by Graydon Gordian
It was early September 2008. Obama, by then widely regarded as the frontrunner in the general election, was campaigning from atop one of the most sophisticated, fully conceived political organizations this country has ever seen. An old college acquaintance of mine who was working for the campaign, Emily Thielmann, sent an email to a few friends saying her regional field director was looking to hire an additional field organizer. A mutual friend forwarded me the email, which I initially ignored, having little interest in quitting my job and moving to the small, mostly rural county in the thumb of Michigan where the office was. A few days later I was laid off and found myself on the phone with Andy Oare, Emily’s immediate superior. At the end of the conversation Andy asked me how fast I could get to Port Huron, Michigan. It was a Wednesday. I said I could be there on Sunday.
That Sunday evening I had my first chance to sit down and talk with my coworkers in Michigan’s Region 15. There were nine of us; that night would be one of only two times we were all in the same room. The second time was when the photo above was taken — earlier that day we’d been told that half the team would be sent to Indiana for the remaining weeks of the campaign so we took the evening off to drink together.
The achievements of Obama’s field team, with its thousands of field organizers located in all 50 states, have been highly publicized. Now, three years on, I wanted to ask the people who worked so hard to see the president elected how they felt about the man we playfully called “the boss.” So I called my former colleagues from Region 15, now scattered around the country, to talk about that time together.
JOINING THE CAMPAIGN
Andy Oare: Even here, today, still talking about it, it’s kinda crazy. I was gonna go be a graphic designer and that was gonna be that.
And then Betsy [Hoover, former Deputy Field Director for the Michigan Campaign for Change] dragged me down there [to the South Carolina primary]. She was like “come be my intern for two weeks.” I was in that office, that South Carolina office, and as soon as I walked in, I saw a bunch of people I thought were just like me. And they were all 23-year-old white kids, but they had been tapped into something that I was literally just walking in the door to, and I just wanted to be a part of it. I wanted to be a part of that team.
Neil Potter: I was actually a Hillary supporter because things were in such dire straits. I thought we needed someone who knew how everything worked. Someone like Hillary Clinton. Slowly I started to believe this was a man and a time… it just coincided, the right man at the right time. And that became very visceral and emotional.
Rosy Kalfus: I was a latecomer to Region 15. I was in grad school and finishing my thesis through the summer before the election in 2008. I got hired as a field organizer and drove from New York to Michigan, and didn’t know where I was gonna be or what my assignment was. I wanted to get involved because I wanted to have a Democratic president. Policy-wise, Hillary and Obama were very similar. I think the thing that resonated the most with me with Obama was the way in which he talks about giving people choices. And that was the thing that resonated most with the people I would talk to every day. Michigan, it was so obvious what the last eight years had done. Every other house was in foreclosure. People didn’t have health care. They didn’t have these choices.
Mike Stroyan: I was raised in Port Huron, Michigan which was the largest city in the region of ours, and it’s where I worked most of the time as well. I had recently finished [college] and I was still very confused about what direction I wanted to take my career. I didn’t have much direction. And there was this constant barrage of media attention on the presidential election. It was December 2007/January 2008. It was something that I decided that I wanted to become involved with, and I ended up in my home area.
I signed up for this fellowship program that [the campaign] had. The very first day of it they did this practice that we did a lot during the campaign: people broke off into different sections and shared their personal stories about their political beliefs and what drew them to come there. And some of the stories I heard were just so powerful from these people, and I knew with certainty at that point I was in the right place at the right time doing the right thing.
Emily Thielmann: When we had our initial training, we practiced telling our story and really moving people in certain ways. I started out with that for sure. I was telling this silly story about my life and how I had come to terms with why I really needed a change. The truth was, I was pretty happy. It wasn’t like I have been laid off by a big company and been severely economically depressed and all of a sudden had this epiphany that I should vote for Obama. I was just a happy liberal kid that knew that Obama was her first choice.
WORKING IN ‘THE THUMB’
Lindsey Franklin: What I loved about the campaign was that it was very entrepreneurial. Basically you’re asked to go into an area and you’re asked to build an organization from scratch. So you’re finding the stakeholders, finding your partners, figuring out how to motivate people, figuring out how to bring people on, figuring out who your customers are, how to sell to them. There were a lot of similarities between political campaigning and what we did in Michigan in particular, and then going out and trying to start a company.
I was in Lapeer County, which is a pretty rural and Republican area. I was away from all the rest of the team members. I was by myself. What was awesome about that was my volunteers really became like my family. I really developed strong relationships with my volunteers. I still keep in touch with them to this day.
Jake Hoffman: I was in St. Clair County. There weren’t really any towns bigger than 3,000 people. It was pretty darn rural, pretty flat. Michigan was in a shithole before the financial collapse. It was depressing. It was very depressing to hear lots of people’s stories, especially because I was in campaign mode where I was trying to turn their stories into a vote; whereas what I would rather be doing is just talking with them and actually listening, and not trying to manipulate the conversation.
Justin Strekal: It’s an area that hadn’t seen a presidential appearance since the Nixon campaign, where his vice presidential candidate came up there. They’d never seen a presidential campaign organizer.
Andy: States are broken down into regions and every region has a manager, and I was sort of the field manager for our region. At one point, I heard that the two loneliest jobs on the campaign were being a field director and being a regional field director; because those two roles are confined to their respective geographies but without a peer, and without anyone above you, usually. In that sense, there were things that I couldn’t confide to you guys that would have been great to be able to confide to somebody.
Rosy: My turf was in northern Macomb County. Macomb County is known as being the epicenter of white flight. A lot of people fled the inner city and populated these suburbs. I worked with Neil Potter very closely, who had the top of northern Macomb and I had the southern part of northern Macomb.
Neil: As you can attest to, they just throw you right in there. I did have the benefit of having some training with my Regional Field Director Andy and Mike Stroyan and Jake Hoffman and Emily Thielmann. It was the four of us to begin with. Us just getting to know each other. They shared the strategy and our responsibilities. Those responsibilities were to act as a face for the campaign. Recruit and train and manage volunteers was really the biggest thing for us, and depending on the demographic you were in, those volunteers would either be registering voters or reaching out to their neighbors and talking to them about the election.
And, unlike a lot of people our age, I still feel like Obama was an excellent choice. And I think that working for his campaign is still something I’m very proud of doing.
Emily: I think Jake and I had a really hard time with the whole premise of being pushy, which is part of winning a campaign. Calling people at home and butting into people’s lives. I still feel that everything we did was really important and the tactics were sort of essential to what we were doing. And, unlike a lot of people our age, I still feel like Obama was an excellent choice. And I think that working for his campaign is still something I’m very proud of doing. It’s kind of more a personal discomfort with making a lot of phone calls like that. The things that I was a lot more comfortable with was going door-to-door and working with real people.
Jake: What I wanted to do was just sit on their porch with them for 15 minutes but I couldn’t, I had to cut it short, I had to keep it succinct so I could get my numbers. My numbers being the goals of overall contacts, of registered voters, all that business.
Some of my favorite conversations were in my western towns, which were little communities. Yale and Capac. Yale is famous for its baloney, which is delicious. There were just wackos. If they were in Vermont, I guess they’d be called hippies. If they were in Kentucky, they’d be called rednecks. But they were in Michigan and I didn’t know what to make of them. They were hilarious. And these people loved to talk and I loved talking to them. And it got me in trouble because I’d spend an hour at their place.
There was this one woman who invited me in to her house, and I know that’s not what you’re usually supposed to do. But I was incredibly thirsty and she had offered, ‘do you want a drink of water?’ And then, before I know it, she was saying, ‘would you like to try these peaches I have?’ and I didn’t know where she was going because she was a semi-attractive 40-something who was feeding me peaches, and talking to me about the Obama campaign and how hard it must be. ‘You just need to take a break.’ So those were really fun.
Rosy: In Michigan, I feel that we were really doing the true organizing work that really came from the top. This is one of the only examples in my working examples of this kind of consistency. Of Obama at the very top of this operation saying, “This is the kind of campaign we’re gonna run. This is how it’s gonna be structured. This is what we’re gonna do and seeing that happen all the way down the chain, on the ground.” We built teams, it was a completely people-powered campaign.
OBAMA, THE CANDIDATE VS. OBAMA, THE PRESIDENT
Lindsey: When you’re an organizer you go into a place and you make all the same promises the President makes, his promises became my promises. I built all these relationships on these campaigns promises. I think my volunteers still really support the president. I still really support the president. But that support doesn’t mean complete agreement and lack of criticism.
Justin: The fact that OFA — Obama for America organization — was housed in the DNC. I think that that action took away Obama’s credibility as transcending partisan politics, and it also took the power and it cut it right out from the knees of the organization that formally was Obama for America. That was his first glaring mistake in my eyes.
Since then, he hasn’t stood strong enough on principles that he had articulated, that he had during the campaign. He has been too willing to give up the house. The stimulus bill was 1/3 tax cuts, 1/3 aid to prop up states, and only 1/3 actual stimulus. He lost the political argument on that and he lost the economic front on that because it just wasn’t big enough to get the economy moving again.
Neil: When I talk to people about how do you feel his presidency has gone, how he’s performed, I think it’s difficult to say concretely because he was like a Rorschach test for everybody. We made him out to be whatever we wanted him to be. He ran on hope and change. Those are not very concrete things. So I think that’s a very personal response, when talking about how he’s done. He’s certainly not lived up to the expectations I had for him.
Andy: I think that very few people knew, maybe no one knew, and I don’t think Barack knew just how difficult it is to govern this country. I would actually bargain to say that it’s impossible. I don’t think that we really had our heads around that when we started, and campaigning is very different from governing.
Emily: I think he was handed an absolute shit show. He’s been mature and collected and interested in getting the opinions of as many people as possible, not just coming in and saying, ‘I know how this is going to work.’ I think a lot of his platform was that he was going to reach across the aisle and work with Republicans, and a lot of liberal discontent is coming from the fact that he’s actually doing that.
Neil: He came in with this very altruistic desire to change things, but that turned into naiveté. He should have realized very, very quickly that the other side wasn’t interested in compromising, they were interested in tearing him down.
Mike: The fundamental fact is, my worldview and his, they’re still in line with each other. I don’t think he’s been as successful legislatively as really any of us would have hoped. But I’m not sure at the end of the day how much was in his control. Were there some strategic errors? Probably, but I think that comes with most presidencies, and a lot of it is the intransigence of the other side, a sheer ruthlessness to see someone not succeed.
Jake: I am pretty fucking bummed, to be honest. Now, with Occupy Wall Street, this is the first time I’m getting psyched again, politically. Nothing else has created political energy inside of me like Occupy Wall Street has now. Obama hasn’t really been inspiring me to work on a larger scale. After going through the bullshit of national strategy, and someone in Chicago was choosing what I was going to do in St. Claire County without knowing shit about the place, I realized I still wanted to make the world a better place, but I wanted to do that on a very local scale. I’m pretty sure there’s nothing Obama could do to [make me feel] like, “Okay, I’m back on to campaigning to pass some federal bill.”
LOOKING TO THE NEXT ELECTION
Jake: I don’t know if I’m gonna vote for him.
Emily: I will definitely vote for him. I will definitely volunteer for him. But I feel like I’m in a really different place in my life than having just graduated from college. If I was in a transition period and single and did not have a plan then I would work for him. But at this point it would be pretty hard to do that. I think it would be even harder the second time because of how difficult it was the first time.
Rosy: I will absolutely be voting for him in 2012. I have toyed with the idea of working for him, but I’m just kind of at a different point in my life. I definitely imagine I will be getting involved at some point. I don’t see how I can’t keep my fingers in it.
Justin: I will vote for him, I will say that. Unless, the only way I can see not voting for him is if Romney wins the nomination and then Romney runs as a centrist instead of hard-line. If he runs as a centrist, I might actually support him.
Would I work for him again? That’s a big question I’ve been struggling with. I’d rather work for someone I agree with more on a smaller campaign. I can say with all confidence I would absolutely not take another field organizing position.
Would I work for him again? That’s a big question I’ve been struggling with. I’d rather work for someone I agree with more on a smaller campaign.
Lindsey: I firmly will vote for him. I won’t work for him as a staffer. I will as a volunteer. My career is not going in that direction. I will definitely vote for him and volunteer and maybe even raise money for him. I am excited about the potential of a second-term Obama presidency.
Neil: As far as working for him again, yes, I certainly would. There’s a lot of work to be done. He will definitely put the country in a better place than any of the GOP candidates.
Mike: Certainly I’m going to vote for him. I will be voting for him. 100 percent guarantee that. I’m currently pursuing the best opportunity that comes my way. It’s entirely possible that will be with the re-elect. That has always been the plan, to go back and do that again. I feel like it was unfinished business.
Andy: I’ll definitely vote for him, I’ll definitely volunteer for him. … I don’t want to work on the campaign again, I don’t like the lifestyle. There are a lot of hungry 22- and 23-year-olds who are going to do a hell of a lot better job than I would do because, again, I just don’t want to do it. I think the work itself is abominable.
LIFE AS A FIELD ORGANIZER
Jake: It was very difficult. An intense job. Every waking hour pretty much was being on the campaign, working for the campaign. Maybe an hour or two each day where you got to eat and be quiet, or have a beer with your fellow FOs. But that was about it. And that was tough for me. I had never really done anything like that.
Lindsey: I loved every minute of it. I loved working hard. I loved organizing people. When I was working on the campaign, I was thriving.
Neil: It’s not the easiest thing to uproot your life and get thrown into a position where you have to work 100 hours a week and have tremendous responsibility on your shoulders, responsible for your own office and for an area that has maybe 200,000 people. That can be intimidating and difficult and can wear on you. So the people I was working with and meeting and knowing they were by my side was certainly very helpful and helped me endure some of the tougher times.
AFTER THE VICTORY
Neil: A couple days after [the election], we were still in Michigan, cleaning our offices. It was this very bizarre feeling. There was this tremendous feeling of bittersweet, ambiguous melancholy almost, where I didn’t know what to do with myself. I had a long term girlfriend at the time, and it was odd trying to assimilate myself back into normal life. I didn’t really know what to do next. As time kinda went on, I started feeling legitimate depression. Nothing’s ever going to measure up to that.
Unfortunately the campaign was so all consuming, some of the feelings after coming back — my relationship with my girl didn’t survive. You know, it’s sad. I think it’s a pretty direct result of the campaign.
Andy: I honestly didn’t have too much trouble with that. I was totally ready to sit on my ass for two months, and that’s what I did as soon as [the election] was over. Then I got an opportunity with the Department of Energy that was sort of miraculous.
Rosy: I have been living in New York City since the campaign ended, and I have been working at Grassroots Solutions. I got the job right after I got back from the campaign.
Lindsey: After the campaign I moved back to San Francisco and I ended up starting a nonprofit two years ago that was aimed at helping small companies implement sustainability initiatives. And I ended up putting that aside full-time this past May due to financial pressures. We’re still running it but I’ve stopped working on it full-time.
Jake: Right after the campaign Emily and I went on a road trip through the Midwest because the campaign was the first time I had ever really been to the Midwest. We decided to [move to] the East Coast within a day’s drive of our respective parents homes — Emily’s near DC, mine in eastern Pennsylvania — and we settled on Portland, Maine. And that’s where we’ve been since February 2009.
Emily: We were just trying to choose a different path than the New York-DC-Boston big city way that a lot of our friends were going. While it started out as random, it’s getting harder to leave. Not that we’re imminently discussing leaving, but we thought it would be more of a temporary thing. Now we are pretty engaged in different scenes here work-wise.
Justin: I’ve been out here occupying Zuccotti Park or, as we call it, Liberty Square. Before I came here I was in my last semester of my undergrad degree in political science and communications at Cleveland State University. I’ve since withdrawn from the university to be able to come here and do this
Mike: I’ve since been across the country working on various campaigns for issues and candidates, things of that nature. Shortly after I went to Atlanta with Neil and a few other people and we worked on the Senate race there, which went into a runoff. I ended up going out to Los Angeles to work for a candidate that had a bunch of young people who were former Obama staff members working for him. I went to Arkansas of all places to work for the SEIU to influence health care reform to get passed.
I took a job with Organizing for America, which is the president’s field-organizing arm with the DNC. And I did that through the mid-term elections in 2010 and into the spring, when I accepted a job offer in the Bay Area, California, working for an advertising company called Draft FCB.
It’s interesting, I’ve run into the people of our region here and there throughout the years. And it still feels like everyone, like a day hasn’t passed. I just met up with Lindsey and Rosy and we instantly dropped into this back-and-forth and friendship that you get with people you spend all of college with, you spent your lifetime growing up with, that kind of ease. And you only worked with these people two, three, four months at most. It’s really interesting that there’s still that kind of bond that remains between those people.