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From the Obama Grassroots: Can High Dollar Donors Be In The Grassroots?

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The following piece was produced by the Huffington Post's OffTheBus project.

Confession: After weeks of wile and guile, I've found only a few Obama Fatcats willing to talk to me about the presidential race. It would seem that big donors, unlike regular volunteers, are skittish about meeting the press--even when "the press" is Off the Bus. Nevertheless, on a golden morning I find myself in Brad's glass-walled corner office, with the hills of San Francisco and the sweep of water from Bay Bridge to Golden Gate spread out below. Brad is a lawyer, a partner in a top-ranked firm, and a player at the ABA. He's also been raising money for Barack Obama. As preface to the questions I've lined up in my mind, I say that my regular beat at the Huff Po is the Obama California Grassroots, but today I'd like to find out something about the other end of the campaign.

"I'm grassroots," Brad says. I demur. Sitting before me is a man with a seven figure income who once served with Hillary Clinton on a Bar Association panel. Brad as grassroots?--I can't take it seriously. He becomes more insistent. "I'm one of the little people, too," he says.

We've established the tenor of our conversation. As much as I would like to explore high-end fundraising in the Obama camp, Brad, with an attorney's persistence, assures me that he, too, is grassroots. I remain unconvinced. I point out that a priori, with his position and influence and access to power, he can not be one of the little people. Brad tells me about his parents and his humble beginnings. I'm sympathetic; I suggest, with a smidge of irony, that it's unfair. "But still, Brad. You can't be one of the grassroots." I feel like a parent explaining to a child that there's going to be no ticket to Hannah Montana.

When I do bring Brad around to politics 2008, I run into one of the hard walls of journalism, which I've just discovered. I know a lot more about the subject at hand than he does. A week later, I have a similar experience, with another lawyer, one of Brad's New York partners, who tells me over dinner that he is for Rudy Giuliani. After a bit of probing, I realize that Tom, the New York partner, doesn't know much about Giuliani's campaign, or indeed the former mayor's positions on issues. I'm not all that surprised; several months out from the primaries, I find that many if not most people have made initial choices based on visceral impressions. There are people like my dinner companion who are too busy right now for more. Tom is proud to be New York and Republican. I can go with that. So we do the Giuliani walk together; I point out the possibilities in his candidate. Then we turn around and take the path back on which I observe that Rudy Giuliani prefers baseball to policy, not a harbinger of success for someone likely to be running against Hillary Clinton.

So my morning with Brad, in the end, is nothing more than the usual Obama chit-chat. "Barack has the it factor." "He's living in Iowa, from what I hear." "He has to beat her somewhere to be viable here." "I wouldn't say California is lost." "I think Obama could beat Giuliani and probably easier than Hillary Clinton." "The worst that could happen to the country is a Hillary Clinton-Rudy Giuliani race--to keep us polarized." Brad does confirm something I have thought might be true: as a big donor, he gets more Obama emails and at least the illusion of insider information. He's had some nifty invites: meetings with a statistician who works for the DNC, and, oh, Oprah's garden party in Montecito, on which Brad passed. "I was afraid I'd be on TV looking through Oprah's medicine cabinet."

Brad and Tom have got me pondering grassroots and who they are. I think of Coxey's "Army," as the press called the throng of unemployed and starving men who marched to Washington, D.C. from Chicago, gathering supporters along the way, and carrying with them "in a special vehicle" a petition signed by two million Americans. This was March, 1894. The men, many of whom had been out of work since the Chicago World's Fair, wanted to present a civil petition, "under the Constitution," asking for work. Specifically, they wanted passage of the Coxey Good Roads Bills, which would have provided jobs. As the march's chronicler, a reporter for the San Francisco Argus, wrote, "our march was an ovation--newspapermen, bankers, tools, spies and magnates of manufacture and money, were dumbfounded." By May, 60,000 men had assembled below the east front of the Capitol. You can imagine the reaction. "The police were very rough, tearing a string of amber beads from my neck," the Argus reporter wrote years later. But this was an historic moment for American populism, and Coxey's Army is what I think of as a grassroots movement.

Therefore, in the spirit of Coxey, and as an answer to Brad, I profer a grassroots checklist. You know you are not grassroots, if:

1. The figures in your income include a couple of commas.
2. You never have to worry about the middle seat.
3. You've been to Davos, or before that, Renaissance Weekend.
4. At Yearly Kos, you chatted about your summer trip abroad.
5. You don't see why John Kerry lost Ohio.
6. "I believe voters are looking for deep convictions." It takes you a minute to appreciate the condescension here.
7. You've never tabled for a summer season, registering voters. Or you've never canvassed a neighborhood.
8. You don't miss the $$ you give to a candidate or cause.

In the spirit of grassroots, and in the footsteps of the Argus reporter, I'll be covering the Obama Canvass for Change this Saturday, October 13. Would you join me? I'll use your reports on the event (and the people who participate) as the next chapter in my continuing story about the Obama grassroots (and, of course, anyone who helps me out gets a name in the byline). Before you sign up, check on the nearest Obama Canvass for Change event to you.

All you have to do is sign up to be an OffTheBus Campaign Monitor, and OffTheBus staff and I will get you the details.

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