Bay Area Obama Volunteers Witnessing History

by Jay Jonah Cash on January 20, 2009

It’s 5:00 am in Washington, D.C. I’m in the lobby of the Double Tree Suites. Upstairs are a dozen fellow volunteers from the Bay Area Obama leadership team. We’re heading out in a few minutes. The silver and purple tickets we have are standing room only, and we want to get a good spot.

None of us are rich, and it’s expensive to be here. But this is our reward for the 18-hour days and the time off we took from our jobs, from school, from friends and mates. This is our reward on a very cold morning in our Capital City. It’s also the last day we’ll be together.

The campaign only had three paid staff members for all of Northern California. They gave us – the “volunteer staff” – an unprecedented level of responsibility, and an unprecedented amount of high-pressure work.

For weeks and months, we lived on coffee, pizza, Red Bull and the occasional barbeque chicken brought in by other volunteers. Right now, we’re being fueled by pure excitement. We’re all cycling between being dazed or surreally giddy or, in quiet moods, on the verge of tears.

As a team, we accomplished “something incredible, something we never imagined” in the words of the Western States Campaign Director. Together, on election weekend, we and our SoCal colleagues made 10 million phone calls to battleground states. Those 10 million calls, that was more New York, Barack’s home state of Illinois, and all the rest of America … combined.

If you had been in any of the dozens of phone bank locations around the Bay Area on Election Weekend, you would have noticed something that had never been tried before. By that time, Chicago considered us to be “America’s Phone Bank” and were trying new innovative, and sometimes frustrating calling techniques. The most successful program was the most fun to watch. Our volunteer staff trained to be able to switch all of the phone callers in their locations from calling one state to switching to another (Florida, then Ohio, then New Mexico and finally Alaska for the Senate race, with several more in between).

“Attention everyone, after you end this call, stop calling.” Within twenty minutes (often less), new scripts and call lists were printed and the phone bank captain was on a chair shouting out the particulars of the new state. It was amazing.

The Northern California team also sent more than 5,000 people to the battleground states for the general election. Those volunteers worked more than 250,000 hours in those states. That’s not hours they were present. That was hours they actually worked, knocking on doors and entering data and managing events. On one weekend, NorCal sent 1,700 people to Northern Nevada. The next weekend we sent 2,000. In 2004 the Democrats lost the gun-loving independently minded Reno metro area. This time, we won it by 12 points.

On the four-day “Get Out the Vote” weekend before the election, Northern California had nearly 700 people on the ground in Colorado, more than 800 in Nevada (we were confident we were winning there, and had directed folks to the other battlegrounds), nearly 100 in North Carolina and hundreds more spread around the other contested states.

I just got a call. We’re leaving in 10 minutes. Our cell phones are still working this morning. Sometime soon, despite all the temporary cell towers popping up, the only thing we’ll be able to do is text each other (if we’re lucky.) Around town, another few dozen of us are starting to converge on the Mall. Jessica’s there already. I’m happy to be sitting here in the lobby writing, at least for a few more minutes thinking about the recent past.

During the three months we were all together as the volunteer staff, time was compressed. It passed quickly, but if you had done something a few days before, you would look back and think it had been at least a week or two since. Our minds couldn’t really wrap around the amount the intensity.

Folks are chanting “Fired Up, Ready to Go!” in the lobby now. Throughout D.C., the mood is joyful to the point of being surreal. The concert on Sunday was the concert of our lifetime. Today, we’re witnessing history. It’s weird but wonderful. All week, everyone has been striking up conversations with strangers in the line at Wendy’s or in line at Macy’s (bowties in hand), and especially on the Metro trains. I’ve never seen such happy transit riders.

In the lobby, there are now dozens of other people gathering. More than half are African American. I’m bundled up like a snowman, with two winter coats (one medium, one large) over two thermal shirts. I’m wearing three pair of socks, boots, and I have both my skinny legged and boxy boot-cut Levis on. The long underwear bottoms have been sold out, literally in the entire region for days, and doubling up on pants was the best thing I could think of to keep warm. We’ll be standing still for hours in sub-freezing weather after all.

I’m mentioning my outfit-of-many-layers both to give you an illustration, but to also point out something that is truly striking to me right now. While most of us are dressed like the kid brother in A Christmas Story, nearly all of the African Americans gathering here in the lobby are dressed in Church clothes. Suits and ties and silky pantsuits and dresses under long wool jackets. One woman was crying. “It’s a beautiful day,” she just said to a little girl she was holding in her arms.

I just don’t really want my friends to come down quite yet. I want them to keep taking their time. I’m a writer, and this is how I really reflect on my life. I want more time to sit here and ponder and watch this history and to anticipate being together with my friends. I’ve been through so much with them. After the Neighborhood and Youth Balls tonight, we’ll never be together again. I’m just trying to compress this time.

Just got a text. “Two minutes.” (We’ll see. The ten minutes has been 15 now.) I guess the timing is about right. I’m approaching 1,000 words, and it’s time to spell check, then zip up the jacket, leave the laptop in their room, and stand up for history.

They’re here.

Here we go.

Jay Jonah Cash was a fulltime volunteer staff member for Obama for America, and directed the Northern California Out-of-State travel program.

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