9 October 2008

Kenya: Inside Obama's Florida Operation


Florida is an important election state; and Kenyans will understand why. It is the state that caused a 36 day delay before the announcement of presidential election results in 2000, as challenges were mounted against the election results. (Oh I wish my friend Sam Kivuitu had remembered this and delayed his announcement in December last year until he was sure, and had convinced us that he was announcing the correct results.)

Eventually George Bush was given the state with a margin of just over 500 votes against Al Gore, though controversy still rages on the validity and credibility of this result, especially since the official in charge of the elections was clearly partisan in favor of the Republican Party. In 2004, the gap between Bush and John Kerry was about 2 percentage points. This is a crucial swing state and elections go the way Florida goes.

It is a critical state for both Obama and McCain, and in fact McCain has no chance of winning the election if he loses Florida. So this week I am visiting the state to get a better insight on what Obama and his team are doing to win the state. The headquarters are located in Tampa Bay, a medium size city that is in the heart of the territory that is most contested, and after strenuous efforts I managed to get invited to visit and learn about the operations there. As I enter the bland brick building I am shocked that there is no security at the door, and I briefly wonder if I am at the right place as what I am used to in Kenya is walls, security and sense of importance in these sorts of operations…

Inside the headquarters, the passion and dedication of the staff is electric. There are people at computers, on the phone and discussing issues all around. It’s a mostly younger staff though there are some people over the age of 40. I am struck by the easy camaraderie, lack of ego and hierarchy, as people work towards the common goal of getting Obama elected. There are posters and signs all over the building with reminders of what needs to be done and quotes from Barack Obama’s speeches. There are televisions on 24 hours following the news and events. One guy has his computer monitor set up with a count-down clock to the election date, set to the second. Its open plan set up makes it easy for staff to talk and check with other as they work. All seem to have a plan and agenda and there is not much frivolous chatting. These are people on a mission. And there are less than 30 days left to achieve that mission.

The State Campaign Director, Steven Schale, is an easy going fellow with a southern drawl. He had never been in a presidential campaign before but he is clearly enjoying this task now and has created a multi-racial, multi-gender staff that speaks very highly of him. He stresses that the values of the campaign team draw from Barack Obama’s own values of calm, thoughtful, low ego and refusal to get stressed. His door sign states “UNDER REACT” in big letters, which he tells me is from Barack’s own credo of no panic. Steven has a staff in the state of more than 400 people, most of them in the field doing coordination of volunteers and about 15,000 volunteers drawn from Florida but also a substantial number from other regions that are either solidly Obama so they don’t need much attention, or that are solid pro-McCain so there is no need to mount strong challenges there.

The team is focused, as are all the teams in other states, on grassroots mobilization and empowerment drawn from Obama’s experience as a community organizer in Chicago. This is a campaign that spends a great deal of time, energy and resources on door to door visits to people, as well as on the phone to voters, rather than what had become the norm of advertizing in “air wars.”

I spoke to a lot of the staff and I was struck by level of devotion and dedication to Obama and the cause of change in America. Many of them had left better paying jobs to do this work, travelling from state to state until they were posted to Florida. There are lawyers, journalists, corporate types here. And before they became paid staff, all had done substantial volunteer work somewhere and proven themselves. There are people who left their families in their home states to be in Florida and a daily phone call to their kids is their only contact. They all work 14-15 hours each day, and would do 25 hours if they could.

And all the non Tampa Bay residents were housed, for free, by local supporters of Obama in the city. All of them: some on floors but most in spare rooms. I was told of a couple in the city who had given up their entire house to the campaign and stayed with friends and relatives themselves.

I also visited the Tampa field office which is where the “grunt” work gets done. This is where make calls from and I tried my hand at calling numbers from a list to persuade the voter to vote early and see if they were leaning towards Obama and if they were undecided to see if I could make a case for Obama. It is a hard and could be unpleasant task as some people respond with insults or in a curt manner. Others simply hang up. Cathy a volunteer who drove 11 hours from Alabama to help out in Florida (Alabama is a sure state for McCain) told me, “when I get someone rude on the line, I tell myself to remember that I am Senator Obama’s representative and how I behave and what I say reflects on him. I ask myself, what would Obama do in this situation and I calm down and treat the person with respect.”

The field office makes cell phones available to volunteers and they are laid across tables and desks all over the place! My first thought was wow, aren’t they scared they will be stolen? But no, this is a campaign built on trusting the American people and their desire for change so not a single phone has ever been stolen or lost since the office opened!

All the people I talked with working either as staff or volunteers talk of Barack Obama as an inspiration and the historicity of this moment. They also point to his brilliant organizing skills and his ability to not just touch their minds and hearts. Adora Andy is a staff member who is from Atlanta but grew up in Texas. She has a Nigerian-born father and a white mother and was working in Atlanta undecided between Hillary and Obama. She went to a function in Atlanta featuring Michelle Obama in June 2007, and was impressed by Michelle’s poise, confidence, naturalness, intelligence and clarity. “I said to myself that any man who could marry such a strong inspiring and clear woman, is worth looking into seriously,” she said, so I looked at his positions on the issues, listened to his speeches and a week later, took time from work to volunteer in the campaign. I was sent from state to state and after a month was offered a staff position, which I accepted and quit my well paying satisfying job to do this. Since then I have been in 6 states most for about 5-6 weeks and now here in Florida for the last 2 months.”

Given the similarity of her heritage to Barack Obama’s I asked her what he meant to her and people of mixed heritage. “Barack is the first major political actor who cuts across multiple heritages: he has African, white, Asian, Hawaiian, and black American links. He has made visible people like us who have different heritages and who are made of many parts that we don’t have to choose one or the other as they are all part of who we are. We can carry all of our identities with pride.”

Dr. Sheila Cherizard is a field coordinator in the Tampa Bay area. She is Haitian American and when she meets me she recognized that I am a Kenyan and tells me that she had Kenyan friends at University who told her she looked like was from Meru and she has since become my sister. Her job has been to register voters before the deadline of October 6 and so far in Florida the campaign team has registered more than 300,000 new voters and there is a rush to do the last big effort before this deadline. She tells me that her team of volunteers has a target of 1000 phone calls a day, but she has no regrets leaving her medical career to do this work, first as a volunteer for months, and now as staff. “This is the moment for real change and this is about us, the American people, not about Barack. He is simply the agent for that change but this movement of energy, passion and pro-people is bigger than Obama,” she tells me.

She also directs me to Café Kili which is a Kenyan owned café in Tampa and I head out there. It is owned by Rose and Patrick Waruinge and it’s a story of hard work, hope and intellect. Its tastefully done and has become a home of not just Kenyans in the region, but a lot of the Obama teams who operate in its vicinity. I bumped into a group of Kenyans there who were holding a meeting and once they learnt I was doing work for KISS FM were quick to send their “salaams” as we always do on radio….

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