"Hi, I'm a volunteer with Organizing for America."
ICYMI (In Case You Missed It), that one little phrase has been repeated over and over hundreds -- thousands -- likely at this point millions -- of times since early 2009. Each time it is an effort to personally engage someone else to take action. To go to a townhall meeting or a rapid response rally and make sure the tea party is vastly outnumbered. To write a letter or make a call or send an email to someone in Washington who has the power to do something. To cast a vote for Democrats in an important election.
It's tedious, backbreaking and often invisible work. And it's intense, addictive, life-altering, joyful and heartbreaking. So ICYMI . . .
I started this diary because of the conversation last Friday, where even otherwise smart people seem to have missed some critical facts about OFA, its work on healthcare and the role OFA volunteers have played for the past two years.
But I also have been writing versions of this diary, without managing to post them, since the midterms ended. There's so much of the Vote 2010 story that never quite got told, especially what happened here in California. Like the critical work OFA volunteers did on healthcare, many people don't know about the heroic efforts of volunteer teams and local leaders to help hold California against the GOP wave.
Between October 16 and Election Day, OFA California reached out to over 1 million California voters across the state on the phones and at the doors, asking them to get out and vote for Democrats like Barbara Boxer and Jerry Brown. In the final GOTV weekend push, OFA made nearly 700,000 phone and walk attempts in just four days, the equivalent of reaching out to 1 in 25 voters in California.
I was responsible for compiling and reporting those California GOTV numbers in 2010, and I also know many of the people behind those numbers. Volunteer leaders across the state made it happen - by setting up phonebanks in their neighborhood cafes or staging canvasses out of local parks. Volunteers and staff pulled late hours and pushed hard and logged amazing results, adding to a massive 2010 statewide field effort that also included the state Democratic Party, labor, local initiative campaigns and others. But this was only one aspect of OFA's work over the last two years.
I've been here, on the ground, working as a volunteer and for a few short months on paid staff, since OFA began in early 2009. And as we wrap up the first half of President Obama's first time, and the 111th Congress, it's worth looking at what OFA did on three of the major campaigns it took on - healthcare, Vote 2010, and the DADT/DREAM fight in the lame duck session. These were difficult, long term efforts. At the end of the day, the win/loss record is mixed, and it includes some partial victories, some painful compromises, and some big time historic change.
In each of these campaigns, OFA's role was to be "The President's Field Team" - a standing army of organizers working to mobilize people in their communities to action on behalf of the President, to make sure key legislation gets passed by Congress, to help Democrats who support that agenda get elected or re-elected, and to train and support local volunteers to get more more engaged in politics.
OFA isn't a vehicle to develop a policymaking agenda, but many OFA volunteers and former Obama campaign volunteers are members of or active leaders in those organizations, taking the skills they developed and using them to make change at every level. In fact, OFA is a unique vehicle for what I would call "entry-level activism." I have seen many people who never paid much attention to politics, suddenly learning they have power and ending up on a first name basis with the staff of their member of Congress, or running issue and electoral campaigns.
I totally understand that OFA isn't for everyone, and I also agree that its fair to look at what did and didn't work and figure out how to do it better going forward. In fact, one of the things I most appreciate about OFA is that we are constantly giving feedback and being asked to report on and rate our results. That kind of accountability is still too rare in many progressive organizations.
But when criticism of the organization comes along with glaring factual errors I feel compelled to correct them.
I never really intended to become an Obama blogger or an OFA blogger, this experience has been so powerfully life changing that I have been compelled to write about it. And I never really intended to spend so much of the last two years involved with OFA. But when health reform took center stage on the agenda, and when it became clear that this would be a very difficult fight, I jumped in on this blog and offline as a volunteer. It was too important to sit on the sidelines. And so I got yet another front row seat to history.
The myth that OFA only got in the game on the health reform fight at the end is completely wrong -- as anyone who was reading diaries posted by casperr and Populista and Eclectablog and Kath25 and mindoca and me and many others throughout the summer and fall of 2009already knows. (And the specific claim we waited until the "final hours" of a year long legislative fight to try to engage voters in key swing districts and states is totally untrue.)
But it is not so surprising this myth persists, after all even in September 2009, the The News Big Media Won't Report was how supporters totally outhustled opponents on the ground, outnumbering them at townhalls and staging rallies in major cities across the country.
Here are the facts, just about the accomplishments of OFA in 2009 - which were part of an even larger coalition of Democratic party organizations, labor, medical professionals, and health care activists:
OFA kicked off our campaign for health reform last June. More than 2.5 million people volunteered through our campaign by signing a statement of support, making a phone call, attending an event, visiting a congressional office or going door to door. Our volunteers organized 25,000 events in all 50 states in every Congressional District. Since August, our network has generated more than 1 million calls to Congress in support of reform. And in one week last August, when tea party protesters were burning Members of Congress in effigy, “death panel” rumors dominated water-cooler talk and Washington pundits were ready to pen health reform’s obituary, 65,000 OFA supporters visited their local Congressional offices – demonstrating massive public support for reform and keeping the fight alive for another day.
In fact, if OFA, HCAN, and other Democratic groups had not been mobilizing throughout August to drive people to the townhalls the entire reform effort might have failed:
For those of us working to pass health insurance reform it was like the cavalry arriving over the hill. OFA chaired a task force of progressive organizations -- and mobilized thousands of health care reform supporters to attend town meetings across the country. That effort turned the tide in the last weeks of August and saved health insurance reform.
Oh, and many people have no idea that OFA delivered over 1 million petitions to Congress in support of health reform that included the public option as a core element of reform. Many OFA volunteers fought hard for the public option, and if you went to an OFA rally or event or phonebank or letter writing action on healthcare you would have seen the signs and heard the chants and read the materials in favor of the public option. But they were also fighting to make sure there would even be a health reform bill at all, an outcome that was hardly guaranteed.
Right before health reform passed in March, I reviewed how the tea party and the GOP tried and failed to defeat health reform:
The stated strategy was to scare the living daylights out of enough Senators and Representatives that they returned to Washington and abandoned any effort to change the status quo. It isn't hard to kill health reform - it's hard to pass it. After all, no President in a century of trying had been able to move a comprehensive reform bill successfully through Congress. The last effort died 15 years ago without even getting a floor vote in either chamber. So a whole lot of noise in home districts [during the August recess] should have been enough to do the trick, especially with a tough economy making voters nervous and a midterm election to worry about.
But that isn't what happened. Reform came back from the dead, again and again. . . .
One of the longstanding myths of the political trajectory of reform is that the tea party had a huge victory in August against the bill and that Democrats have little success to show for their year-long legislative effort. In fact, the tea party has failed to reach its goal so far. They have failed to kill the bill.
It took an entire year of hard work to get a reform bill passed, and there were multiple moments where it looked like the whole thing would fail. OFA is one of the reasons it did not. And yes, many of us are disappointed there is no public option in the bill, and at other ways the legislation falls short. But given how hard we worked to get this much, it's an open question how much was in truth left on the table. Regardless, this fight isn't over and is likely to be many years in the making.
When healthcare passed in March of 2010, I again planned to take a break. Do some other things with my life. But then David Plouffe and OFA rolled out the Vote 2010 program - a strategy to try to re-engage first time 2008 voters. And just like that, I was back in the game, and eventually even upping my commitment.
This GOTV effort prioritized turning out strong supporters who were unlikely to vote. This is the group research suggests respond most strongly to a direct personal appeal on the phone and at the door. Those Democrats already planning to vote didn't need to hear from us. Those contemplating staying home needed to -- and did. And it was relentlessly data-driven. Reporting and measuring our progress, trying to ever refine our targets, was a huge part of the work, all the way up the chain. And on California scale this was no easy task.
It took nearly four weeks to finally complete the counting of votes in California. And when the dust finally settled on a few races hanging in the balance by razor thin margins, Democrats had swept all the top statewide offices - Governor, Lt. Governor and Attorney General -- as well as held Barbara Boxer's Senate seat. Despite the rough ride for Democrats elsewhere, every incumbent Democrat in the House delegation survived, including nailbiters in CA-11 (McNerney) and CA-20 (Costa). We placed tens of thousands of GOTV calls into each of these districts in the closing days, and that we had been calling and canvassing in CA-11 since the early summer,
On November 2, California was truly the Golden State for Democrats. And I'm still not sure we know all the reasons why. But one thing we do know is that there were 10.3 million people who voted in California this election - and that turnout of registered voters increased 3% over 2006 and 9% over 2002. In fact, this was the highest midterm election turnout in California since 1994. While of course we didn't hit the record turnout of 2008, after spending months working to boost turnout above traditional midterm levels, this result was welcome news.
Many organizations and campaigns contributed to that result, including the California Democratic Party and local Democratic groups, organized labor, the huge turnout efforts by key initiative campaigns opposing Prop 23, supporting Prop 25 and others. But the OFA effort was a unique statewide field campaign designed to turn out supporters of the President to vote for Democrats, and clearly it helped put Democrats over the top.
Obviously, in a lot of places, Vote 2010 did not have that kind of success. On Election Night 2010 I sat in the state boiler room and watched two different elections unfold on the TV screen: in California Boxer and Brown declared winners while in other states House races fell in grim succession for the GOP. Meanwhile on my computer screen I was running eye-popping final tallies for OFA phonebanks and canvasses around the state. It was a bizarre emotional experience to have those simultaneous highs and lows.
Once the dust settled nationally OFA and other Democratic organizations had held a number of key Senate seats in a tough environment, and eked out some heroic wins in places like NY-1. And we had lost the House by a huge margin despite equally hard work in those districts. We don't really know all the reasons why some races were more winnable than others, but the fact that the results were all over the map means to me there is no single defining narrative about the midterms. There's a mix of local, national, candidate and campaign factors at play. But we need to learn as much as we can about who voted and why for 2012.
Indeed, since the election OFA has been doing just that, with thousands of meetings, conference calls, surveys, debriefs, and even a personal meeting between seven OFA volunteers and the President. (A shoutout here to Rolando Vasquez of California who was one of those selected to deliver the national debrief results and share their views directly with the President.)
DADT/DREAM and The Mighty Duck Session
Last Thursday night, I was coming home from an OFA phonebank trying to get support for DADT repeal and passing the DREAM Act. I was calling people in Alaska who were potential supporters and asking them to call Senator Murkowski, and many of the people I reached agreed to do it. Then I saw the Washington Post op-ed about how OFA should be doing more to help get key Senators on board for progressive priorities. While he was writing the piece, we were actually hard at work doing just that. Even as tired as all of us were from the midterms, OFA volunteers stepped up to make this a Mighty Duck session after all.
As Deputy Director Jeremy Bird explained:
In recent weeks, OFA volunteers nationwide have been hard at work urging their Members of Congress to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." During the lame duck Congressional session, volunteers made tens of thousands of phone calls, wrote letters to the editor of their local newspapers, and held hundreds of local events supporting repeal. In the past week alone, volunteers dropped off nearly 600,000 signed petitions to Senators Collins, Scott Brown, and Kirk -- all key swing votes that supported repeal in the end.
Much of the same work was done on DREAM - our phonebanks in California and elsewhere pushed for calls on both bills. My favorite moment was when I got someone from Wasilla, Alaska, to make a call in support.
Of Organizing And Other Drugs
So we close out an unexpected, rollercoaster two years of my life working with OFA, and nearly four years of doing work I never planned on doing, but can't imagine doing without.
It's backbreaking, usually invisible and often tedious. Anyone who has worked that same block yet again (in the rain this time), or faced down a long list of calls yet to be made, or picked up a huge stack of data to enter, knows the work of change isn't all big fun rallies with famous musicians and top political stars.
And that when it is, your job isn't to show up and listen to speeches, it's to spend weeks building the crowd using those same organizing tools. And maybe even to get folks waiting in line to make some phone calls.
But it comes with an intense and highly addictive sense of personal empowerment. It's full of highs and lows -- and the experience of being part of a strong team and larger movement.
In the weeks leading up to Election Day, I spent so much time with data that I kept dreaming about it long after polls closed that night. Each night in my sleep I returned to Votebuilder -- the massive voter database where we had spent so many hours during GOTV -- or the spreadsheets we built to track our progress. I would wake up in the morning anxious and wired, ready to jump out of bed and return to whatever emergency surely awaited me, only to realize a few seconds later that no, the election was over and my work on it was done.
I was so deeply invested in the work and the other people that it took days to let go of that and get my life back to normal. That's what so people are willing to give to our country and we will do it again and again until the work is done. It's not over. Not really. The next phase will bring new challenges, and some of the same ones, and a lot of things we can't even imagine right now.
I won't say I was never disappointed - I have been disappointed, frustrated, and occasionally completely crushed. But I've also seen my commitment to a new direction rewarded again and again and I've seen my work pay off. Most of the time it takes at least twice and long and is at least four times as hard as I thought it would be. And sometimes it comes with baggage so heavy it almost breaks my back to lift it. But I see things coming to pass we have been waiting for and working for over the long haul. Like health reform almost a century in the making. Like passage of a hate crimes bill I worked on in the 1990's that couldn't make it through until Democrats controlled all three branches. Like righting a 17 year old wrong against those who serve our country in uniform.
At the end of the day, I see tremendous progress and a commitment to keep trying. And I've got a deep desire to get some 2012 payback from the GOP. In the meantime we have plenty of work to do.
I am a volunteer with Organizing for America in California. I served temporarily as the 2010 GOTV Director in California, but this is my personal blog. When I write here I speak for myself and not for the organization. My diaries, and all the words in them are my own.