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Aqeel and his partner, Rosa Cabrera, joined the Obama campaign in March, when Messenger's Oakland headquarters didn't yet exist. A small cluster of groups — roughly forty people on average — met once a week in the Rotunda building across from Oakland City Hall. The group held its abortive first fund-raiser in mid-May, at the Emeryville winery Periscope Cellars.
"It didn't have that feel like you come in to have a good time," Aqeel recalled. "When you got people coming in with flip-flops and jeans and shorts, it kinda sets off the wrong message. It was probably planned in two weeks. We got some peanuts, some trail mix, and some cheese. You had to pay for the wine and the beer. They said they didn't make any money. They brought in $900 but only made $400."
When the group decided to plan another fund-raiser on June 29, Aqeel and Cabrera decided to take matters into their own hands. Together, they organized what was undoubtedly one of the most successful Obama fund-raisers to happen in the East Bay this year. Aqeel secured the popular downtown Oakland venue Geoffrey's Inner Circle, since he knew owner Geoffrey Pete from working in the Oakland Black Caucus. Pete provided enough food for 300 people — catfish, spaghetti, chicken, and salad, along with a full bar. They hired local performers such as R&B singer Jimmie Reign, a spoken-word poet, piano player, and DJ to provide entertainment. They even had security guards.
At first, Aqeel said, the other committee members were impressed with their efforts. But over the six weeks they spent planning the event, he said, they met resistance from others. Many members refused to sell tickets, and some criticized Aqeel and Cabrera for not getting approval from the East Bay for Obama steering committee — which they described as an amorphous blob with new members every week. "The more resistance we met, the more we pushed it," said Cabrera. "It was pretty simple." A former volunteer said that some steering committee members resigned because they sided with Aqeel.
In the end, the fund-raiser earned $5,000, a paltry sum compared to what could have been, says Aqeel. "We easily should have made $20,000 on that event, because we made $2,000 at the door. We could have brought in some serious dough, but because of the egos, it wasn't what we expected."
After the disappointing Geoffrey's fund-raiser, Cabrera and Aqeel defected from East Bay for Obama and formed a splinter group, Rise Up for Obama, characterized by its elaborate mission statement: "To resurrect the dormant power contained within the political landscape by engaging, reengaging, energizing, reenergizing, the people with the vision that the power to manifest change is a reality that lies within."
Declaring itself a free agent, but still willing to collaborate with the official campaign, Rise Up planned another fund-raiser for September 30. The party would be held at Uptown Body Shop and feature spoken-word poets, door prizes, and music by Destani, "the Harpist from the Hood."
Then the Obama campaign got wind that Hillary Clinton planned to stump in Oakland on that day. It decided to counter by opening its Oakland headquarters in response. Messenger and Wicks didn't see a problem with holding multiple Obama events at one time. Campaign finance director Chris Young would attend Aqeel and Cabrera's Rise Up event, while Wicks and Messenger would oversee things at headquarters. As Wicks noted later in an e-mail to Aqeel: "It is common protocol for finance staff to attend finance events and field staff to attend field events."
Aqeel and Cabrera still felt that the campaign had stolen their fire, even though Young and some other high-profile Obama supporters showed up at their party. Aqeel said the $3,000 they raised was pitiful compared to what could have been. "We got bamboozled," he claimed.
A few weeks ago, the couple left Rise Up for Obama. Aqeel was inconsolable.
"People were threatened by the fact that you could question the authority," Aqeel said. "The volunteers gave up their power, not realizing that we are the people that make this campaign function." He believes that the leadership of East Bay for Obama tried to obstruct his fund-raiser because of their own prejudices about African-American men. "Being that I'm a dark-skinned brother, and I'm very straightforward, and my voice is deep, some people couldn't believe that I could make some connections.
"I don't work for a candidate just because he's black. If that's the case then I'd have worked for Alan Keyes or Al Sharpton. Barack is different. He's the first one to make me proud to say I'm an American when I read his book."
But Aqeel said that if Obama's campaign structure says anything about how an Obama administration would function, then he wants no part of it. "I can't be a part of something that requires me to work hard just to volunteer," he said. "If his campaign isn't standing up to his vision, show who he is, then what's gonna happen if he gets elected?" At this point, Aqeel added, Obama's lost his vote. "I don't want it to say 'I walked away from the campaign but I'm still gonna vote for it because he's black.' When I leave, I gotta leave with a message. My vote is gone."
Reed, the team coordinator for Congressional District 9, thinks the whole idea of a competition within a campaign is ridiculous. "You have to have a thick skin if you're gonna be dealing with politics at all," she said. "You cannot get your feelings hurt." Furthermore, she said, Obama is running out of time before the primary, and now is not the time for individual ego trips.
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