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Remembering the Grassroots Fight for Health Reform

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By Natalie Foster and Ben Brandzel

One year ago today, we were standing with our exhausted staff around our desks at Organizing for America, watching President Obama sign the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act into law.

The cheers, high-fives, and deep sighs of joy were the stuff you might expect at the victorious end of any hard-fought campaign. But this was no mere election. We were watching a moment centuries in the making -- the moment health care in America became a right for all. Yes, it was far from perfect. But for more than 30 million mothers, sons, neighbors and friends, it meant that life-saving, affordable care was in reach for the first time.

The story the media likes to tell about the health reform fight is all about Obama vs. the Tea Party and the endless bickering in Congress. But there's another story, one that we'll never forget. It's the story of how for the first time in American history, millions of Americans came together to win the presidency -- and then stayed together to pass a law.

The health reform fight was much messier and far less glamorous than the election which it followed. But it was a fight for the gritty, real world change that makes elections worth winning in the first place.

And it's a story very much worth remembering right now. Health reform is once again under fire. Meanwhile, many Americans are feeling bullied back into a sense of hopelessness. It's critical in times like these to remember just how powerful ordinary folks can be.

Of course, Organizing for America (President Obama's official grassroots campaign team) was just one part of a vast people-powered coalition that fought for health reform. And we've had our critics -- many of whom have made quite valid points about mistakes we made along the way.

But we aren't writing today to defend our record, voice our frustrations or rebut our critics. We're simply writing to give credit where it's due -- to the millions of OFA supporters who moved mountains to help pass reform.

***

Their story is best told in the full report OFA produced shortly after the campaign. If you've ever wondered "so what did that Obama movement actually do after the election?" this is really worth a read.

OFA's health reform strategy had three major components:

I) Build Grassroots Strength

We began with a steep organizing challenge: how could we continue the nationwide local leadership structure built during the presidential campaign with far fewer resources? The answer: trust volunteers.

The heart of our approach was the neighborhood team -- groups of volunteers from the same area who took responsibility for a local goal (such as a specific number of congressional contacts, voter-to-voter conversations, or public events). We had hundreds of Neighborhood Teams working across all 50 states, converting thousands of first-time volunteers into trained leaders ready to power this initiative and the next.

The Neighborhood Team leaders were recruited, trained, and coordinated by a new group of group super-volunteers called "community organizers." Each community organizer -- filling a role assigned to paid field staff on the Obama campaign -- committed at least 15 hours a week.

It's not widely understood that passing health reform broadened our base from the 2008 election. In fact, over 1.2 million new supporters who had not signed up for the election took action with OFA to pass health reform. And this was no cyber war -- 181,742 volunteers reported taking their first offline action as part of health reform.

II) Spread the Facts

In the face of endless waves of disinformation about non-existent "death panels" and imaginary tax hikes, OFA volunteers rolled up their sleeves to fight lies with facts.

At the doors: OFA volunteers went door-to-door in thousands of canvassing events in communities across the nation to have real conversations with voters about the president's actual proposals.

On the phone: Using online tools or setting up local phone banks, OFA volunteers placed over 2.8 million calls to voters to talk about health reform.

On the air: OFA members gathered research on call-in radio programs and helped launch "On the Air" -- a first-of-its-kind radio call-in tool to bring the voices of grassroots health reform supporters onto the airwaves. And hundreds of supporters produced brilliant 30-second video spots for the "Health Reform Video Challenge," with the winning ad airing on national TV.

In the papers: OFA supporters submitted 457,720 letters to the editor telling personal stories and supporting health reform to newspapers nationwide -- including thousands of letters specifically written from small business owners, Republicans, and independent voters discussing the value of health reform from their perspective.

On the ground: OFA supporters organized a staggering 33,000+ public events throughout the year-long health care campaign. From small house parties, to large rallies, to volunteer town halls or community bake sales, OFA supporters turned out in force to set the record straight, one conversation at a time.

III) Bring the People's Voice to Congress

From day one, Congress was deluged by an unprecedented barrage of big-money lobbyists desperate to kill the bill. OFA supporters mobilized to help the voice of ordinary people break through.

Calls: During the 11 months of the health reform campaign, OFA supporters generated over 1.5 million in-district constituent calls directly to Congress from all 435 districts, urging support for the president's health reform plan. In a time when representatives' offices were flooded with automated calls from out of the district, the real constituent calls from really shone through.

Letters: OFA supporters wrote and submitted 360,220 personal letters to Congress, urging their support for reform.

OFA supporters collected and hand delivered 2,108,436 pro-reform signatures online and offline from voters in every state and congressional district.

Visits: In the crucial month of August 2009 alone, 32,048 OFA supporters attended 410 congressional town hall events to show their support. Despite a media obsession with showcasing opposition-heavy gatherings, OFA members frequently outnumbered anti-reform protesters by as much as 10 to one.

And in a single week in late 2009, over 65,000 OFA supporters personally visited their member of Congress's office to tell their personal story and make the case for the reform.

It's easy to gloss over so many big numbers. But each one represents another American finding their passion and adding their voice. And in the end, those voices broke through. Consider these three examples from around the country.

One day before the final vote in the House, the Charlotte Observer reported:

U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge... announced late Friday that he will vote in favor of the health care bill. Etheridge... said he had heard from 'thousands and thousands' of people, through e-mail, calls and letters. Organizing for America, a group that supports President Barack Obama's agenda, marched to Etheridge's office in downtown Raleigh earlier Friday to deliver 10,000 stories of North Carolinians relating their problems paying medical bills.

Washington State Representative Brian Baird of Washington State voted against reform the first time it came before the House. Just hours before the second and final vote, he announced his support. His office publicly cited the 1,720 in-district, pro-reform calls from voters he received the previous Friday as a major factor.

Pennsylvania Representative Mike Doyle, who had been on the fence for weeks, explained from the House floor how he finally decided to vote yes: "My office got a call today from Mary Anne Ferguson, 91 years old from Pittsburgh. She asked me to vote for health reform because she wants everyone to get the coverage she has. She remembers before Medicare, when half of our seniors worried about getting sick, because they had no health insurance."

Mary Anne, we later discovered, had just logged that call as an OFA volunteer.

***

The real story of how health reform came to be is vast and multi-faceted. It's not a pure tale -- our victory was neither complete nor final. We are not overlooking the painful compromises and deadly influence of special interests that marred the path.

But neither are we overlooking the truth that together, we beat back powerful opponents to bring about a significant improvement in the real lives of regular Americans. And we did it by passing the biggest piece of proactively beneficial legislation in a generation.

OFA supporters, of course, were just one part of that accomplishment. But their story -- and the story of all the millions of Americans who stood up for the change we believed in -- is a reason for pride and hope in what we can achieve.

So on this one year anniversary of that moment, let's remember how we got there. And let's rededicate ourselves to winning the change we have yet to see, with faith in the power we all hold to make it happen.

Natalie Foster and Ben Brandzel served as New Media Director and New Media Campaigns and Fundraising Director respectively, at Organizing for America from 2009-2010. The views expressed above are theirs alone, and do not represent Organizing for America or the Democratic National Committee.