David Plouffe and Obama for America created a monster in California. Now Organizing for America – “OFA 2.0” – needs to figure out how what to do with it.
Between February 2007 and November 2008, the original OFA established an unprecedented grassroots organizing operation across the state of California. When the election ended, we were left with a huge group of trained volunteer organizers, former campaign staff returning home from battleground states, and newly activated volunteers ready for their next assignment. It’s an exciting but challenging resource, thousands of people fired up to remake California politics and bring recalcitrant Democrats and Republicans resisting the President’s agenda to heel. This is not a group that wants to be asked to throw house parties.
The new OFA has recruited a veteran of this grassroots organizing experience to lead its operation in California. As new CA State Director Mary Jane Stevenson kicks off her statewide listening tour this weekend in Sacramento (details below), she can expect to get an earful. But she also has an incredible opportunity to unleash this monster to attack serious problems for our state and the nation.
Organizing for America is in the process of rolling out staff in all fifty states, and this week is bringing on board state directors for the entire Western Region. In each state, OFA has asked its new leaders to tour their states and hear directly from grassroots volunteers.
California’s “listening tour” begins this Sunday in Sacramento following the California Democratic Party’s state convention, and will come to Oakland, San Francisco, and San Jose. Fresno and Southern California events are slated for the following week.
Mary Jane Stevenson, the new California state director, was a field organizer during the primary and the state field director for the general election. Under her leadership, a paid field staff of just eleven people statewide mobilized tens of thousands of volunteer leaders throughout the state. The field team generated literally millions of phone calls to battleground states, and trained and deployed thousands of interns and organizers in Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico and elsewhere.
I was one of those eleven field staffers, and I have huge confidence in “MJ” and her leadership. She’s in this for the right reasons – she believes community organizing is the only way to generate lasting change. One of the most important things she did was to push us to give more autonomy to our volunteer leaders, to let them take over and make mistakes if necessary so they could get the experience that made the difference during GOTV. She also pushed us to take “Camp Obama” training to outrageous levels, which created legions of new volunteers in the last months of the campaign.
Usually, California’s ability to influence national politics begins and ends with its ability to marshal vast amounts of money to pay for campaigns elsewhere. This time, we got to do far more.
Indeed, one of the biggest reasons I got involved with this campaign was my excitement about the potential of this growing number of trained grassroots organizers to have a long term effect on progressive politics. This is how I saw it in August 2008, as I prepared to join the field staff:
This is an opportunity I can’t pass up: to be part of the biggest, strongest, smartest, most creative and most grassroots-oriented field campaign every put together for a Presidential candidate. . . . It represents what we’ve been demanding from Democratic politics, using technology to maximize civic engagement toward progressive policy goals. If it works as well as I hope it will, we’ll see a lot of blue on election night. Even better, we will have trained a new generation of organizers in all 50 states and built a movement to support the big policy changes we need.
Now, standing here on the other side of “a lot of blue on election night” we still don’t know the full potential of Organizing for America. Volunteers need to learn more about what OFA plans and how they fit in. OFA obviously can’t do much without the same kind of motivated and well-organized teams of volunteers who helped win the election. So it is critical to have OFA’s new staff hear from volunteers about what kind of organization they want to be part of, what ideas they have about advancing Obama’s policy agenda, and how their communities fit in, especially on the three priorities of education, health care and green energy.
At the end of the day, OFA has to build a new partnership with its grassroots organizers, around long term policy goals rather than a single candidate’s election. I expect to hear those goals are likely to be focused strongly on the President’s agenda. Benefits to local needs and priorities may be contingent on their relationship to that agenda. And that may or may not be what all of the local volunteers want to hear. Others are excited to be drafted to get healthcare passed or a new energy policy, but feel they haven’t been asked to do enough yet. The listening tour is an opportunity to let OFA’s leader in California hear concerns and questions, but also for all of us to learn much more about what is clearly still a work in progress.
OFA’s task is bridging the high expectations of many volunteers newly empowered by winning the election, and the reality of the very basic kinds of neighborhood level organizing work that needs to happen right now, not to mention the wholly different context of working with the White House rather than an insurgent candidate.
But if OFA in California can tap into even some of the activism we saw during the election, it could have a big influence on a critical national agenda, with benefits to the state. Simply by continuing to train organizers and connect them with their communities, OFA will increase the capacity for progressive politics in California. And at least in the areas of health care, education and energy, there is the potential to link the local and national levels. I look forward to starting that conversation.