Duck Goose contestants, stopping only to answer questions or direct traffic while volunteers leap for ringing phones, pound away at laptops, and huddle around tables covered with mounds of charted maps and voter scrolls. The carpet is a sea of crumpled paper and Dunkin’ Donuts coffee cups, and the walls are plastered with magic marker Obama portraits and finger-painted campaign banners — the artwork of college students who have descended on the office en masse. There’s a crowd in the kitchen chomping down on soft pretzels and tuna-fish hoagies, and the scene at the merchandise table resembles something you’d see on the floor of the Stock Exchange. Plus, everyone’s wearing name tags.

Standing there, taking it all in, I half expect someone to recruit me for dodgeball, but instead I’m nearly stampeded by a group of large women bearing armfuls of Obama lawn signs. The leader of the pack accidentally spears me with her metal posts. “Sorry now, honey,” she shouts before the elevator doors close in front of her.

I figured the place would be busy, but it’s a Monday morning in early March, six full weeks before the primary, and there must be a hundred people here. The line at the volunteer registration table is 10 deep.

A volunteer coordinator named Megan* works the room. “Hey there,” she smiles, obviously busy but still cheerful. “Yeah, we got plenty for you to do, let’s get you signed up.”

My goals were simple when I walked into the Barack Obama for President State Headquarters, which occupies the top floor of a red-brick office building at 1500 Sansom St.

Much has been written about how Obama’s campaign represents the future of presidential politics. By marrying the classic neighborhood grassroots tactics of Obama’s community organizing days with simple online social networking tools, the Obama operation has, as Rolling Stone put it, “evolved into the mother of all get-out-the-vote campaigns.” It’s succeeded in registering and wooing into action millions of previously disengaged and disenchanted voters. And though Hillary’s promised to fight on to the Democratic Convention in Denver — and from there, who knows, maybe Inauguration Day — and Obama’s been busy prissily bowling for blue-collar votes in places like Altoona, there’s no denying Philly’s importance in determining how well this approach to electoral politics will work. If Obama has any chance of winning Pennsylvania, or even of getting within a few margin points of victory — results which would effectively end Hillary’s death dance — he must offset Clinton’s support in western Pennsylvania by winning Philly in a landslide (especially now, after his remarks about how working-class whites are “bitter”). And we’re talking about a Rendell-for-Guv-2006-style landslide; Obama’s got to turn out his base’s base next Tuesday. I wanted an inside look at the Obama machine, wanted to see how the campaign of the future fared here in Philly.

I also wanted an up-close-in-action glimpse of this idea of “empowered democracy,” the supposedly self-transformational precept pumping through the bloodlines of Obama’s candidacy. (Remember, he’s not just asking you to believe in his ability to bring about change, he’s asking you to believe in yours.) The candidate has promised that his is a truly bottom-up campaign driven by the creative energies of volunteers rather than Washington wags. I wanted to see how Philadelphians handled their newfound empowerment.

I signed up to volunteer under a fake name — back in January, I covered the New Hampshire primary for this newspaper, and any time I flashed my reporter credentials in a campaign office, I was quickly shown the door. I wanted a more honest look at things. A friend said the name I chose, Mike Kelly, made me sound like a detective in a bad cop flick. Whatever.

There’s an empty seat at the registration table, so Megan puts me right to work. Megan’s not a paid staffer but she volunteers here often, serving as a liaison between volunteers and employees, many of whom have been hop-scotching from one primary to another for months. They’re a bleary-eyed bunch, the campaign trail having stretched on much longer than originally expected, and they all seem to be suffering from the same head cold, which Megan has now caught herself.

“Everyone must sign in,” she explains between sniffles. “Try and get their e-mail addresses. That’s very important.”

Indeed, the sign-in sheets serve as the foundation blocks of the Obama campaign — simple, effective tools that have been used to construct an unparalleled community of online supporters, one that dwarfs even the social-networking successes of the Howard Dean campaign four years ago. The e-mail addresses collected at every mega-rally and town hall meeting, at every canvassing site across the city, by every door-to-door volunteer, are brought back to one of Obama’s eight Philadelphia field offices and religiously entered into their Pennsylvania database. This allows the campaign to flood potential supporters with personalized e-mail updates, donation solicitations and volunteer requests.

In my four weeks of volunteering, I would enter about 800 names into the database. On average, I’d receive three e-mails a day from the campaign. (Plus, about four phone calls a week.)

Here’s a typical missive, advertising an “organizing fellowship”:

“If you apply and are selected,” it explains, “you’ll be trained in the basic organizing principles that this campaign and our movement for change are built on. You will be assigned to a community where you’ll organize supporters. Assignments will begin in June, and you’ll be required to work a minimum of six weeks over the summer.”

The database also helped the campaign identify tens of thousands of unregistered supporters and registered Independents or Republicans who had expressed interest in the candidate by attending a campaign event or clicking on the Obama Web site.

“All of our efforts right now revolve around new registrations,” explained Megan two weeks before the March 24 deadline for new registrants. Volunteers were working around the clock, she explained, mailing, e-mailing and telephoning names culled from the database. She handed me a stack of registration forms. “A lot of people are coming in asking for forms for them and their friends,” she says, “but try not to give out more than five to a person. We’ve had such a rush on registration that we can’t keep up with demand.”

The Obama campaign had an army of Philadelphia ground troops organizing on its behalf way before it became clear that Pennsylvania would be a decisive battleground. Independent groups, such as Philadelphia for Obama and Students for Barack Obama, were busy planning campaign events and voter registration drives as early as last spring.

Upon arriving in Philly, the campaign sought to organize the separate factions into a cohesive grassroots force. Volunteers could work out of the central office or in their own neighborhoods. Maps on the office wall showed where the campaign had spread.

To advertise the March 1 opening of Obama’s Philadelphia headquarters, the campaign posted a notice on mybarackobama.com, the campaign’s popular social-networking site. Three hundred people poured into the office that first Saturday morning, and were asked to line up under whichever of the 19 maps posted corresponded with their neighborhood.

Emma Tramble, a 46-year-old senior business analyst, lives on Larchwood Avenue, so she stood under the sign reading: “West Philly, south of Market.” (This is Tramble’s real name — I spoke with her by phone after my own volunteering, and identified myself as a reporter.) Tramble had already led canvassing efforts in Delaware’s low-income neighborhoods during the run-up to Super Tuesday, and also organized a series of highly successful voter registration drives on the campus of the Community College of Philadelphia. So, the campaign had her assist with a registration training seminar for all the new volunteers and then, a few days later, asked her to lead a training seminar in Plymouth Meeting for 100 campaign field organizers who would be dispersed throughout Pennsylvania.

“These people had done it in other states,” says Tramble, “but Pennsylvania’s voter registration process can be tricky, so we trained the trainers in how to do it.”

Nine other people lined up next to Tramble that first day at the office. The campaign would supply them with resources and an experienced field organizer, but empowered Tramble and the others to lead the grassroots efforts in their own neighborhood. The group met at Tramble’s house to figure out leadership positions — a faith-based coordinator, a volunteer coordinator, a data entry coordinator, a canvassing coordinator, etc. — and within weeks, the West Philly, south of Market team expanded by the dozens. By March 24, the group registered 1,800 new Democratic voters.

“What struck me most,” says Tramble, who has taken a hiatus from her analyst job to volunteer full time, “were the people in their 50s and 60s who felt so disaffected that they’ve never voted in their lives.”

With the primary only days away, the campaign has now flooded the neighborhood offices with field organizers, which is fine with Tramble, who, freed from dealing with the day-to-day operational responsibilities, has turned her attention to senior citizen voter advocacy efforts and the organizing of a recent Barack Obama prayer service at Malcolm X Park at 52nd and Pine.

“They gave us a degree of ownership,” says Tramble of the campaign, “and we went full steam ahead with it.”

The mybarackobama.com social-networking site has also gone a long way to providing supporters with a sense of campaign ownership. Hundreds of independently organized events are listed weekly on the site. But if Emma Tramble’s story shows the great potential of the empowerment strategy, some of these events, like the March 15 “Obama Walk for Change,” raise some questions about its effectiveness.

The listing for the event sounded promising: “Meet in the center of Washington Square and demonstrate support with a walk for change through the city of brotherly love. Bring signs, banners, precinct organization info, pens, clipboards, sneakers, and most importantly HOPE. 1.4 mile walk starts at 10:00 a.m. Rain, Snow, or Shine.”

The event was posted by a supporter named Gary Carter.

Come Saturday, three women decked out in their morning power-walking gear and I stood shivering in the middle of Washington Square, wondering where the hell everyone was. Then an energetic recent college graduate named Evan* arrived. “I Googled the organizer’s name,” he said, waving his arms in excitement. “He’s a Hall of Fame baseball player.”

(I couldn’t track down the actual Gary Carter who organized the event, but I’m all but certain it was not the former New York Mets catcher Gary “the Kid” Carter who swatted 324 career home runs and who now manages the Orange County Flyers of the Golden Baseball League.)

We decided to give it a few more minutes before throwing in the towel. A man arrived with a sign reading, “You don’t need advice from your momma to vote for Obama.” Our sad little group shuffled down Market Street, taking a pit break when one of the women needed to change her baby’s diaper, and again when Evan’s girlfriend lost an earring.

At City Hall we encountered a large group of anti-Scientology protesters decked out in orange wigs and rubber masks. Evan was beside himself with delight, asking them if they wanted to combine forces with us.

“I don’t know if Obama would really want to be affiliated with us,” said one of the protesters, removing her pink plastic pig nose for a moment, and speaking slowly to emphasize the obviousness of the remark.

“Well, do you have any extra signage?” responded Evan, not to be deterred.

“But it’s all Scientology-related,” said the girl.

“Bye-bye, then,” yelled Evan. “Go Ob-a-a-a-a-ma.”

Other events, of course, are much more effective. Later that day, there was a neighborhood sweep-up event organized by Obama Works, a grassroots public service organization inspired by Obama’s community activism background. The event was held at the trash-strewn Chew Park at 19th and Washington. Brooms and garbage bags and plastic gloves were supplied and there was a voter registration table. More than two hundred people showed up, and the park was swept clean.

Besides the Center City headquarters, there are Obama offices in Chinatown, South Philadelphia, West Philadelphia, Southwest Philadelphia, North Philadelphia, Northwest Philadelphia and Northeast Philadelphia. I scribbled down the address of the South Philadelphia office, located in a nicely remodeled storefront along the 1600 block of South Broad Street, and began volunteering there nights and weekends.

Just a few minutes into my first steering committee meeting at the South Philly office, I realize that it’s at these satellite offices where the notion of empowered leadership is tested most. Despite the Obama campaign’s record-breaking fundraising, there seems to be an ever-growing shortage of campaign buttons. A measure has been put to the committee to raise funds for a button-making machine. But there’s a competing measure to just buy buttons from an independent manufacturer. A one-time purchase of 1,000 buttons will cost $350, while a button-making machine will run $250, not including the cost of materials. The measure is debated for 15 minutes, with the button machine faction winning the final vote. (More control over the product, of course.)

Bobby*, one of the campaign’s South Philadelphia field organizers, tries to steer the meeting to some more pressing business. He’s from Pittsburgh, if I remember correctly, but he lived in Philly before getting involved with the campaign last year. It’s immediately obvious why he’s landed in the South Philly office. With his hoodie and scruffy jeans, he looks like he could just as easily be peddling fish at the Italian Market. But his laid-back dress belies his determined nature. He’s been working 15-hour days, and has the unenviable job of trying to cut into Clinton’s South Philly blue-collar base.

Bobby’s got a tough road to hoe, if my experiences registering voters outside the Snyder Avenue ShopRite the previous weekend are any indication. It was the height of the Jeremiah Wright controversy, and upon seeing my Obama pin, most whites just shook their heads and brushed past. Some cursed under their breath. An old lady told me I should be ashamed. And a guy in a Phillies hat held the hand of his young child as he put his finger in my face and calmly told me, “If you think the niggers got attitudes now, wait till they get the White House.”

Still, there’s good news tonight.

“Last Saturday alone, we registered 1,300 voters in South Philadelphia and a total of 22,000 citywide,” Bobby says.

Now, the emphasis becomes door-to-door canvassing — identifying our solid Obama supporters and those still leaning on the fence.

I showed up at the office the next Saturday morning and was assigned to canvass the Point Breeze neighborhood around 21st and Tasker streets. It’s black and poor and there’s a mural on a park wall bearing the names of more than 30 young people killed in gang violence. Aside from one woman who for some reason was convinced that Obama’s a Muslim for not letting some pushy dude outside Di Bruno Bros. take his photo, all of the people I talked to here were Obama supporters. Most were enthusiastic in their support, but some less so — like the middle-aged man in a tank top who took a long look at his trash-strewn street of crumbling homes before sighing, “I guess so.”

A few days after hitting Point Breeze, I canvassed the mostly white neighborhood around 10th and Dickinson streets. I was interested to see if the recent polls, which showed Obama gaining with white male voters, would play out here. I talked with 30 white voters: 20 politely shut the door in my face, a few couching their Hillary support by saying, “And it’s not because he’s black.” Of the 10 who said they supported Obama, six were women who said they couldn’t trust Hillary. The four men all agreed that Obama “was better for the unions.”

I should mention here that I grew up in one of the blue-collar communities whose support the candidates are scrambling for; I was raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., the son of a fireman and a secretary, graduated from college, and chose a career in reporting rather than civil service. But I live in a South Philly row home and still maintain most of the sensibilities of my upbringing. As part of this story, I was curious to find how many working-class white men I’d meet volunteering for Obama. I didn’t find any. There were plenty of working-class blacks — the backbone of the Center City office was a cadre of lovely working-class black women from North Philly and Mount Airy — but in a month of volunteering I can’t recall meeting any union card-carrying, Eagles-loving white dudes. That doesn’t mean they’re not out there, somewhere (Obama has won several powerful state union endorsements). Maybe they’re embarrassed — like the one guy on East Passyunk Avenue who yelled from the window of his pickup truck for a lawn sign.

“It’s not for me,” he said. “My girlfriend loves him.”

On my final day volunteering at the South Philly office, Bobby surprises me with a ticket for an event that night at the Convention Center, where Obama is delivering a motivational speech to some of his Philadelphia volunteers. I’m excited. After a month of entering data, answering phones and knocking on doors, I, like the rest of the 1,500 folks who scored tickets and eagerly filed through the metal detectors, want to hear from the candidate himself. I had bonded with these people through work. Felt a kinship. We wondered what assurances Obama could offer us that all of our efforts would not be for naught.

We were happy to have participated in our share of history, but we didn’t want another narrow 3- or 4-point defeat, like in Texas. We wanted to end this thing, right here in Philly.

“This is like one long football game that never ends,” Jose from West Philly tells me while waiting in line. “And I can’t watch no more fucking CNN.”

I land a fourth-row seat. Obama is running late, coming directly from the last leg of his bus tour through the state, and the crowd is getting restless.

Tramble addresses the room, speaking to her team’s successful organizing efforts. “It was so funny being onstage,” she would tell me afterward. “All I had to do was say the word ‘Philadelphia’ and the crowd would go crazy cheering.”

The cheering turns into a deafening roar in the final moments before the candidate takes the stage. Even the seats are shaking. I have a clear view and am watching the door waiting for Obama to emerge. But then Tommy* sits down in front of me. Tommy’s an Obama volunteer from Northwest Philly who I first met at a bar in New Hampshire while covering that primary. He’s a ward leader or a block captain, I can’t remember which, and the twentysomething son of a cop or carpenter or something like that. He’s the only white blue-collar male volunteer I’ve met this whole time, and he’s about 6-foot-4 and standing directly in front of me. I can’t see shit. When Obama takes the stage, Tommy goes wild. I stand on my toes but it’s worthless, so I just stare at the back of Tommy’s head, straining to listen.

Obama’s tired and his voice is raspy as he proceeds through bits of his stump speech. My thoughts drift back to the bar in Concord, N.H., where I first met Tommy. It was the closest place open after a late-night Obama rally the night before election day, and the joint was packed, so the meathead bouncer at the door was having fun messing with the out-of-state Obama supporters. He swayed on his stool and smiled like a drunken sailor on shore leave when he noticed the Obama press pass hanging around my neck. He then made a big production of inspecting my driver’s license with a flashlight, bending it and folding it to the bemusement of some knuckleheads standing behind him. He pulled my license away at the last moment, holding it out of reach while asking me who I was voting for. “I bet you’re voting for that B-a-a-a-r-a-a-a-c-c-k guy,” he said, drawing out the syllables like some kind of a slur, the peanut gallery losing it.

And now I have the same feeling in my gut, staring at Tommy’s head and listening to Obama speak, as I did trying to get in to that bar: I’m close, but some blue-collar white guy stands in my way. And I guess that’s how I feel about the campaign, too.

“So join me now, Philadelphia,” shouts Obama, frenzying the crowd, “and let’s go change the world together.”

Maybe, I think to myself. Or maybe we’ll just get really close to changing it.

    More Popular Articles

    Upcoming Philly Events