10/26/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Insider-Outsider Tensions Mark Obama Ground War In Northern New Mexico

ESPANOLA, N.M. -- Following canvassers Mary and Ellen out the door of the Obama field office here on a bright Sunday morning, I'm already full of wry reservation. The office has brought together about thirty people to go door to door, many of the volunteers from Santa Fe. But I remember from my own experience -- canvassing for signatures to halt the invasion of Cambodia in 1970 -- the way local folk can take it amiss when outsiders come knocking to expound a thing or two. Crowding that thought are the occasionally provocative remarks of the two Obama field organizers instructing the canvassers. As I'm turning over the things I've heard, a man takes my arm and pulls me away from Ellen's car. "Come with me," he says.

I have no idea who this guy is.

"I'm going on the canvass with these two ladies," I explain, craning for a look at Ellen's canvass map because I plan to follow Ellen and Mary in my own car.

"No, no, we're already late. They're waiting for us. Come on." He's insistent. I guess I better go with him.

2008-06-03-otb_onthetrail_v2.jpg"It's just around the corner," he says, chivvying me to the sidewalk and through an open door into an unfinished office space where a young man, on a chair, and two women, sharing a couch, clearly have been expecting me. I don't know who they are or who they think I am, but I do know where I am -- I'm on the other side of the Espanola Obama field office wall. The symbolism is heavy, for over the next hour I listen to the frustrations these four leaders of the Hispanic Obamanos community in Rio Arriba County are experiencing in their dealings with the Obama field organizers. In the moment, though, I have no idea why I'm there. I introduce myself and hand out my cards. I take the less comfortable couch. We talk for a while about my earrings and my purse. There's a nice breeze coming through the door fronting the sidewalk, and so we comment upon that. I ask about this new office space -- is the field office expanding here? Gradually, my new companions wind into the heart of the matter.

"They're very poor," Leo says. This is Leo Ocana, leaning forward now from his chair.

Richard interrupts. "You're coming to our rally next Saturday," he says, showing me a flyer. This is Richard Saiz, the man who grabbed my arm outside the Obama field office and who has now taken a second chair. Leo and he are organizing next Saturday's rally. Nos Vamos Con Obama!

"They don't have money," Leo says to make his point, jerking his head toward the wall. Presumably he means the field office on the other side of the lathe and plaster. He expects a comment, but I don't know what to say. "We need stuff. We need yard signs -- and they say they can't get that."

As if on cue, a young woman walks in to ask about buying one of the Obama tee shirts most of the group is wearing. Vero Possumus! It's the Obama seal that was so roundly ridiculed in the press a few months ago, the Latin version of "Yes, We Can." Blue on a white shirt, the seal has found a home in New Mexico, where the presidential eagle, its wings spread, looks much like the Native American phoenix. Some of the canvassers are wearing the shirt, too. It seems to be very popular. Like the upcoming rally, the tee shirt is an Ocana-Saiz enterprise.

"Those Obamanos! signs you saw Thursday? People pulled them up, put them in their own yards," Leo says.

"They're pulling up ground signs," Thelma says.

"They see a sign, they want a sign, they take it, from the yard," Leo says, shaking his head.

Thelma nods. It's that imperceptible nod of authority. Thelma and her daughter Marie live just north of Espanola. Republicans supporting Obama, they know everybody in their valley -- "all two thousand, and that includes the dogs and cats." They are related to many people in the valley, as well as the rest of Rio Arriba County, for that matter.

The Obama Campaign has seldom been much into yard signs, I explain. And the campaign is tight with money.

"Rio Arriba is signs!" Leo exclaims. "SIGNS!" He nods at the wall. "They don't understand that."

Richard asks again about my coming to next Saturday's rally before excusing himself, now that his fellow Rio Arribans have taken me in hand.

"They want us to canvass before the rally," Thelma says. Her daughter Marie gets up and leaves for awhile. Marie has a plan for a haircut telethon: make calls for Barack, get a free haircut, hopefully from local barbers and beauticians. Rene, a young volunteer who is being sent to open a field office in the village of Chama, wanders in and out.

"They want us to canvas before the rally, but there's no time," Leo says. "I've canvassed three or four times already," he explains. "They want us to go two-and-two, not go in the house. The campaign won't let us do that -- but we do it anyway! We're supposed to do three hours [of canvassing], but it's an hour [a house] talking about Obama. They want to know why you are voting for Obama. Before I know it, I have three tacos in my hand. Before I go, they've hugged me and blessed me!" Leo makes the sign of the Cross.

"It's still the old traditions, passed down for generations," Thelma says. "Listen to the grandparents."

My cell phone rings. It's Carlos Sanchez, the press liaison for the Obama Campaign in New Mexico, calling from Albuquerque. He tells me the field officer who had come over from Los Alamos for the day has been mentally reviewing the remarks he had made to the canvassers earlier. "Well, he's right here," I say. I'm out on the sidewalk talking to Carlos, and Michael, the Dartmouth grad and field officer from Los Alamos, is taking his own call a stone's throw away. "Why don't I just talk to him directly," I tell Carlos.

The day before, when Carlos and I had talked at Obama HQ down in Albuquerque, he had phoned Lucas, the young man from Redondo Beach, California, who heads the Espanola field office, to arrange for me to spend some time with the volunteers coming to Sunday's canvass. "Be there before ten," when the canvass would begin. I had already met Lucas and some of the volunteers on Friday, when I first dropped by the Obama office in Espanola. But without approval from HQ, field offices can't talk to the press. That's just the way it is in campaigns today.

Finished with Carlos, I return to find that Leo and Thelma still have a few things to say. "Vote by mail," Thelma says, with the smallest shake of her head. "People don't want to vote by mail." Earlier, Maria, who runs the Espanola office with Lucas, had been pushing the "vote by mail" option in her instructions to the volunteers. This would seem to make perfect sense for a community worried about gas prices. A campaign, moreover, likes a voter to make that choice because the campaign can track online the progress of the vote, from application received to vote card mailed to vote returned. "Tell them they'll stop getting calls as soon as they submit it," Maria told the canvassers. The tenor of the canvass instruction session had been a cross between a pledge drive and a protection racket, like the campaign was putting the screws to the community. If Leo and Thelma are representative, however, the community seems to be ready to push back.

"I know these people!" Leo says. Like Thelma and Marie, he is related to most everybody in the county. "I know who is undecided. Go knock on their doors! Yes, but no vote by mail." Earlier he told me: "With my eyes closed I could find everywhere in Arriba!" Now he explains, "I disagree with the campaign. People like to go out to vote, you know? Families, the family goes, you talk, you see people you haven't seen in awhile. It's an occasion. People like to do it. They'll all go vote. El Rito. I've canvassed there two or three times. I'll tell them to go." Likely this is true. Leo is a Marine who has served two tours in Iraq; he returns for a third after the November election.

Michael from the Los Alamos field office comes in and sits on the uncomfortable couch. Probably, he's come to speak with me; instead he finds Leo, Thelma and Marie, now returned. Leo knows who Michael is and gets straight to the point. "We're having a rally next Saturday, you know? There's not going to be time to do a canvass." The Saturday rally is Richard's and Leo's idea, and they're funding it themselves, bringing in the food and the bands to Valdez Park. The Saturday canvass is the Obama field office's idea.

Neither Leo nor Michael will give in. Leo: we can't change the date, I've spent money, I'm paying for the bands. Michael: your rally starts at two, there's plenty of time for the canvass in the morning.

"We don't want to do the canvass," Thelma says. "We're already doing a canvass in Dixon Friday."

"I've got a three hundred dollar cell phone bill," Leo says. "Everybody was calling to find out about Obama coming. And I'm spending money on this rally."

"We certainly appreciate your efforts," Michael says.

"We don't want to do the canvass," Thelma says, in the calm, even tone that from a woman means I could squash you like a bug if I so choose but I refrain. Michael is off to an unpromising start with Thelma and Marie, and not just because he is directing all his remarks to Leo. Manners still mean something in parts of the country, and he has failed to introduce himself to the ladies. Thelma and Marie regard him, letting Michael twist about for ten minutes or so, until Marie finally asks him: "And who are you?"

Leo and Michael are engaged in a back-and-forth about who was paid and who was a volunteer for Kerry. "I was paid by the Kerry Campaign," Leo says. "And now I'm a volunteer for Obama." "I know, I know," Michael says. He worked for months for Obama as a volunteer before getting paid. He knows how it is. But Leo is having none of Michael's understanding. When he mentions his cell phone bill again, I realize Leo is asking for a job. Michael's left leg is shaking furiously.

Suddenly, Leo tears at the Obama button pinned to his shirt. "I could hold out for better. Go work for McCain!"

Michael, his leg still twitching, talks Leo down. "We're just here to support you," he says. "It's your campaign."

Later Sunday, after joining Ellen and Mary for the anticlimax of the canvass itself, I talk by phone with Mrs. Geraldine Sanchez, the RNC representative for the McCain Campaign in Rio Arriba County. "Sarah McCain! Sarah McCain! They're all for Sarah McCain!" Mrs. Sanchez says. She's been finding herself overwhelmed. "We don't have anything! No signs, bumper stickers. People -- Democrats are coming in -- they want signs. Order online! They [McCain HQ] tell me, 'Order online.'" Mrs. Sanchez is disabled and on medication; nevertheless, she keeps up with the McCain Campaign office work between doctors' appointments. She is a one-woman operation. "Everybody tells me they'll help, but then everybody has personal things to do."

I ask Mrs. Sanchez about the leafleting of the local Catholic churches' parking lots during Mass. Ellen, Mary and I had noted the full lots of the small church around the corner from our canvass neighborhood, for the canvass had coincided with Sunday services. During canvass instruction at the Obama field office, a volunteer had asked about approaching people coming out of church. Maria and Michael had not been encouraging. Michael mentioned the leafleting, which targets Obama and abortion, and which has not been well-received in every quarter. "The Catholic Church in New Mexico doesn't like the Republican Party," Michael said. But still the Obama volunteers were not to approach the churches.

Mrs. Sanchez says that it's the Christian Coalition and the (local) Rock Christian Church doing the leafleting. She pauses, while her many dogs bark in unison. "I really don't like that," she finally says. "You have to put God and politics apart."

The leafleting, some sign rustling, and a bit of a ruckus from some Obama supporters at the McCain office during Obama's appearance in Espanola, seem to be the extent of the physical battle for Rio Arriba County. Outside Northern New Mexico, Espanola, like many small towns today, has a bit of a reputation for drugs. Richard, Leo, Thelma and Marie shrug this off. "Even the holy city of Chimayo has drugs," Leo says. They've certainly never had any problem. Leo has never locked his car. Thelma and Marie never lock their doors. Nobody in their valley does.

I won't be able to cover Richard and Leo's Obama rally this Saturday, but I'd like to return to Espanola -- next time not in medias res. Maybe then I could ask who arranged my semi-clandestine meeting with the four Obamanos leaders.

The campaign for Rio Arriba County -- brimming with complex power and personality dynamics -- is like a comic novel adapted for Masterpiece Theatre. I'd hate to miss the last chapter.

Note: Sign rustling in the county included a skirmish over a large handmade Obama-Biden sign on the road into Espanola. Thursday, the day Obama came to town, the B in Obama had been replaced with an S. Driving to and fro, I never knew which letter in the white-out war I would see. On Sunday evening, when I said farewell to Espanola, Obama with a B was back.