Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.
Yep, I’m home from southern Ohio where I served as a field organizer for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, probably the most challenging three months of my life. After being back for about four weeks, I’m happy to report that I no longer awaken in the middle of the night with an alarming sense of urgency; I’ve taken some time to decompress physically and emotionally; and I’m now better able to really grasp the significance of what we accomplished. So I guess it’s about time to tell my story.
In my youth I truly believed in the aims of the civil rights movement, but though my heart may have been in the right place, my butt remained firmly implanted on the couch. During the peace protests of the late ’60s, I grew my hair long and participated in a few marches but was content to drink cheap wine and whine about old LBJ rather than really work to end the war in Viet Nam. I got “clean for Gene” McCarthy (at least in physical appearance) during the 1968 elections and was inspired by Bobby Kennedy’s soaring speeches but never really committed myself to their campaigns. I habitually talked a good game, but when it came to putting my ass on the line, I hemmed and hawed and made up lots of plausible excuses for inaction.
Upon turning 65 last April, however, something shifted. Perhaps it was the realization that my time on this planet is limited. Perhaps it was the acknowledgment of the mess we humans have made of the planet. Perhaps it was the inspiring vision Barack Obama put forward. Whatever the impetus, I decided that I would take my stand when called to do so, even if that meant leaving the comfort zone of my family and my progressive little city of Asheville, North Carolina. Going forward, by God (or substitute the deity of your choice), I would have the courage of my convictions.
So after successfully working with my wife Shonnie as Obama precinct captains in the North Carolina primary (Asheville Precinct 3 went 74% for Obama!), I decided to continue my efforts on Barack’s behalf. In this time of crisis, I intended to wake up on November 5 satisfied that I’d done everything in my power to elect Barack Obama president of the United States and change the course of our nation before we do further harm to ours elves.
Toward that end I e-mailed and called around trying to find an Obama campaign insider I could talk with about getting hired, preferably someone who would champion my efforts. But to no avail. I did, however, locate an online job application for the campaign, so I completed it, attached my resume and clicked “submit” believing it highly unlikely I’d ever hear from anyone.
A few weeks later, however, I listened to a voicemail message from an Obama staffer in Ohio who wanted to talk with me about a position with the campaign. We did a telephone interview the next morning; the staff member called my references that afternoon; and then she called back that evening to make an offer. I asked for some time to consider the implications of this opportunity with Shonnie, and the next day, I called back to accept. Though I had no campaign experience and was several decades beyond the average age of the other field organizers, remarkably I was on my way to Ohio.
On the ground in Ohio
Having made the seven-hour drive from my home, I arrived in Chillicothe, Ohio on August 3, a 65-year-old rookie with very good intentions and a near-total lack of knowledge of what this job would entail.
Upon my arrival, my 24-year-old supervisor assigned me two rural counties in southern Ohio, both part of Appalachia—Adams County and Highland County—both of which had gone heavily Republican in presidential elections since 1964. My job in these counties was to recruit, train and empower volunteers to participate in contacting voters via phone banks and door-to-door canvassing and persuade them to vote for Obama. Then, near Election Day, our attention would turn toward getting our supporters to the polls to vote.
I had a handful of names of Obama supporters from earlier spadework by my fellow field organizers, and hoped that the county Democratic parties would help me out. However, with a few notable exceptions, the party ranks were generally comprised of Hillary supporters who resented the fact that Obama had beat out their heir apparent. While the Democrats in Adams and Highland Counties allowed me to work out of their offices (the Obama campaign actually paid a fee for this privilege), most offered little hands-on assistance, at least early on. In fact, some Dems urged me not to organize phone banks or canvassing at all for fear of whipping up a Republican and fundamentalist backlash that might overwhelm Democrats up and down the ballot.
One long-time Democratic activist in Adams County told me that, because Obama was black and had an unusual name, he would be lucky to get 25 percent of the vote there (Kerry had received 35 percent in 2004); he thought it more likely that Obama's percentage would be closer to 22 percent. I was also warned of overt racism in the area and of possible intimidation by local hooligans. Needless to say, I was a bit wary of putting my Obama flag on the little blue Kia I’d borrowed from my friend in Asheville. But after a couple of weeks, I threw caution to the wind and unfurled my banner for all to see.
To say I had serious self doubts about what I’d gotten myself into would be a gross understatement. I was working 14 to 16 hour days almost every day, and all my assigned tasks still didn’t get done. I made daily reports on campaign goals that seemed unattainable—number of calls to voters, number of doors knocked, number of volunteers recruited, etc. And with my focus split between two counties, it was even more challenging. What’s more I was eating on the run and living out of the trunk of my car, relying on the generosity of local supporters for a bed and an occasional meal. More than once, my inner dialogue would sound something like: “What the hell was I thinking?”
To keep going, I sought out the support of my fellow staff members and, of course, Shonnie, who visited me three times during the first two months and sent care packages in between. And despite the challenges I was confronting, I kept telling myself that I was in the right place doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing. One day at a time. One day at a time. One day at a time.
I spent a great deal of my time calling and meeting prospective volunteers with varying degrees of success. Many begged off because of family and work responsibilities. But one or two at a time, Obama supporters stepped forward to call their neighbors and knock on their doors. And in a region where very few people of color lived, these “early adopters” served as the first white validators for the African-American candidate for president. Through their efforts and their visibility, they made it more acceptable for others to join in supporting his candidacy.
Things begin to shift
By mid-September, I began to get a better handle on my role in the campaign, and as the pieces of the strategy began to make more sense to me, my self-confidence grew. To further the reach of our efforts, I asked a core group of volunteers to take on leadership roles, and before long, the phone banks grew from three or four volunteers calling on weekday evenings to six, then eight and finally ten or twelve folks contacting hundreds of undecided voters every week. In addition, our weekend canvassing efforts began to take shape, and we knocked on the doors of voters who had probably never been approached like this by a presidential campaign.
Nevertheless, skepticism and uncertainty were still prevalent among many volunteers. Some of the voters they contacted would hang up when the name of Obama was even mentioned. Others were extraordinarily rude, some even bellowing some variant of, “I’ll never vote for that n#&&@*.” Plus there were lots of Hillary supporters who remained adamantly undecided. Thus it was easy for volunteers to get discouraged, and a few never returned after their first shift. But I reminded them that every single vote counted. “If you only persuade one person to move toward voting for Obama tonight, that is a win,” I declared. “We want to do well in this county. And when we do well in Adams, Highland and surrounding counties, we’ll win Ohio. And when we win Ohio, we’ll win the election. And when we win the election, we’ll change the course of our nation.”