Obama’s grass roots in search of new turf

Wallsten is a writer in our Washington bureau.

James Dillon, a onetime Republican activist who grew disgusted with politics, was so inspired by Barack Obama’s candidacy that he joined the campaign’s massive volunteer army, hosting house parties and recruiting supporters.

But beyond influencing the November election, Dillon thought he was joining a new political movement that would be mobilized for big goals -- to end poverty or fix the healthcare system, or maybe to end the U.S. reliance on foreign oil.

So Dillon, a Florida real estate developer, was discouraged by the suggestion that Obama’s campaign manager e-mailed last week: “Excited about the much anticipated first dog?” it read, referring to the Obama daughters’ quest for a new puppy. “Support your local animal shelter to give animals in your area a chance.”


Amid Obama’s transition to power, a spirited and often secretive debate has broken out among top campaign staff members over how to refashion the broad network of motivated volunteers into a force that can help Obama govern.

With 13 million e-mail addresses, hundreds of trained field organizers and tens of thousands of neighborhood coordinators and phone bank volunteers, the network has become one of the most valuable assets in politics, and Obama’s team may choose to deploy it to elect other Democratic officials, or to lobby Congress for his toughest legislative goals, or even to apply pressure on local and state policymakers across the country.

This weekend, hundreds of field staffers and some key volunteers are planning a marathon closed-door summit at a Chicago hotel to begin negotiating details of what the network might look like when Obama takes office in January. A group of field organizers from battleground states has been enlisted to draw up a plan.

But while aides sort out the details, the Obama team’s early hints about how the network should be used -- as well as its tight-lipped planning process -- have struck some supporters as missteps.

Among the critics is Marshall Ganz, a legendary figure in the field of community organizing who from his post at Harvard University helped train Obama’s campaign organizers and volunteers.

Ganz has publicly questioned the campaign for not conducting a more open deliberation over how to sustain the network, which grew and thrived in part on open dialogue and online social networking.

“Is this really what ‘building on the movement to elect Barack Obama’ is going to look like?” Ganz asked. “I can’t believe this was put out by the same people who trained organizers in how to do house meetings in the campaign over the past two years.”

Of the reference to the “first dog,” Ganz concluded: “Give me a break.”

The campaign has taken some steps to open the process. It distributed surveys asking supporters for guidance on the next steps. It has used the network to call for donations to help victims of California wildfires. And, at campaign manager David Plouffe’s urging, about 1,500 volunteers will host house parties this month at which volunteers will be asked to help plan for the future.

Ben LaBolt, an Obama spokesman, said the deliberations had been inclusive. He said the campaign had received about 500,000 responses to the e-mail survey and had hosted “hundreds of conference calls, individual one-on-one calls, online surveys and conversations with field organizers, allied groups and volunteer supporters.”

The campaign’s “host guide” for the upcoming house parties suggests that volunteers rev up the Obama movement with community service projects such as helping the Humane Society. The guide suggests that volunteers try other forms of community engagement as well, such as helping with holiday food or toy drives, or helping the Red Cross or the Salvation Army.

Some volunteers were hoping for bigger goals. “I’m not trying to discourage anyone from helping animals, but there are a lot of people hurting right now,” Dillon said. “If this movement is going to sustain itself, it has to have as grand a mission as electing Barack Obama.”

Cuauhtemoc “Temo” Figueroa, a former top Obama field organizer, said the volunteer base was “hungry” to be engaged on the most important issues.

“I don’t think e-mails or YouTube videos from the president-elect are going to be enough,” Figueroa said. “These people want to continue to be a part of whatever agenda comes out of the White House, and they want to be active participants in this government that they feel they have ownership of.”

Among the questions to be sorted out by Obama’s aides: who will lead the network, whether it will become part of the Democratic Party infrastructure, and whether it should focus on local service projects or more lofty national goals.

Some details have come into focus, according to sources familiar with internal deliberations. The Obama camp is giving serious consideration to forming a not-for-profit or political action organization to house the grass-roots machinery. Remaining separate from the Democratic Party might avoid alienating independents and Republicans who backed Obama.

It is not clear what form such an organization would take, how it would raise money and how direct a relationship it could have with the White House.

Some Democratic officials believe that Obama, as leader of their party, should make his network available to other Democratic candidates and house it at the Democratic National Committee. Plouffe has used the campaign e-mail list for at least one partisan purpose: raising money to help retire the DNC’s debt.

But Dillon, who was a GOP anti-tax organizer in New York before he moved to St. Petersburg, said he hoped the grass-roots network would be separated from the party, so that it remained free to attack issues and push for solutions as its members saw fit, even if they ran afoul of the party’s principles or constituent groups.

“The notion that we are going to have to sanitize this thing because, God forbid, we step on a local Democratic Party official’s toes or step onto his turf is going to turn people like me off,” he said.

Darlene Carter, a Tampa-area schoolteacher and Obama campaign volunteer who is hosting a house party this month, also said the network should be nonpartisan. She intends to have Republicans attend the event at her home.

“We’re looking for a change, and Obama himself has said that it’s not about party,” she said.

Several field organizers and others familiar with the deliberations said they were optimistic that, over time, the network would be successful.

“There is a lot of curiosity and even some anxiety around what’s going to happen,” said one organizer, who requested anonymity because of the campaign’s restrictions on talking to the media. “But I think at least the organizers understand that this is going to take a little bit of time.”