They're on a Roll To Get Out the Vote

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By Kevin Merida
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 6, 2008

ATLANTA, Feb. 5 -- The Communications Workers of America's union hall sits on a sprawling parking lot off Interstate 20, across the street from Mrs. Winner's Chicken & Biscuits. When Charles James arrived at 7:20 a.m., the parking lot was nearly empty, the sky was gray, the air was cool. He went inside the hall and took a seat at a table with a phone that soon rang.

"No, you can't register and vote on the same day," he told the woman on the line. "If it's any of my business, can I ask you who you were going to vote for?" He hung up, dejection on his face. "Lost an Obama voter because she's not registered. Doggone it!"

By night's end, there were plenty of voters to spare, as Barack Obama routed Hillary Clinton in the night's first primary win.

But scenes like that one played out Tuesday across the landscape of American politics, as thousands of drivers, door-knockers, phone-bank operators and field generals pushed voters to the polls on the biggest day of the campaign season. Voters are accustomed to dealing with official campaign volunteers -- those who wear candidate T-shirts, chant on corners, carry signs. Presidential campaigns specialize in visibility. Much less visible are operations like the one James ran out of the CWA union hall, Local 3204.

James is a longtime labor organizer with many hats. He is a local United Auto Workers trustee, president of the A. Philip Randolph Institute in Georgia, vice president of the Georgia AFL-CIO. On Super Tuesday, though, he was leading a get-out-the-vote team for PowerPAC.org, a nonprofit advocacy group that aims to mobilize black voters and supports Barack Obama.

Obama has criticized big spending by outside groups, notably those who backed John Edwards's campaign in Iowa. The Obama campaign sent a letter to PowerPAC's founder, San Francisco lawyer Steve Phillips, asking that his group discontinue its efforts, so as not to undermine the Illinois senator's message. But Phillips thought otherwise. "We respect their position that Barack is trying to be a leader and keep money out of politics," Phillips said. "But we think this is very consistent with his message." Phillips added that, like Obama, PowerPAC is trying to create "the next wave of organizers and elected officials for the next 20 years."

PowerPAC, led by stalwarts of Jesse Jackson's campaigns, concentrated its Super Tuesday efforts in California, Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia, spending upward of $4 million, Phillips said, on activities ranging from radio ads to literature drops. In Georgia, for example, 46 "super precincts" that tend to drive the outcomes in various districts were targeted, with a special effort made to reach 65,000 voters who had a history of voting in general elections but hadn't voted in the last two presidential primaries or the 2006 midterm primary. Morehouse College students, under the direction of a professor who specializes in statistics, conducted exit polling for PowerPAC.

This was all fairly sophisticated stuff. But James's problems on Tuesday were simple ones. He had one driver who didn't have a cellphone, another driver who was too slow for his liking, and his operation's timing was off. People would call for rides, but they would find their own rides before his crew could get to them. And then there was just some ol'-fashioned nonsense.

His cellphone rang. "Yeah, man. You voted for Obama yet? Well, what the hell you waiting for? Don't tell me you're voting for Hillary Clinton. I'm only talking to Obama voters today. I got a big bus here. If you know anybody who needs a ride to the polls, they need to call me."

Who was that? James was asked.

"That was a friend of mine. Well, used to be a friend. He voted the wrong way."

James had no use for people who voted the "wrong way," or endorsed the wrong way, for that matter. Here's what he had to say about Andrew Young, the former United Nations ambassador, former Atlanta mayor, and Hillary Clinton supporter: "I think Andy is beginning to outlive his youthfulness. I'm beginning to wonder if he has lost it. As sad as I think it is, I think we get a little envious of one another. I think Andy would have liked to have been a presidential candidate."


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