Obama Drama 'O8 

The campaign's innovative social networking led to the creation of hundreds of local Obama groups. But when the official campaign eventually tried to take over the show, some volunteers objected.

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The campaign's Oakland headquarters are located on the third floor of an office high-rise right off Broadway. But for the sweep of blue stars painted along the walls, and the red and blue tinsel dangling from the ceiling, the digs look pretty spartan. The walls are a leaden off-white, the windows concealed with flimsy blinds. A stash of unused computer monitors lies in one corner. Rows of cafeteria-style tables and folding chairs occupy the main space, where volunteers sit most afternoons on their cell phones, mostly calling Obama supporters who live within a few blocks of the office. Volunteers use their own cell phones, or on identical Motorola cheapies provided by the campaign. And they work on their own laptop computers.

"There's no promise of money, other than a huge promise that you'll continue to spend money out of your own pocket to make this work," explained Margot Reed, team coordinator for Congressional District 9, which includes Oakland and Berkeley. "Now when I go to Oakland headquarters and ask for window signs, they'll say, 'Cool, we appreciate you, you're great, you've done a fabulous job — that'll be six bucks.' We're not getting any freebies."

That's just the tip of the iceberg. Anyone who decides to throw an Obama house party is saddled not only with finding a locale and buying food, but also with buying all the merchandise — T-shirts, window signs, buttons, and bumper stickers that cost between $1 and $15 a pop. "The California campaign only has a certain budget," explains Northern California field director Brent Messenger, one of only a few paid staff members. "They gave me a handful of landlines, one for voice mail, one for Internet access, one for I don't know what — a fax machine?"

At thirty-seven years old, Messenger is string-bean thin, with brown hair and baby blue eyes. The lead singer of San Francisco indie band Every Move a Picture, he could easily be a twenty-two-year-old hipster except that when Messenger talks politics, he sounds like a wonk. He'll rattle off facts with an ease that reflects his political science degree and thirteen years of campaign organizing, first for Brook Firestone's state legislature bid in Santa Barbara, and later with MoveOn.org. Born to a conservative family in Pleasanton, he says he and his parents used to get in giant blow-outs over the Iraq war. "I saw Barack, I understood his message. It seemed like there was an alternative to all the partisan bickering.

Before Messenger was hired in September to coordinate field operations in Northern California, he volunteered fifty to sixty hours a week for six months. His fellow coordinator said she lost four pounds her first week on the job. Explained Wicks: "It's really hard work. You're doing three hours of phone banking a night and knocking on doors all weekend."

On a recent Saturday afternoon, Messenger leads one of the headquarter's twice-weekly volunteer orientations. He gets increasingly animated discussing what he calls "the Obama secret weapon." He stands before a table of six new volunteers — two sisters, one with her husband in tow, a teacher who just moved from Seattle, a guy who looks to be in his early twenties, and an older woman from the Richmond-El Cerrito area. Messenger draws a circle on the white board.

"Say we need 65,000 Obama votes in CD 9 to win it," Messenger begins, referring to congressional districts. "We divide the CD into seven chunks, and each chunk is responsible for 9,285 votes." Every chunk gets a team, and every team takes on an area, and every area gets divided into seven neighborhoods. "We could go one step even further down from that," Messenger says, explaining that you could carve each neighborhood into seven to ten precincts, so that individuals in charge of that precinct would have a manageable number of voters to account for. "Then you can just get a phone list."

The idea is the brainchild of Harvard professor and former César Chávez collaborator Marshall Ganz. The concept calls for dividing the state into congressional districts, the districts into areas, the areas into neighborhoods, and the neighborhoods into precincts, each with its own team of eight volunteers whose job is to phone bank, canvass, knock on doors, organize house parties, and above all, recruit more people. Ganz used similar efforts working with the United Farm Workers from 1965 to 1981, and organizing electoral campaigns for Bobby Kennedy in 1968, Nancy Pelosi in 1987, and Michael Dukakis in 1988.

Ganz signed onto Obama's campaign at the behest of California field director Buffy Wicks, who'd learned about him through a mutual friend while they both worked on the 2004 Howard Dean campaign — Wicks in Iowa, Ganz in New Hampshire. Wicks, who was critical of the program being implemented in Iowa, heard about Ganz' grassroots labor strategy in New Hampshire and became an instant fan.

After a two-year stint as the political director for Wake-Up Wal-Mart, Wicks joined the Obama campaign in 2006. Wicks called Ganz her first week on the job. "I knew he'd been a big supporter of Barack," she said. "But I didn't know him that well. We've since developed a close relationship. He's been instrumental as to transforming enthusiasm into a disciplined campaign structure where everyone's accountable."

Wicks doesn't have a problem with people working outside the formal campaign structure just as long as they completely sever ties with the campaign. For instance, isolated groups shouldn't depend on the campaign headquarters for phone lists of Obama supporters, or help canvassing a neighborhood. That's a mostly practical concern, since campaign staffers don't want to be held accountable for all the little start-up groups that decide to go it alone. "Around the Dean campaign in Iowa there were tons of stories about the gray area between these official Dean campaign and all these volunteer organizations that were doing all these crazy things," Messenger said.

And the Obama campaign's already had its share of drama, particularly the July exposure of an unsanctioned San Bernadino group called "Californians for Obama" that raised thousands of dollars under false pretenses. The campaign has tried to preempt such fraudulence by maintaining a strict separation between its field and finance operations. A lot of people just don't understand the machinations of political fund-raising — that you have to file statements with the government as soon as you raise a dime; that you have to classify yourself as a political action committee rather than a nonprofit. "We've tried as hard as we can to say don't raise money, let the campaign raise money, don't open your own office," Messenger said.

Still, it's hard to prevent enterprising Obama supporters from wanting to create organizations in their own image.

Qa'id Aqeel used to be one of the most ambitious volunteers in the group East Bay for Obama, which was one of the largest and most mainstream local groups to form through MyBarackObama.com. Now he detests the campaign.

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