WASHINGTON -- Organizing for Action, the nonprofit advocacy group birthed for President Barack Obama’s two presidential campaigns, is getting a face-lift.
Jon Carson, the organization’s first and only executive director, will step down on Dec. 1 to be replaced by Sara El-Amine, the organization’s national grassroots organizing director. Abby Witt, OFA’s deputy national issues campaign director, is being promoted to managing director.
The change in leadership signals a refined focus for the group, moving more toward training advocates than advocating policy. But officials with OFA say they will continue to do both.
El-Amine will take over at a critical time. The group will be in the midst of a campaign to get people signed up for health insurance during the second enrollment period of Obamacare. December also promises to be a busy month during the lame duck session of Congress, as leaders try to finish business on everything from judicial appointments to transportation legislation.
But in an interview with The Huffington Post, both Carson and El-Amine said they feel confident the transition to a new masthead will go smoothly. Carson, who is heading off to work at a solar company, will serve as co-chair of OFA's board of directors, alongside Jim Messina, Obama’s second campaign manager and OFA’s first chairman.
“I’m going to stay actively involved,” said Carson. “And I’m just incredibly excited about the work for 2015 and also Sara El-Amine, who is the best grassroots organizer that I know.”
A 501(c)4 group with a vast reservoir of human resources, OFA has surprised political observers with how far under the radar it has chosen to operate. Known for being a grassroots organizing force that helped propel Obama to two presidential election victories, the organization has chosen to invest resources in policy fights and training volunteers.
That hasn’t always pleased national Democrats, some of whom have complained that the party’s proverbial Ferrari is being left parked in the garage; others have wondered whether the influence of OFA was really just the appeal of Obama.
Along the way, OFA has scored some policy victories and had some swings and misses. On gun control, the group, like the president and much of the Democratic Party, came up short on federal reform. But it also helped pass legislation in several states. One of those, Washington, is considering a ballot initiative this week to expand background checks.
Perhaps the group’s biggest success, however, came on an issue that seemed for a moment to be a crippling embarrassment. OFA played an instrumental role in driving registration for Obamacare up to 8 million (a number that has since dipped) after the new health care system’s website failures initially made that goal seem unattainable.
“Usually, when you do advocacy work, you have a political fight so that one day, policy will change and you’ll make peoples lives better,” said Carson. “This was backwards in that we were directly making people’s lives better. Our volunteers at enrollment fairs were getting people information that directly led to those people getting health care coverage, which then completely changed the conversation around the [Affordable Care Act].”
Carson and El-Amine cited the second health care enrollment period as just one of the critical issues OFA is gearing up to tackle. One of the others was climate change. The group will work in statehouses nationwide to help with the implementation of the president’s new set of standards for carbon dioxide emissions.
Organizationally, meanwhile, El-Amine is hoping to expand the ranks. OFA will launch a bilingual fellowship program to help keep pace with the changing nature of organizing. El-Amine said that almost 47 percent of those who applied to the group's summer fellowship program spoke a language other than English fluently. The OFA Fellowship Program also will feature new, specialized tracks for female and college-aged fellows. All told, the group hopes to train 10,000 organizers next year, she said, with an eye on sending 2,500 potential progressive advocates out into the world of politics.
"Next year, success will definitely be defined by how many new organizers and the quality of new organizers we are able to train and recruit, mentor, and help place," she said. "I think when, years from now, when people talk about the president’s legacy, it will be, yes, about the issues and the legislation that he passed. But it will also be about the fellow like Erica who started off not knowing she wanted to be in politics, joined as an intern with us, got a 12-week training program at no cost to herself and transitioned into a role as a staffer in the progressive movement."