04/26/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I Was A Clinton Volunteer

Also see the companion City Paper story by Mike Newall on his time as an Obama volunteer.

*City Paper Edit Note: The decision to do these stories with undercover reporters using pseudonyms was made because we feel this is an important story, one the public needs to hear. It's also one that would have been exceedingly difficult to tell using traditional methods. It is the story of two campaigns in a make-or-break primary where messages are tightly controlled. All asterisked names have been changed to protect the privacy of people who did not know they were being reported on. For more on this, please see the Editor's Letter.

My first task as a Hillary Clinton volunteer was to get past the campaign's dead-bolted front door. I began with a hearty knock, the kind you hear when a political canvasser is on your stoop. No answer. I dropped to two knees and peered into the space between the door and the thin rug. No lights. I put my ear to the door, and dialed the general number. Ring. Ring. Ring. "Hi, you've reached the Philadelphia office of Pennsylvanians for Hillary, our office is located at five two zero, North Delaware Avenue. ... "

At 9:20 a.m., I'd been at it for 25 minutes, walking the halls, making sure the door with the blue Hillary Clinton for President sign was actually the Hillary Clinton for President office. It was.

I sat on the floor and waited, hoping to fulfill what seemed like political responsibility, but what was also, I confess, journalistic curiosity: It was the first day of my assignment going undercover as a campaign volunteer.

When my editors put me up to this, I wanted to tackle some big questions: Would we Philadelphians truly be the "deciders" of a presidential primary? How does national politics operate on a local level? And who are these legendary Clintons, who draw both fanatical love and hate? I wanted to know these things in a truthful way, not through the spin of some campaign flack. But by 9:30 a.m., just a week after this office opened, my desire for knowing became much simpler: Where the hell were these people?

Ten minutes later, Marc*, a recent college grad and paid field organizer, showed up and took a seat across from me on the floor. "Maybe they're in a meeting in the back?" he said. Seven other staffers eventually trickled in. "The mayor's office would like a memo, detailing all of the appearances we'd like Mayor Nutter to do," a young guy in a gray blazer said into a cell phone. "You know, like what black radio stations to go on, what neighborhoods to appear in. Like two pages, OK?" We all stood in a circle around the door, staring at it. No one asked who I was. Someone eventually showed up with a key. "We gave out 20 of them yesterday," he said to no one in particular. "Where'd they all go?"

Once inside, I was asked to sign a volunteer log. My editor and I had done a random Google search for an Italian surname and came up with Vinci. Tom Vinci. I was handed a contribution form (donation: $0), and a piece of paper that asked if I would pledge to vote for Hillary Clinton (no).

I had no guilt about not pledging. I was about to give Hillary Clinton my time -- and that was valuable enough. Even though Clinton's projected to win Pennsylvania, this city is not her turf: Polls suggest that Obama will remain competitive in the state because of Philadelphia. It was obvious that part of Clinton's strategy should be to draw away as many local votes as possible.

By the time my experiment ended, I volunteered 29 total hours between March 13 and April 3, a three-week span crucial for recruiting volunteers and defining the campaign's message in the city. It wasn't glamorous: Those hours were spent phone banking, making lawn signs and preparing venues for Chelsea Clinton's visibility events. Tom Vinci may not be real, but the votes he culled for the candidate are.

A campaign staffer took the forms. "Have a seat," she said. "What's your threshold of grunt work today?"

"Whatever," I said. "Bring it on."

She vanished into a room and came back with a black Nextel cell phone. I was to write down messages that came in the night before to the answering service.

The first was a hang-up. The second was someone who wanted to know if there was a field office in Pittsburgh. (Not yet.) The third was a hang-up. This was easy.

Things picked up by the eighth message. Just hours before, former U.S. Representative and Clinton fundraiser Geraldine Ferraro quit the campaign after she said, "If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position." An older man with a craggy voice wanted to tell someone that he found her departure preposterous. The answering machine listened.

"Obama's people bullied us at the caucus here," he said about an unspecified state. "People were scared, crying here, because Obama's people were taking over. ... What [Ferraro] said was nothing, they make everything racist." Click.

The 16th came from a woman obviously calling from downstairs. She was trying to get into the building the night before for the first Philly 4 Hillary meeting, but the door was locked. "Um, yes, we're downstairs, trying to get in to the meeting tonight," she said, calmly. "Can someone come in to open the door? Thank you."

Next was a call from a woman who heard a radio host call Clinton a whore on-air. "I just wanted you to know that," she said, sounding stunned. Next, a call from someone who said she was a "big donor" and couldn't get anyone to answer the phone in Philadelphia.

No. 19 was the locked-out woman again, sounding a bit more desperate: "Hello? We're still downstairs. Can someone come open the door? Hello? We're here for the meeting." Click.

A few more hang-ups. More Ferraro ranting. Another person called to propose a great "photo-op": Hillary Clinton paying a visit to the caller's hometown in ... Clinton County. "It'd be great!" she says.

And finally, the 23rd call:

"Hello? We're standing outside. Is someone there? Is the meeting here? Hellooo? Helloooooooooo?"

The modern-day Hillary Clinton campaign was born in the 1990s, a product of several events that began just before her husband won the presidency. These were years of harsh scrutiny for Hillary: first at the hands of Republicans during the election, then from Congress during her health-care reform push, then from the media during the Lewinsky scandal, and then from two salacious biographers.

Around the same time, MSNBC and Fox News began to change the way politicians delivered their message to voters. These big, detached cable stations replaced the ground-up, ultra-local style that was dominant in the decades before. Who the local ward leader supported or newspaper endorsed gave way to what the campaign manager said on CNN that afternoon.

Bill Clinton captured this idea perfectly in 1993. In their 2006 book The Way to Win, ABC News political director Mark Halperin and The Politico editor John F. Harris wrote that the president "teased reporters" soon after shutting down walk-in access to the press secretary's office: "You know why I can stiff you on the press conferences?" he quipped. "Because Larry King liberated me by giving me to the American people directly."

This strategy helped Bill win the White House, and has helped Hillary in the years since.

During her races to become a New York senator, Hillary embraced the focused, tight messages that cable stations allowed her to broadcast. She and her influential consultants managed the public's perception of her from the campaigns' highest levels, ensuring that the candidate remained likeable, and more importantly, electable, to everyday Joes like you and me. The tactics were executed in television studios and carefully scripted campaign stops across the country.

This was the opposite of the grassroots, Howard Deaniac-style race, where fervent just-out-of-college staffers and volunteers helped the candidate set the campaign's message and tone. In that same book, Halperin and Harris spent 80 pages vetting Hillary Clinton's chances in the political and media arenas should she run for president. "She would have no difficulty attracting first-rate policy staffers, Iowa [the first election-year caucus] field operatives, or advance men and women. ... She would never have a shortage of volunteers," they wrote. In six chapters, it's the only mention of what role Hillary's field operations would play in the future race. This was no mistake on the author's part: It's just not Hillary's style.

This became evident before I finished my first week at the headquarters. We volunteers were on our own as the staffers struggled to learn the city, get the computers online, and essentially wait for more staffers to show up. No one paid us much mind.

No one paid us mind, that is, until Clinton's supporters circulated an e-mail on Friday afternoon heralding the arrival of Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC's political talk show Hardball. He was coming, the e-mail said, for an "off the record peek at our fast-growing outreach program in Pennsylvania.

"Our volunteer coordinator ... is spending a great deal of time recruiting volunteers to help out in the office on Sunday morning (we are asking folks to arrive 11 a.m.) so we can show Chris Matthews how much grassroots support we have here in Philly. ... It is important that we show Chris Matthews that there are a ton of young people and students supporting Hillary here in Philadelphia."

I drove to the office that Sunday, passing dozens of Obama supporters on Chestnut Street. I met an elderly couple, George* and Peggy*, in the elevator headed to the second floor.

"Are you going to Hillary Clinton's offices?" George asked.


"We heard Chris Matthews is going to be there!" said Peggy.

We walked in together and immediately got hit with the news: Matthews canceled; he wasn't coming. Upset, George and Peggy milled about the front of the room.

The office was packed with nearly 30 volunteers. There was the awkward chatter of mass-phone banking: the sound of a dozen people all repeating the same message -- "I'm a local volunteer ... Hillary has spent the past 35 years fighting for American families ... real solutions to tackle the tough issues ... " at different intervals.

People wrote letters to the editor at computer terminals. One woman's missive: "I have traveled extensively around the globe and everyone I met asks, 'What happened to the U.S? We hope Sen. Hillary Clinton becomes the next president.'"

A few feet away, George and Peggy appeared defeated. "I guess that's that," said George. He took his wife's hand, and they left.

Two facts: Phone banking is volunteer hell. The Clinton campaign loves phone banking.

There was a sign, scrawled in marker on one of the walls, that read: "Make calls all the time." This was not a motto. It was an expectation.

So I wasn't surprised when Jonathan*, a volunteer team leader, gave me a cheery hello and handed me a black Nextel one Tuesday. I sat next to two college freshmen -- James* and Kathy*, in town from New York to help the cause -- and reviewed that day's pitch to the Republicans and Independent voters. (To make our calls, we dialed into a private service that rings the numbers for us. We just stayed on the line as the calls came in.)

At the end of each call, we pressed "star" and the corresponding number so the computer could tag each response. When one young man yelled "OBAMAAAAA" into the phone, I pressed "star, 4": definitely Obama. When one older woman said, "I wouldn't vote for her in a million years. The Clintons are hussies," I pressed "star, 5": not supporting Hillary or Republican. It was tedious.

I took a break and asked my two scarf-clad, bug-eye-sunglassed friends how their day was going.

"I just got one woman," said Kathy, looking aghast, "who called Hillary a bitch."

Kathy is a literature major in New York, and she actually drove to Philly for a party later that night. She fits into one of three dominant demographics of Hillary supporters I met: 1) the young college female, generally not from Philadelphia; 2) the middle-age to elderly woman, very likely a local; and 3) the awkward middle-aged man. Kathy stood out, though, because she was able to offer what seemed like a very powerful reason for supporting a candidate that "95 percent" of her college friends do not:

"I volunteered for Deval Patrick" -- the Massachusetts governor who ran a reform-oriented campaign during the 2006 election -- "because his message was amazing: how he was going to change the way things worked and all. It's one and a half years later and I don't see him doing anything. I don't see the reforms he promised.

"We were rabid volunteers," she said. "We went all out for him, the same way Obama's people are now. I just don't buy that mass rhetoric anymore. It's a letdown. Reform is complicated."

The one unifying sentiment among all Hillary volunteers, besides the obvious, is their disdain for Obama supporters, whom they see as both delusional and impossibly peppy. Clintonites don't hate them per se, they just think they're not smart enough to think on their own.

There's also an undercurrent of envy. Obama supporters were everywhere in Philadelphia, and in March and the first days of April, we were not. Tales came in from friends of friends: Obama's people get to organize their own rallies; they have local offices all over the city. This, of course, is the character of their campaign, and is the opposite of Clinton's 1990s-style campaign setup.

It was frustrating, and soon led to a semi-revolt at a Wednesday night Philly 4 Hillary meeting. A hodgepodge group arrived to talk about voter registration -- the primary registration deadline was five days away -- and meet a paid organizer.

The staffer talked about the importance of signing people up to vote. The volunteers said they'd heard enough of this, and wanted to actually do so.

"The other candidate's people are knocking at my door," said an older South Philadelphia woman who eventually just set up her own voter registration effort outside her local ShopRite. "When do we do that?"

We got our chance several days later. This is when I realized that most Hillary supporters I've actually met in this city have two main motivating factors: They're either supposed to support Hillary, or they're horrified of the alternative.

The former is easy to spot, and usually comes in the form of union support. In early April, Hillary made a speech at the Center City Sheraton to the AFL-CIO. About 75 people packed three corners at 17th and Race streets, and went ballistic when Hillary's motorcade arrived. Secret Service officers popped out of her SUV (including the hatchback) and led her to one of the corners for a quick handshake and smile before she was whisked into hotel's back door.

It was high-energy, and the staff tried to keep it going by asking us to rally on a nearby corner. Two Laborers slapped hands and hugged. "That's a day's work," they said to each other, and left, along with almost every other member. About 12 people, many of them staffers, remained.

The others, those who are motivated by fear, are harder to come across. On one of the first big weekends of canvassing, I asked to go into West Philly. "We avoid places," a staffer said, "where there are security concerns."

I was instead assigned to a team in the Northeast's Lawndale section, just a few blocks away from J.C. Melrose Country Club. It's a peaceful Latino and white community of working-class to upper-working-class people. There was no convincing to do, because everyone was already voting for "us." Josephine*, an older woman, and Mike*, a thirtysomething, spent most of the afternoon handing Hillary fliers to people who bought Clinton's cable-news campaign wholesale.

Of the 57 houses we scoured, the highlight was Vincent*, a Hellerman Street resident. "I'm not too sure of this, what's his name, Hussein Osama ... Obama," he said with a straight face, showing no indication he'd just confused a Saudi-born terrorist with a Hawaiian-born politician. "There's no way I'll vote for him. I think he's a poser."

Otherwise, one other person timidly said she was leaning Obama, but took a Hillary placard anyway. Two teenagers yelled, "Hillary Clinton can give me a blowjob" from their window on Robb Street. Everyone was just eager to get back to their Sunday afternoon.

This gave the three of us plenty of time to talk.

"Look, if you're going to go this far, and you're going to put all this money in, and you're going to get all these people's hopes up, why just quit?" Josephine said after we all admitted that Clinton's chances of getting the nomination are bleak. "If that were me, I'd take it all the way. Until I went down in flames."

Mike agreed. "Now that Bush will be gone soon, the bloggers need a new target," he said. "It's her. She's always been a target."

I tried to deflect the conversation to Obama's fervent volunteers. "You know, I see those kids all over my neighborhood," he said as we walked up the steps to the next house, "and the more I see them, well, I really think they're brainwashed."

The rally at Broad Street and Ridge Avenue was supposed to start at 4 p.m. Forty-five minutes later, I sat on the Divine Lorraine's abandoned steps and called headquarters, asking where everyone was.

"They left already," a staffer said over the phone. "They should be there."

There were commuters, homeless men and store owners milling about. I thought I'd have seen someone hopping around with a hand-painted "Honk for Hillary" sign. The only remotely political thing happening was the five or six members of ACORN (the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), asking people if they wanted to register for the general election.

Finally, at 5 p.m., I spotted a volunteer captain standing on the center island between Ridge and Fairmount avenues. He quickly looked around and returned the way he came, going north on Broad Street.

I followed him a few blocks to Cobre, a Latin-themed restaurant where Chelsea Clinton was scheduled to make an appearance that night. "Sorry," he said when I caught up, "we got held up at the last stop." He asked if I'd like to help. "You can be captain of this section, and we'll go down to Ridge." He gave me a handful of fliers.

That left me with Lara*, a spunky twentysomething who the Obama campaign would love to have in their corner. Everyone who dared pass her got a flier.

"Chelsea's going to be here tonight," she said to a guy on a bike.

"Who?" he asked.

I gradually learned more about why the other volunteers were delayed. "Actually," Lara said, "we were kind of late because we saw all the bombed-out houses and we were scared to park [the volunteer captain's] really nice car near them."

She studied my face. "We were scared." At Broad and Ridge.

This was the same week Hillary Clinton took criticism for her "Tulza tale," where she told crowds that snipers fired at her after landing on the tarmac during a 1996 trip to Bosnia, when, instead, videos show a small girl reading her a poem. (She said she "misspoke" about the snipers.) There's a metaphor here, somewhere.

Things picked up. About 15 volunteers arrived (a Philadelphia attorney said he came because "my friend is a staffer and he said the camp was having trouble organizing") and rallied rush-hour drivers, eliciting car-horn beeps and cheers. George Perez, a staffer in U.S. Rep. Bob Brady's office and surrogate for the city's Democratic Party, arrived, followed by a car full of men from the painter's union. I helped rig a 4- by 10-foot sign in the restaurant. Chelsea Clinton would be here in 30 minutes.

No one heard when it began, but we soon realized there was a background noise. We stopped to listen: It was a static-riddled voice, like someone was speaking into a megaphone.

... words on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage ...

It was coming from the brownstone next to Cobre.

... it is a story that has seared into my genetic makeup ...

On what looked like the fourth floor, someone had attached a small speaker to the building, and pointed it toward us. The voice picked up.

... the press has scoured every exit poll for the latest evidence of racial polarization ...

"Is that God?" asked an older volunteer.

"No," I said, standing near the brownstone, "that's Obama."

Someone was blasting Obama's speech on race, delivered nine days before at the National Constitution Center, on repeat. The brownstone door opened, and out came a guy who looked like a young Clint Eastwood. He had on wraparound sunglasses and a houndstooth fedora. He sat on the stoop, gazed into the distance, and unrolled a dish towel-size flag that read:


Hasta la victoria

"Caesar Chavez, siiiiiiiiii," he droned, looking at no one.

FLOC, incidentally, is an acronym for the late Caesar Chavez's Farm Labor Organizing Committee.

"What's going on?" asked one of the staffers. We explained. "My god," she said, "I can't fucking stand Obama people."

This one person's show managed to draw attention away from Chelsea Clinton's event, which took hours to organize. It's simple, grassroots, startup ideas like this that have poked holes in the Clintons' carefully crafted messages. Matt Drudge and his rudimentary Web site became the place to find out all of the salacious details of the Lewinsky scandal. And Barack Obama's hordes of followers are doing it today, spreading the word about their candidate through social networking sites (as of this writing, Obama's Facebook fan page has 769,845 members; Clinton's has 146,306). It's obvious here in Philadelphia: By the time the Clinton campaign's one office was regularly holding rallies and canvassing the city, Obama's campaign was already doing that at nearly a dozen volunteer-heavy, neighborhood-based sites.

A white SUV pulled up, and Chelsea popped out, in jeans and a blazer. She exchanged words with someone near the curb, waved, and walked right in to Cobre to begin speaking. "My mother has been great in that determination and that stubbornness and passion," she said. "It really inspires me. ... " She fielded questions and stayed on point. The crowd swooned.

She never once mentioned the blaring speech, the one that distracted everyone -- local party operatives, staffers, volunteers and myself. I wondered if she even heard it.