Aug 23, 2009 3 Comments ›› Pat Dollard
RACINE, Wis. — The last three years had unfolded in an unrelenting series of what Jeremy Bird called Big Moments, and here began the latest on a sweltering afternoon earlier this month. Another rental car, another unfamiliar highway, another string of e-mails sent from his BlackBerry while driving 70 mph. Bird took a sip from his coffee and looked over at Dan Grandone, a co-worker riding in the passenger seat.
“I don’t know about you, but I’m running on adrenaline right now,” Bird said. “I love this feeling that we’re on the verge of something crucial.”
Bird had lived at that precipice ever since joining Barack Obama’s campaign as a top organizer in 2007, but rarely had he faced a challenge so daunting as the one awaiting in Racine. As deputy director of Organizing for America, a national network of Obama supporters, Bird was scheduled to speak with a group of volunteers who had been threatened at town halls, outshouted at local rallies and weakened by a general sense of post-campaign fatigue. With one 90-minute visit, Bird hoped to leave them confident, empowered and reenergized.
“We want these people to feel like they can control almost anything that happens in government,” said Bird, who had traveled from his office at Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington to spend two days visiting volunteers across Wisconsin. “They should feel like there’s no barrier between the regular people out in the states and the power players in D.C.”
The outcome of the health-care debate weighed partially on Bird’s success, and on the effectiveness of Organizing for America (OFA) in general. When Bird was named deputy director of OFA last year, he became the vanguard of much more than 13 million e-mail addresses collected from supporters during Obama’s campaign. He became one of the people most responsible for validating Obama’s campaign ethos: that grass-roots support can power government and shape legislation.
It is a theory that now faces a defining test. Conservatives have waged an angry and effective battle against Obama’s health-care legislation, and OFA has responded by asking its volunteers to visit congressional offices and flood town hall meetings in a massive show of support. This month, Obama sent an e-mail to OFA members: “This is the moment our movement was built for,” he wrote.
When Bird arrived at a Racine coffee shop called Cup of Hope and sat down with 10 OFA volunteers, he spoke with similar urgency.
“We need to flex our muscles on this, and we need to act fast,” he said. “We always said in the campaign that this was not just about one election but about a chance to make some major changes. Well, here’s the chance.”
Bird had a lifetime of experience thriving against long odds, and he relished the role. The son of conservative Baptists, Bird grew up in a Missouri trailer park before attending Harvard Divinity School. He organized underfunded schools in Boston, worked for Howard Dean’s presidential campaign in 2004 and started a company that lobbied Wal-Mart — his mother’s former employer — to improve its benefits and wages. On behalf of Obama, he had moved to five states, helping the candidate overcome racism in South Carolina and Islamophobia in Pennsylvania and Ohio.
When Bird arrived in Wisconsin last week, he recognized all the familiar hallmarks of an underdog fight. Gone were the 44 field offices across the state where Obama organizers had worked during the campaign; now Bird spent his visit searching for power outlets in Wisconsin coffee shops and conducting conference calls at sidewalk cafes. Gone were the 100 paid staffers who orchestrated an Obama victory in the state; now OFA employed one person in Wisconsin, Grandone, who hoped to hire two or three assistants if the budget allowed.
“Right now,” Grandone said, “we are kind of building this thing as we fly it.”
Around the table in Racine, Bird listened as the volunteers rattled off evidence of OFA’s growing pains. Local membership was relatively stagnant because Racine residents were exhausted after volunteering during the long presidential campaign. Newspapers had focused their coverage of health-care town halls on the most vocal conservatives, even when the crowd contained more Democrats. One OFA member said he was now the target of repeated threats. “I’ve had a guy say to me, ‘Why should I be afraid of a liberal when I have a .357?’ ” said Ryan Gleason, 32.
“It’s starting to feel like we’re always on the defensive,” Gleason said.
Bird responded by citing data aimed at demonstrating OFA’s impact. Since the organization sent an e-mail to its members asking for help on health care in May, more than 1.3 million have visited a phone bank, shared their personal health-care stories on the Internet or attended one of 12,000 local rallies. More than 150,000 people have given an average of $38 to OFA’s health-care campaign. This month, Obama spent an hour providing OFA members with “bullet points” for the debate during an Internet video.
“Usually, when a campaign ends, everybody is exhausted and people just go their separate ways,” Bird told the volunteers assembled in Racine. “But we knew from the beginning that this could be different.”
Bird and other top Obama operatives had decided as much during the first days after the election, when they began conceptualizing OFA at a conference held in Chicago. They polled thousands of Obama volunteers through a sequence of surveys and conference calls and sought advice from David Plouffe, the architect of Obama’s campaign. By the time of Obama’s inauguration, Bird and OFA Director Mitch Stewart had settled on a basic vision: OFA would get by with limited staff by relying on volunteers who would work as many as 30 hours a week to ensure grass-roots activity in each U.S. voting precinct.
Bird and others decided that OFA would succeed almost entirely based on the enthusiasm of its volunteers. In that spirit, he asked each person at the coffee shop in Racine to share a “how-Obama-inspired-me story.” There was the mother of two young children who now works as a lead community organizer for OFA, taking her children with her from one event to the next. There was a registered independent voter who had volunteered for Obama only once, on election night. There was Racine’s newly elected mayor, John Dickert, who had been inspired to run for office after volunteering for Obama.
These were now the key operatives in OFA’s health-care campaign. Bird’s visit coincided with the launch of two OFA initiatives. The group’s Web site offered artificial appointment times for volunteers to visit their congressional offices, prompting 15 or 20 OFA volunteers to pile into waiting rooms across the country. Bird also asked the supporters in Racine to attend as many congressional town hall meetings as possible in an attempt to drown out the vocal and disruptive opposition.
“Remember to stay classy, like we did during the campaign,” Bird said. “We want an educated debate. We are not going to outshout them.”
“Do you really think these things will have a big impact?” volunteer Glenda Alexander asked. “I guess it can’t hurt to try, but the chances that this debate will be determined by one person showing up at a congressman’s office — and not even seeing the congressman — seem pretty tiny. It’s like buying a lottery ticket.”
“It might seem small when it’s just you, but it’s big when you add up everybody who is going,” Bird said.
“But right now, we’re getting outshouted,” Gleason said.
“We can’t let that stop us,” Bird said.
“We are battling these false messages every day now,” Gleason continued. “It is getting to the point where some people are so angry that our safety is becoming a concern.”
“We can’t let that stop us either,” Bird repeated. “Look, it’s nasty because we are on the brink of a change and people are getting scared. If you stick with this, I’ll promise you: We will get health care passed this year.”
Some of the volunteers stood up and began to applaud. For a moment, at least, Bird had restored their optimism. He thanked the group, picked up his notebook and walked out. There were more volunteers to meet 45 minutes down the road at a restaurant in Milwaukee, another big moment.
“That went well,” Bird said to Grandone as they climbed into the rental car. “Now we just have to do the same thing again, and again.”