Stanford Williams took it upon himself last August to transform the flatlands of East Oakland into stalwart Barack Obama territory. To call that a daunting task would be gross understatement.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, the thirty-six-year-old ambled down the driveway of a modest, cream-colored flat belonging to East Oakland resident Hazel Jones. He was making arrangements for that Sunday's Obama "Fire It Up" party, one of several dozen being held in the East Bay to mark the remaining one hundred days until Super Tuesday.
Williams hoped to draw dozens of neighborhood folks to the backyard shindig. He hung a big Obama sign over the driveway with red and blue streamers; set up a couple of voter registration tables; laid out potato chips, veggies, bottled water, buffalo wings, and Obama gear; and played a videotaped campaign speech on the large flat-screen TV in the den.
It was a scorching afternoon and Williams planned to flier the surrounding blocks with the help of another dedicated volunteer. But for the Obama '08 logo on his T-shirt, he could have been a YMCA counselor; tall, clad in Nike sneakers and jeans, he cut a striking figure. He was abidingly good-natured, and addressed everyone in a measured tenor, his voice diplomatic but excitable.
Walking up Seminary Boulevard, he met a voting-age teenager wearing gold chains, turquoise tennis shoes, and a multicolored hooded jacket. "Hey, is that nigga running for president?" the young man asked, pointing at the picture of Obama on one of the fliers. Williams eagerly tried to foist a stack of the fliers on the teen, who declined, but added, "I'll vote for him, though."
By 2 p.m., the air was unbearably hot and muggy, and Williams was beginning to look weary. After all, he said he'd been sleeping only two to four hours a night during his three months of work on the campaign, and he was living off his savings. He'd paid for everything at the party from his own pocket — from the food to the gear to the $25 gas card and $50 Safeway gift certificate that would serve as door prizes. He was putting lots of miles on his car and had to change his cell phone plan just to accommodate the number of campaign-related calls he was making. He'd spent weekends manning a table at the Coliseum BART station and talked to Raiders fans, church ladies, ex-cons, shop owners, and thugs. He'd donated twenty to forty hours a week of his time to the Obama campaign; this week it was more like sixty.
But Williams was nothing if not determined. He had decided to join the campaign after a spirited debate with his father the month before. "They'll never vote him in for president," the son recalls his father saying. "I said, 'Wait a minute, who's 'they?'" So in August, Stanford attended one of several sessions of "Camp Obama," a three-day training session to turn campaign volunteers into organizers. "It was three full days ... long, long, long grueling hours," he recalled. "It was basically like a sales training, a sales camp to go out and get people registered. The rest of it was telling your story. He's really into personal stories."
Williams, like many other volunteers, was motivated by Obama's skill as a storyteller. Obama first showed Americans his gift for storytelling during a 2004 Democratic convention speech for John Kerry, which turned his own family history into a parable of Democratic values. By the time he formally joined the 2008 presidential campaign in February, Obama was telling supporters that his campaign was about their stories too.
"This campaign can't only be about me," he said during his announcement speech. "It must be about us — it must be about what we can do together. This campaign must be the occasion, the vehicle, of your hopes, and your dreams. It will take your time, your energy, and your advice — to push us forward when we're doing right, and to let us know when we're not. This campaign has to be about reclaiming the meaning of citizenship, restoring our sense of common purpose, and realizing that few obstacles can withstand the power of millions of voices calling for change. By ourselves, this change will not happen. Divided, we are bound to fail."
This egalitarian vision inspired ordinary citizens like Williams to become full-fledged crusaders for Obama. It motivated Qa'id Aqeel, an Oakland city commissioner and former Dellums campaign worker who was excited to see a "positive brother" in the presidential arena. It attracted Aqeel's partner, Rosa Cabrera, an organizer for the Service Employees International Union, who started donating all her free time to the campaign once Obama threw his hat into the ring. And it energized Joey Brite, a color consultant who read Obama's memoir in 2005 and started telling friends that if he ever decided to run for president, she'd do whatever she could to help.
The campaign encouraged its supporters to set up online profiles and form groups that shored up their own identity-affirming politics. Facilitated by MyBarackObama.com, a web site launched by Obama supporter and Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, by the summer roughly 700 Obama support groups had formed in Northern California alone. There were Serbs 4 Obama, Atheists for Obama, Internet Entrepreneurs for Obama, Displaced Ohioans for Obama. Some turned into a cult of fandom: Sacramento Kings Fans for Obama, Jedi Knights for Obama, Winelovers for Obama — even Hotties for Obama. And they were all free to do their own thing.
Until August, that is, when the campaign's California field director, Buffy Wicks, decided that the best way to implement Obama's vision was through a centrally coordinated precinct-level organizing strategy. According to Wicks, 99 percent of these independent campaign groups happily folded themselves into the formal campaign structure. But that last 1 percent included a bunch of people who resented having a campaign structure suddenly foisted upon them after they had been working independently for months.
Barack Obama's egalitarian rhetoric attracted them all to his campaign. The pragmatic realities of modern campaigning drove them all away.
Granted, the structure of the Obama campaign doesn't exactly lend itself to easy gratification. Rather than focus on media spin, constituency organizing, or securing endorsements, the Obama campaign has directed most of its energy to building up a community base. The senator certainly didn't have to do it this way. He's not short on resources, and doesn't need volunteers to dig into their own personal coffers. As of October 15, he's raised $79.2 million, just a hair shy of Hillary Clinton's $80.4 million take. But the Obama campaign chose to take the low-budget, DIY road anyway, to remain in sync with their candidate's vision. Obama's volunteers are phone banking, staffing university campuses, and canvassing door-to-door.
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