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Campaign Journal: Camp Obama, GOTV and Phonebanking in Northern California

05/25/2011 12:50 pm ET

Pamela Mays McDonald is an OffTheBus grassroots correspondent. Each week she contributes a campaign journal documenting her life out on the trail.

The Last "Camp Obama"

OAKLAND, CA---When I first accepted an invitation to serve as a facilitator, I had no idea what to expect. This was to be the very last "Camp Obama" to be held in Northern California, but I had no idea how unique and final the experience would be for me.

Camp Obama is the campaign's training program for Deputy Field Organizers before they are sent out into the field. The program is typically a two-day program, and requires an online application with several essays.

When I arrived an hour early at the nondescript downtown ballroom, I was immediately impressed with the number of participants who were already waiting in the lobby. There was an air of expectancy in the group, and a bit of nervousness, too, as though they were being sent off to college or the military.

In fact, it was neither, but more like a course on how to represent the values of Barack Obama. As the preparatory hour elapsed, more and more people arrived, stopping to enjoy the appropriately Northern California Peet's coffee and bagels. Trainees were asked to organize themselves at round tables with others from their city or town. At each table, a facilitator was posted to lead the Camp exercises. I was assigned to a table at the far end of the ballroom, near the windows, and given responsibility for ten Deputy-Field-Organizers-to-be from the City of San Francisco. The room eventually filled with approximately 300 people, including leadership from the State campaign and from Northern California campaign HQ.

Camp Obama kicked off with cheers and introductions. The training sessions focused on the basic human values of respect, empowerment and inclusion, listening skills, showing empathy and the importance of sharing one's Personal Story. Videos and demonstrations of Barack Obama's philosophy and organizing style were presented to the large group, and modeled in our small group interactions. Throughout that time, we learned about one another.

Like San Francisco, our group of highly accomplished individuals was white, black, gay, straight, young and mature. Some came from wealth, others from strapping poverty. Some had experience in previous campaigns; for others, this was their first time working in the political arena. Each felt a special, burning connection to Barack Obama and his candidacy. All were committed to making a difference in this campaign of change.

A frizzy-haired older woman, who spoke with the lilt of the Emerald Isle, had brought her companion, a tiny, fuzzy lapdog that stayed by her side throughout the classes. While the dog sat in her warm lap or gazed out the window, his owner told a powerful story of being raised in an intensely political environment in Ireland, working as a activist for women's rights in her homeland before emigrating to the US, remaining here as a resident alien for over 25 years. But like many others at Camp Obama, her long-dormant political instincts were revitalized the first time she heard Obama speak at the Democratic convention in 2004. She could feel it in her bones and she knew that this one was a keeper. When Obama announced his candidacy for President, she initiated the process, and was finally sworn in as a United States citizen in January of this year, for the sole reason that she wanted to vote for Barack Obama in the February California Presidential primary election.

During breaks in the workshop sessions, the Travel for Change team recruited volunteers at tables in the lobby area. They were able to sign up 90% of the attendees to work in Western battleground states: Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado. Others chose to go to Florida, Ohio, Virginia or Missouri because they had family in those places and a home base of support from which to work.

One of the ten in the San Francisco group had to leave the workshop early. In her normal life, she worked for the "Got Milk?" advertising agency. A number of her co-workers were working over the weekend to produce a spot on behalf of Obama. She was the "mother hen" of the creative group, and, following a cell phone call, she had to get back to the shoot to help move the project along.

There were training sessions about the Barack Obama website, canvassing and phone banks. As practice, participants spent one hour conducting a phone banking exercise with real, registered New Mexico voters, while the facilitators assisted by making suggestions and tallying the results.

So here are the hourly results from our group:

Calls made: 185

Contacts: 26 (12% of calls)

Barack Obama Supporters Identified: 17 (65% of voters contacted)

Campaign Volunteers Recruited: 3 (11.5% of voters contacted)

Only one resident refused to talk with our callers; only two supported John McCain.

So there we had it: our own little poll, which assured the group that if only each and every one of them made those calls, and supervised others to make them, if only they were wiling to travel to swing states and knock on those doors, and show their empathy and tell their story, well then, Barack Obama could win the numbers game. He would have an opportunity to use those organizing skills for the benefit of the US and the world. He would respect, empower and include them all in his plans for change. The results of the phone calls proved that it just might work, after all. Yes. We. Can.

The Last Debate: BBQ for MyBO with Hip Hop for Barack

OAKLAND, CA---This week saw the last Presidential debate before the election. Because I have been an active volunteer, I was invited to attend a debate watch party for core volunteers, held at a community-oriented barbecue restaurant in Oakland's popular Jack London Square district. As a representation of Oakland's working class, ethnic and musical identity, this event was hosted by a grassroots organization called "Hip Hop for Barack". The large, back-of-the-house dining room and lounge were adequately spacious to seat hundreds of people on comfy couches and armchairs. Oriental rugs covered the floors, Japanese lanterns hung overhead, and a phalanx of large-screen televisions looked back at the viewer in whichever direction one looked.

Like the port city of Oakland, this group was diverse with a capital "D", which kept the proceedings entertaining and provocative. It was as though the crowd were watching a home game with their beloved Oakland Raiders football team, Oakland Athletics baseball team, Golden State Warriors basketball team, watching a horse race at Golden Gate Fields racetrack or rooting for their own Olympic boxing gold medalist, Andre Ward. This is a gritty town, home of the "Black Hole" and the "Raider Nation", a town that knows how to enjoy its barbecue---and its various spectator sports, including the sport of politics.

Soon after the debate started, McCain made reference to his Navy career. An older man near me, his beard flecked with grey, lifted himself slightly from his chair as he yelled at the screen, "I'm a Vietnam vet! With two tours of duty! Don't give me that shit!" With that, the game had begun. This was a partisan crowd, an Oakland crowd, and they had already picked sides.

The Oakland audience never actually booed McCain; they just responded to him as though he were an opposing player on the field at the Oakland Coliseum. They responded loudly to his description of his "pride" in Governor Palin's qualifications, to his description of his healthcare proposal, and during his repeated references to his time as a POW. At this last, the crowd began what is known to many as the "hook gesture" from "Showtime at the Apollo", arms and index fingers in the air, swinging from right to left as a sort of semaphore message for McCain to be removed from the stage. Tough crowd; he was bombing.

When the moderator asked the candidates, "Are either of you willing to say what you've said elsewhere to each other's faces?" the crowd at the restaurant erupted in thunderous cheers, whooping and hollering in support of this confrontational line of questioning.

Whenever McCain invoked "Joe the Plumber", people in the restaurant crowd would yell out, "Hey, you forgot "Joe Sixpack"! I thought you guys liked "Joe Sixpack"! What about him?" When McCain introduced the subject of ACORN voter registration irregularities, the catcalls drowned out whatever it was he was saying. This crowd already knew what he was alluding to and they would have none of it.

When McCain mentioned William Ayers, the Oakland audience yelled toward the TV screens, "Keating Five! What about the Keating Five!" They were pleased when he misspoke and referred to Obama as "Senator Government". Yes, they liked the sound of that, and repeated it to themselves and others.

They adored every single word spoken by Barack Obama. The biggest cheer came when he exclaimed, "If a woman is being treated unfairly, then America has got to stand up to it!" That particular statement, more than any other that night, incited the Oakland crowd to whistle, clap and stamp their feet. They especially liked whenever Obama defended himself against McCain's negative attacks on his character, his plans or his record. That's when the smiles came out, and people felt good enough to turn to one another and make upbeat conversation.

A large woman with long African-style braids beamed with misty eyes as she turned to me. "America...is having...a revolution!" she declared. Then she left her comfy leather chair. I never saw her again for the rest of the night. I never got a chance to ask her what she meant.

Last Call for Latinos - Under the Gaze of MLK, Jr.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA---Sunday was Target Family Day in San Francisco, when all the museums in the Yerba Buena Gardens Arts District would be free for the day. The Museum of Modern Art, Craft and Folk Art Museum, Zeum, Contemporary Jewish Museum, Cartoon Art Museum and Museum of the African Diaspora all hoped to attract and share audiences with a free admission offer, but the expected large crowds did not seem to materialize.

The reason? Unlike the dry, warm, sunny days of the previous weeks, or even the day before, this particular day was cloudy, windy and chilly. It just wasn't fair; the sun radiated warmth in many parts of the City and in towns across all the bridges, but here downtown, South of Market, the famous San Francisco fog hung high in the sky, refusing to burn off, creating a white, overcast light and unseasonably frigid conditions. Another reason why we always dress in layers here, and why tourists always get stuck buying those sweatshirts from sidewalk vendors.

To support the Family Day festivities in the museum district, the Yerba Buena Gardens Music Festival presented its artists-in-residence, the Latin Jazz Youth Ensemble of San Francisco, in the outdoor band shell. The few hardy salsa dancers bravely shimmied on the outdoor dance floor, trying to keep warm. The seated audience huddled against the wind, enjoying the free music but conserving their body warmth.

Adjacent to the band shell is the artistic and spiritual centerpiece of the Yerba Buena Gardens district, artist Houston Conwill's celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial fountain. Visitors walk behind a fifty-foot-tall wall of falling water, where, etched in glass, they encounter the prophetic words of the late, great community organizer, translated into the languages of San Francisco's thirteen international sister cities. Conwill created the memorial, the largest fountain on the West Coast, to be "a sacred space ... meant to be experienced as a cultural pilgrimage and a journey of transformation." Each year, many thousands of visitors make that pilgrimage, and on this chilly, cloudy Sunday, the small crowd wore jackets and hooded sweatshirts.

The next day, Monday, would be the last day for voter registration in the State of California. Yet I was surprised to see that in a space near the fountain was a tent, with a sign reading "LATINO Vote". It was a Spanish-English, bilingual, voter registration booth. On this day, after remembering that they had forgotten to register, new voters, drawn to the arts events, trickled over to the registration table. They came single and in couples to complete their registration forms, while the volunteer tried to protect the other forms on the table from occasional gusts of wind and spray from the King fountain.

Behind the table, to the left, the waters of the fountain roared, almost drowning out the salsa music onstage. Tourists, arts lovers and newly-registered voters sat in front and strolled behind the fountain to read Dr. King's words etched in glass panels on the walls. Would those words inspire them? How many had struggled for everyone to have the right to vote? What would Dr. King have said about today's campaign? Would today's weather have influenced his thoughts, as it had mine?

Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow, the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.

- Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail (1963)

Last Day to Register: Reluctant Young Republicans on the Sidelines

MARIN COUNTY, CA --- At a high school soccer game, two athletic, clean cut, young college grads, one an older sibling of two of the players, arrived in the second half. I had spoken often to the older brother, a friendly young man who obviously loved his younger brothers and was proud of their accomplishments on the field. I knew that he had graduated this past summer from a private college, was a graduate of a private high school, yet was having a hard time finding work in his major field, finance. No doubt the troubled economy had affected his prospects. He was fortunate to have a wonderful, loving family to support him, financially and emotionally, through this transition period.

I had been having a conversation with his mother and grandmother about what to do for her next-younger son's 18th birthday on Wednesday. What would be an appropriate gift for a humble, kind young man who didn't demand much in the way of material goods from his parents? I suggested that taking him to register to vote on today's deadline might be a grown-up gift that would send a message about his parents' faith in his developing maturity and sense of responsibility. The mother agreed but needed more information. I spent some time on the sidelines of the game, calling various sources to determine the closest county registration location that would remain open after the game. The nearby Post Office would close at 5:00 pm. Too early. Same with City Hall.

Then, Eureka! I learned that the County Elections Bureau would remain open until 8:00 that night to accommodate the rush and they would guarantee to have the forms postmarked by the midnight deadline. I passed my cell phone to the player's mom and she confirmed the details with the official on the line. She seemed enthusiastic as she passed the phone back to me. Sitting on the bleacher seated above him, she tapped her older son on the shoulder. "Hey, do you want to register, too?" "No way!" he answered. His friend, sounding and behaving like a school yard bully, announced to everyone within earshot that his younger brother "BETTER not register to vote, either, if he's gonna to vote for O-BA-MA!" His tone was a bit threatening, which I objected to.The grandmother tapped the boys on the shoulder and whispered something which quieted their conversation.

I spoke up from behind them all. "Now, you let that boy vote however he wants to vote. He's a big boy now. Leave him alone!" The two young men began an animated private conversation in muted tones. I could not hear the contents. I felt that my comments had been ignored, so I persisted, "You mean you are a college graduate, twenty-two years old, and you have not registered to vote yet? Come on! Go on down there and sign up!" The boys' mother and I exchanged looks. I couldn't read her expression.

The two guys continued to talk to one another. I could notice from behind him that the older brother's neck had reddened. He was getting upset while listening to his buddy. He partially turned around to face me. "I don't want to vote because all politicians are stupid!" he announced. I shot back, "Well, since you're an educated person now, you can help to elect the ones with intelligent viewpoints." His friend continued to grumble to him in a low tone.

He turned his head to me slightly. His face was red with anger. Here was the truth. "Anyway, I don't want to waste my vote. I'm a Republican and my vote doesn't matter anyway." He spat out the second syllable of the word "Republican".

In all the months I've spent registering enthusiastic, new, young voters in California, I had never seen anything like this. I had registered not just Democrats, but Republicans, Independents and Green Party members. The coordinator of the Voter Registration Drive in San Francisco, Alec Bash, had just informed me over the phone that under his direction our group had registered 90,000 new voters, a fact I shared with enthusiasm to the boys' mother and grandmother on the bleachers, as I was seeking information for her son. Everyone seemed so energized by this Presidential race, none more so than young people. I could feel his hopelessness and despair, and empathize with his feelings of being powerless and in the minority.

So I tried to console him, "Do you really think you're not important? That your ideas and your point of view don't matter? It's not true. You. Are. Important. You are a college graduate now. You are the kind of educated voter who has the capacity to read and comprehend the issues." I went on, sensing a sort of softening in his shoulders. "People have died so that you have the right to vote, lots of them, and they are still fighting for your freedom over in Iraq. You should vote. You're an American. It's your right. It's your responsibility."

But I was speaking to the back of his tan corduroy jacket. He was not going to listen to me, but to his friend, who continued to mutter in agitated tones.

I couldn't stop; I continued, "Come on. Join the rest of us grown-ups. It's okay if you're a Republican. You can vote, too. You don't just vote for President in these elections. When you register, they will send you a whole booklet full of other things to vote for: congress, city council, school board, roads, taxes, propositions. You can read the booklet and vote your opinions."

The friend said something now. The two started to laugh. Over his shoulder, the big brother threw what was to be his final salvo at me, "Now, if they have something on there about getting all those HOMELESS people off the streets...well, I'd vote for THAT!"

I was grateful for anything I could get from him, so I responded seriously, "Oh, they do, they do. They have all kinds of issues on the ballot. If you register, you can read all about it. There are so many things you can vote on."

But they weren't listening to my responsee. I had been dismissed. The friend said something about "San Francisco" to laughter. The whistle blew. The game was over. They stood up to leave the game. I called out after them, "Republicans vote, too! You should register!" and of course, they never turned around.

I do not know if these young men ever registered to vote that day, if their mother was able to persuade them to go. I do know that there are no homeless people on the streets of the tony suburb where this family lives, and I know that homelessness is not a real issue for him. What I do not know is if that young man understands yet that without the wonderful, loving family he has been blessed with, and given the way the economy is going, he is so fortunate that he will never have to worry about becoming homeless. I wonder if he knows that everyone in this wonderful country and around the world does not share the easy opportunity and privilege that are his birthright. That his freedom, free education, free room and board and free speech are precious commodities that demand respect and nurturing. Another thing: I do not know his friend's name, but he seemed to be an angry, resentful young man and his attitude was clearly contagious.

I sat on the bleachers for some time after that, waiting for my son to collect his belongings from the locker room, and using my Blackberry to arrange my upcoming campaign trip to the "battleground" state of Florida. I suddenly felt a queasy feeling of fear that in Florida, I would be faced with other angry and resentful young men who do not feel the allure of the hope and progress represented by this election, who choose to stand on the sidelines of change, who could not see the benefits of joining the movement of engaged young citizens. I feared that my words of wisdom and concern would be ignored again by other young men, even by clean cut, well-educated young men who could easily be the big brothers of one of my son's teammates.

Through my son, his teammate, I have since learned that the 18-year-old young man did register to vote and that he had a happy 18th birthday on Wednesday. I still do not know if the 22-year-old or his friend ever registered.

Last Post from California: Six Calls for the Swing States

I had signed up months ago to travel to a "swing state", Florida, but had heard from no one. So I just went ahead and made all my arrangements to meet a friend down there and hit the ground running. We have had experience in several states since the primary campaign, so we have become pretty good at going anywhere and getting to work quickly.

As a precinct captain and an active volunteer in the Bay Area, a number of people have telephoned, sent e-mails, and approached me in the neighborhood, complaining that they had signed up with the Obama campaign to volunteer or to travel, had left numerous voicemail messages, had registered on the website and had still heard nothing, not from the local campaign, not from the national campaign.

Last month, I had the occasion to be seated next to a lovely young woman at one of those ladies' social luncheons. Lucky me: not only was she charming, but she turned out to be the Volunteer Coordinator for the Northern California headquarters office. She explained the problem: the previous Travel Coordinator had suddenly left the job with a full in-box; this young lady would be replacing her. The campaign office was swamped with volunteers; they called and sent e-mails day and night. It was nearly impossible to keep up with the volume of calls. So the best way to get active with the campaign was to be "proactive", to just stop by the campaign office---in person, and plug into the campaign. She gave me her business card with the office address, as well as her phone number and e-mail address so I could fast-track anyone's application.

So, for the past couple of months, I have been sharing her contact information with anyone who asked for help. And I made sure to tell them all that the best way to connect with the campaign was in person, to be patient with the volunteer staff, and above all, to be "proactive". I liked the sound of that word.

Well, this week, when I alerted her by e-mail of the latest person who hadn't received a reply, instead of her usual, "Thanks! Great! I'll take care of it right away", her limp, lukewarm reply was "Sure, I have a lot of people to call back. Thanks."

She is obviously overwhelmed and exhausted from the sheer number of folks who want to support the Obama campaign as volunteers and traveling ambassadors. I could empathize with her. Thus, my e-mail reply: "Poor Dear! I feel for you! You are a victim of Barack's popularity. I did tell this woman it was hard for you to answer phone calls, that you were swamped, and I told her to stop by HQ in Oakland or SF to get hooked up with the travel folks (she lives in one city, & works in the other). I really think that if people want to go, they should be proactive about it and make their own arrangements while they are waiting for the folks from the campaign to respond. Hang in there, honey! You are doing an admirable job."

I haven't had a response from her.

Well, since I had been duly proactive about my own travel arrangements, I quickly forgot that I had signed up online several times as a Florida volunteer with the national campaign organization. So I was surprised this week when I received six calls in four days from several area codes. I received four calls in one day alone. (I adored all the attention.)

All the calls began the same way: "Is this Pamela McDonald? Hello, this is John/Jane Doe from the Obama campaign. Yes, from the Obama campaign. How are you doing? I see here that you are signed up to travel to a battleground state? Are you still willing to travel to Florida? Great! We are calling to find out: Do you have transportation? Do you have a place to stay? ..."

My next dispatch for the Huffington Post and OffTheBus will come from the Sunshine State next week. Yes, I have transportation and a place to stay.

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