Leading a Unite for Change House Party

June 28

If you’re a follower of politics then the Unite for Change House Parties that the Obama Campaign coordinated across the country definitely came up on your radar screen whether you went to one or watched any cable television political show. I was fortunate to organize one and host two of them in Athens County, Ohio. The goal of the house parties was to kick off the grass roots program of the Obama campaign. I believe I was successful in doing that. What the house parties taught me, however, was that there are many knowledgeable, intelligent, passionate, and skeptical people in rural southeast Ohio. There’s a perception in areas of the country that rural, Appalachian voters make their political decisions based on illogical, gut feelings, or racist beliefs. While this may be true for part of the region, my house party last night showed me that there are those who understand the tricks and lies produced in a political campaign and actually care about the issues. These were smart people not falling for talking points and angered by Obama’s move towards the middle when commenting on the Supreme Court ruling dealing with the Washington, DC gun ban, and Obama’s FISA comments. It was refreshing to listen to people who looked at facts and policies and made a decision as opposed to flag pins and the pledge of allegiance. Obviously, this was only one house party of 25 in a region of millions, but these are the same people that will be walking around their neighborhoods and convincing those in their community that Obama is the best candidate for the job. The house parties made my week. They were one of those occurrences that gave me the energy I need to overcome the numerous obstacles and depressions that are encountered in this campaign.

Meeting My Boss

July 1

Barack Obama was in Zanesville, Ohio to tour a religiously affiliated charity center. It was a closed event open only to the press and staffers of the center. It was an event to promote his faith and community initiative that would give government funds to non-profits even if they’re religiously affiliated. Zanesville is about 1 hour 15 minutes away from Athens, so guess who got to go to the event!? Me!

We arrived at the event at 9am. I was assigned to assist the press with anything they needed. They didn’t need anything so I just stood around and took in all the excitement. One thing about campaigns that isn’t mentioned is that there is a huge disparity between the treatment of local and national press. The local press arrived a couple of hours early to the event and sat in the sun waiting for Obama’s caravan. They had to check in at the gate and get mag’d (the magnetic thing that is swiped up and down your body at the airport) by a secret service agent. The national press travels with Obama in two coach buses, walks straight through the security gate, gets a covered canopy with tables and outlets to plug in their laptops, receives a catered lunch AND dessert, follows Obama during his tour of the center, and gets to sit in the front row while the press conference occurs.

 

I enjoyed the look of disdain so evident on the local press. I’m sure they noticed the likes of Richard Wolffe and Lee Cowan like I did. Richard Wolffe writes for Newsweek and is a contributor for MSNBC making appearances on Hardball and Countdown with Keith Olbermann. He has a black macbook pro and only drinks regular coffee. Lee Cowan is an NBC Nightly News reporter and wears what looked like cowboy boots. He’s really tall too.

 

But nothing excited me more than getting to meet Barack Obama! And I don’t just mean watching his press conference from 20 feet away. After the event, we were escorted to the back of the building and inside a garage which was used as a food pantry. Senator Obama came out of a door and immediately greeted us with a very excited, “Hello Fellows!” He walked up to us, shook each of our hands individually while asking each of us our names and where we were from. Everyone who says his hands are soft is telling the truth. We then posed for a picture together. He said keep up the hard work and good luck, waved his hand, and said his goodbye. Each one of us was in shock afterwards. I can only liken it to when the Giants won the Superbowl but that doesn’t even come close. MY BOSS IS SO AWESOME!!!! On with the campaign!

Little House on the Prairie

June 27

It’s 2008, but I get this eerie feeling that I’ve acquired first-hand knowledge of what it must’ve been like to live in a little house on the prairie (not just because of the movie). Obama fellows pay for everything except housing. Housing is provided by volunteers and Obama supporters who live in the same area as the fellows work. The responsibility of the housing volunteer is to provide a bed (or a couch) and a bathroom with a shower/bath. In Columbus I was housed with a very generous, friendly family. I slept in their son’s bedroom because he was still at college, provided with towels, clean sheets, wireless internet, and even food (my goodbye dinner was a nice New York strip steak!). Once I moved down to Athens my luck disappeared. At first I slept on the floor because there was no volunteer housing. Eventually people began to offer us space in their houses. Not enough, however, to accommodate us all. As a result I slept in another organizer’s apartment since he was an Ohio University student. What resulted was a slightly below average living situation but a wonderful bonding experience that resulted in a solid friendship. Unfortunately, that student’s lease expired today so I packed my bags and travelled to another address (with a different volunteer, Jennie) owned by a very friendly person, Jonathan. What we are currently in can be described as nothing short of nature.

The town is Guysville, 15 minutes east of Athens. The house is in the middle of fields of grass on a winding country road a couple miles off of a county highway. There’s no A/C (I can make myself used to that), no beds (mattresses on floors would be a generous way of describing the situation), no screens with the windows resulting in an abundance (an understatement) of bugs flying inside the house and myself getting bitten at least twice while writing this entry, ants crawling on the floor, and a warning from the owner to watch out for wasps in the floorboards. He even told us the story of when his kids (who are not here this week) were 5 and woke up in the middle of the night screaming because they were being stung by wasps. The blankets are dirty to the point that I held one up to a fan and debris blew in my eyes. To top it off, the “bed” (the term is used liberally) I’m sleeping in is covered with Jon’s son’s underwear. I improvised a different solution for my sleeping area for the night. I don’t want to sound as if I’m Paris Hilton in The Simple Life but when you walk into the kitchen and see dirty and clean clothes scattered across the dining table and a floor that requires to wear shoes at all times because there is no floor then you know you’re experiencing a different way of living. It’s not that Jon is poor; I think it’s just the way he likes to live. It’s the modern day little house on the prairie. I could cope with this situation for a week, but a month is a little too long, especially when you’re working 13 hour days and at night just want to come to home and comfortably relax. If everything works out, Jennie and I should be back in a more comfortable situation on Monday (3 days from now). Admittedly though, it’s a tiny bit of fun to live through this experience with a friend. In fact, if I were doing this on my own it would be nothing short of a nightmare.

A Little too Low

I’ve been writing for the past week about the experiences I came across in southeast Ohio while volunteering for the Obama campaign during my summer vacation. That’ll continue with the next post, but tonight I’m watching the Republican National Convention and listening to the jabs being thrown by Rudy Giuliani and Sarah Palin, and can’t stand much more. Attacking your opponent is part of politics, it works, it will always be that way. Attempts to take the high road are lauded by some but appear too weak to most. I understand that. Attacking energizes the base, but what Giuliani said and what Palin is saying, some of it goes too far.

To both Palin and Giuliani: Why are you insulting someone for being a community organizer? For all your praises about faith based initiatives, why are you insulting someone for dedicating part of his life after college to do exactly what you preach? What makes it better to be mayor of a city than to be an organizer for a beaten-down oppressed community? Since when is it all right to make fun of a person who helped thousands of victimized citizens find their voice? Why is this bad? Why is registering thousands of people to vote so they can speak out against steel mill closings and fight for what they lost bad? Why do you mock Obama for being a community organizer?

Palin: Saying Obama hasn’t done one thing while he was in the senate (state or national) while flat out wrong in the first place (welfare reform, energy and nuclear policy at that, ethics reform while he was in Illinois, and ethics and nuclear proliferation policy while in the US Senate) doesn’t do you service when Biden calls you out on this misinformation during the VP debate. You also need to clear up your whole “I’m against earmark spending” stance. Something about hiring lobbyists to obtain $47 million or some other insane amount for a town of 6,700 people is clouding my understanding. What exactly about earmark spending are you against?

Giuliani: It’s borderline comical that you’re the one saying “the other side” is asking if Palin can take care of her children while being VP, that this question is never raised towards men. You’re the spokesperson for advocating the equal respect and treatment of women when you cheat on your wives (emphasis on plural) and half of your kids don’t like you? You’re the one labeling Obama as cosmopolitan when you were mayor of NYC? Listen to yourself.

Attacking Obama understandable, it’s part of politics, but why chastise him for being a community organizer? Do you feel proud of yourselves?

The Story to Keep Me Going

June 25

Every night from 5-9pm us Obama fellows have call time. During this massive, enduring four hours our job is to go down a call list, and depending on our objective, discuss with those on the other end different topics. The goal could be persuading former Clinton supporters, getting to know the issues in a certain community, or asking others to volunteer with the Obama campaign. Whatever the case is, it is a very trying four hours. I thought I’d be prepared for the occasional angry, obscene person who answers my call thanks to my tour guide training in the call center at Cornell. But call time doesn’t come close. It’s like call center on every steroid or human growth hormone you can imagine.

There are some people who just say no and hang up, others who say they’re voting for Obama but please don’t call back, some supporters who volunteer, and others who screen their answering machine then pick up at a time they desire and curse you off. EG: “John McCain you dumb ass.” Every now and then, and it’s more frequent than one hopes, one of us callers comes across the “openly racist voter”. Once in a blue moon there’s an “openly racist voter” who decides that calling back would be a great way to vent their frustration and starts cursing at you, calling you and Obama names, and ends by saying you’re a n***** lover. These are the times where you just have to take a break and recover or else you start thinking, ” Do I really want to call another person,” or “Is America really ready or are we just fooling ourselves.” Eventually I come across the ever anxious volunteer who is just as ideal and excited as I am and that conversation revives my spirit.

However, two nights ago I talked with an 80 year old woman who told me a story I won’t forget, a story that will keep me going no matter how many racist McCain supporters or angry cursing citizens I come across on my nightly calls. I don’t need to hear anything else for as long as I live.

Her name is Mary Ritchie. She’s a lifelong Republican, but this year is voting for Barack Obama. My call with her lasted 12 minutes. She did all the talking…all the talking being the roughly paraphrased story below. She cried at the end, my throat choked.

 Every time I see Barack Obama walk on stage I can’t help but think of little Eddie. Eddie was black and a brilliant boy. He died when he was 7 after excessive bleeding during surgery. My son and Eddie were best friends in Belpre, Ohio while growing up. Every day they’d walk home from school with their arms around each other’s shoulders. Mind you this was in the early 50’s. Every white person walking along the street craned their necks to look at them. I wasn’t raised in a bigoted family so I didn’t know until then what racism was. Even today people say they aren’t racist, but when they let their guard down you can tell they are. My son and Eddie would play in the yard when they got home. On Sundays we would go to church and I taught Sunday school. For a couple years Eddie didn’t come and I asked his parents why. They said they were afraid for my safety if I were seen teaching a black kid. I told them, hell no I’ll protect Eddie and if that ever happened I’d walk up to the front of the church and tell everyone what happened. Then I’d walk out and never come back. So then Eddie started going to Sunday school with my son and I was able to teach that brilliant boy. One time afterwards I was walking with Eddie’s mom and invited her to the pancake house to eat breakfast. We walked there and she said she couldn’t go in. I asked why, you got two legs. She said black people aren’t allowed in there. I said well hell then let’s leave. So we did, and I never went back. Eddie died sometime later and I brought my son to his funeral. I tried to explain the difference between the body and the soul, but he didn’t understand so he brought two cookies to the funeral. We walked up the hill and he tried giving one to Eddie. That’s when he understood the difference between the body and the soul. After the funeral we went home and he ate both cookies while he was crying. Anyway, I know Eddie would’ve been a wonderful person and when I see Barack Obama walk on stage I can’t help but see Eddie and the person he would’ve been if he were still alive. I’m so glad I’m alive to see this moment.

Its people like Mary Ritchie who have grown up in an ocean of racism but still maintain the moral high ground that makes me believe our time has come.

Relaxing Before Working to Death

June 22

Sunday was probably the easiest day that us fellows will have in Athens, Ohio. Our day started at 11, which gave me the privilege of going to the later Sunday morning mass. I’m writing this at 9:20pm and I was free to leave for the night two hours ago. That means we worked an 8 hour day. Our shortest yet. I thought of doing the laundry with the spare time I was handed, but I decided to put it off for at most 1 more week since I’d be paying $1 a load or $3 total, and every penny is key (speaking of that I found a dime on the sidewalk today…that’s 12 minutes of metered parking). Maybe by then I’ll actually have a family to live with so I can piggy back off of them and use their washer and dryer. Aside from relishing from the short 8 hours I worked on Sunday, my day wasn’t so successful. I managed to register 0 potential Obama voters. Of course my car not starting didn’t help. Hopefully the volunteer that I recruited had more success. I’ll say this though, my day would’ve been pretty bad had it not been for the great people I’m working with. The work I’m doing is rewarding, and at any moment I can tell any of my friends that my boss is better than theirs (even the one who works for Tom Coughlin’s son), but the days are long and I’ve never encountered so much hostility/failure/open racism(it’s pretty prevalent) so it’s great to meet nice friends and cherish that 1 in a million person that I come across who has just as much enthusiasm for Obama as I do or the other that says that he’s been a Republican for life, but is voting for Obama this election. A comment like that keeps you going.

Ending the Day Early

June 21

We got a new Regional Field Director, Joe Boswell (Dartmouth grad…reminds me of the episode where Andy Bernard meets the Dartmouth grad for golf), and he is great, all the attributes of a great leader. So it should be fun to work with him for as how long as he will be with us. Some of us might be moving to other south east regions in Ohio. I really hope it’s not myself since breaking up this group that has become so close would kind of suck. We still don’t have an office, which means we’re continuing to work out of the back of a coffee shop who’s owner is an Obama supporter. This is good since he gave us two $75 gift certificates and will continue to give us more. That means I get free breakfast. Anything free at this point makes my day. My financial situation is extremely tight at the least. I got a parking ticket yesterday for parking in a loading zone. What makes the feeling worse is that I already paid $1 to park in that spot for 2 hours. I didn’t see the red sign underneath the meter that said “loading zone Monday-Friday 9-5pm”. That pivotal mistake cost me $30. That’s 3 days of food or ½ of a tank of gas. I haven’t figured out which I should sacrifice first.