Reaching out for Obama

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Morain is a Times staff writer.

In a far corner of a cavernous conference room, a white-haired man dialed the state of Virginia.

The caller with the distinctive voice said he was volunteering for Barack Obama and was looking for Rita.

“It’s Donald Sutherland calling from California,” he said.

The actor was one of 300 people in the basement of the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza doing the same thing, phoning voters in the battleground states of Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida, hoping to make history happen.


Sutherland was on a mission. He had been placing such calls since 6 a.m. and had been in the same spot the day before. He asked the person on the other end of the phone whether Rita had cast her vote, or needed help getting to the polls.

He got the answer he had hoped for -- she was voting as they spoke. He said thanks and dialed the next prospective voter on his list.

Next to Sutherland, Jane Harvey King, a jazz singer who cast her first vote for president in the 1950s when Adlai Stevenson ran, also worked the phones. One chair over, Zohreh Tamjidi, a Los Angeles real estate agent who arrived here from Iran as a teenager 34 years ago, did the same.

“This is my duty as a citizen,” Tamjidi said. “I couldn’t sit in my office making money today. I had to come here.”

There were so many who volunteered at the Century Plaza that the organizers -- almost all of them volunteers too -- set up tables in the hallway.

They were lawyers, mothers, real estate agents, teachers, retirees, students and, this being L.A., actors. Some arrived early to make calls before work. Others came on their lunch hour. Most used their personal cellphones to make the calls.


“There are a whole host of ways to help,” Alejandro Mayorkas, former U.S. attorney in Los Angeles, said after spending an hour before work Tuesday morning making calls. “I made the time.”

California is a state that was expected to vote heavily for Obama. California donors accounted for perhaps 20% of his record-setting $640 million-plus. In the final days of the election campaign, Californians provided even more for the Democratic nominee: They volunteered.

Even though California was not a swing state, Californians still mattered. Some took leaves from work to knock on doors and traveled to the battleground states of Virginia, Colorado, Ohio and others. They even have a name, “bluebirds,” people from blue states who flock to Republican strongholds and swing states to help Obama’s campaign.

Jack Gribbon, California political director for Unite Here, the unions that include hotel and restaurant workers, oversaw an independent campaign focused on the swing area of Washoe County in the battleground state of Nevada. Knowing that Las Vegas and Clark County, in which the city is located, would probably vote for Obama, Gribbon sought to help swing the more conservative Reno-Sparks area toward the Democrat.

Using multiple voter lists, Gribbon targeted 16,000 voters, most of them with Spanish surnames, many of them Democrats and some of them newly registered.

“You can’t win anything in Nevada just based on Clark County,” he said. “You have to move the needle in Washoe County. If we pull it off, Washoe County goes Democratic. If we do that, the election is over.”


It fell to Rebecca Avelar and 250 people like her to knock on those 16,000 doors.

Avelar, 24, a South Gate resident, has spent the better part of six weeks in Reno, taking a leave from her job at a bookstore at Los Angeles International Airport.

On Sunday, she walked through a working-class neighborhood east of downtown Reno. When people weren’t home, she left door hangers with Spanish words touting Obama as a candidate “for all America.”

Some voters welcomed her and told her why they were voting for Obama. A few were irritated at the intrusion, and closed the door, even as Avelar would tell them how important their vote was.

On Tuesday, she took a brief break. It was blustery, with stuff falling that seemed to be a cross between hail and snow. “Not like L.A.,” she said. But she believed she was helping in a way she never had before.

“I’m not rich. I’m not getting paid for this. I can relate to them,” Avelar said.

Back at the Century Plaza and call centers across the state, volunteers were on track to place more than 3 million calls to battleground states in the campaign’s final 48 hours.

Sutherland, a Canadian, could not vote or make a campaign donation. But he could volunteer. Taking a brief break to explain why he was making phone calls, he turned passionate about Obama:


“You have a man who has intelligence, sensitivity, judgment, intellect. You can see the heart. You can see the hope. This is the most important election in the world.”

He paused, composed himself, checked his call sheet, picked up the phone, and dialed Virginia.

“Mr. and Mrs. Allen, Donald Sutherland speaking. I’m calling from California.”