By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 10, 2008
Olimpia Lopez, a nanny who lives in Northwest Washington's Petworth neighborhood, canceled a dental appointment yesterday, along with an $18-an-hour baby-sitting job.
A historic election was at hand, and Lopez, 59, felt compelled to make her first foray into presidential politics. At 10 a.m., she joined a group on a Mount Pleasant corner and hoisted a Hillary Clinton sign for all the passing world to see.
A similar spirit drove Doug Hartley, 73, a retired State Department diplomat, to forsake the couch, TV and his usual glass of wine Friday night. Instead, he walked two miles from his Glover Park home to Dupont Circle, where he stood with a foot-stomping, sign-waving crowd of Barack Obama supporters.
"It's like taking Viagra, except that it doesn't cost you anything," Hartley said, pausing to appreciate the gusto of a woman shouting "Are you an Obama mama?" at every female passerby.
"This is fun. It's exciting," he said. "People are all ginned up."
As the presidential primary engulfs the Washington region, public attention is focused on the two Democratic candidates, both of whom have the chance to make history, either by becoming the first woman to win the White House or the first African American.
But behind the two candidates, another drama is unfolding, one that stars legions of volunteers: young men and women, retirees, grandmothers, lawyers and stockbrokers, many of them captivated and moved by the campaign's unprecedented choice of candidates.
For months they have watched the duel play out in such states as Iowa, New Hampshire and California. But now it has come to neighborhoods and towns across the District, Maryland and Virginia, and thousands of volunteers are stealing time from work, children, spouses and themselves to dive headlong into the frenzy of a national campaign.
"It's my civic duty," said Martina Matthews, 72, a retired public school principal who lives in Capitol Hill, a walking advertisement for Obama, with three campaign buttons pinned to her black beret.
Standing outside the senator's storefront headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue after attending the office's opening Friday morning, Matthews pronounced herself ready to make phone calls, wave signs, monitor a polling station, whatever was needed.
In January, she said, she drove to South Carolina and slept in a "fleabag motel" that shook every time a train passed, all so she could spread the word about her man, the senator.
"I'm looking at him as a man I love," Matthews said, her grin lingering even as she recalled the greasy pizza she had to endure during those 18-hour days. "I mean, he moves me to want to do better."
Both campaigns are relying on retirees such as Matthews, who have free time to help with the nuts and bolts of street campaigns, passing out buttons, fliers and yard signs, and reminding anyone who passes to vote.
But they also lean on such younger supporters as Rachel Rosen, a University of Maryland freshman, who is coordinating a campuswide quest for Clinton votes. Her attraction to the senator, she said, is rooted in what she believes is Clinton's deep understanding of complex issues, whether health care or the Iraq war.
But she said that finding allies is challenging, especially when Obama's popularity has soared among the campus set. She said she has found herself playing de facto therapist to closeted Clinton supporters, coaxing them to resist pressure to join Obama.
"They're afraid that if they show their support for Clinton, their friends will yell at them," she said. "We spend a lot of time telling people it's okay to believe what they believe and that they should be proud of being Hillary supporters."
Her counterpart at the university, Paul-Alexandre Rischard, the Maryland coordinator for Students for Obama, acknowledges that he is somewhat obsessed with the Illinois senator. Even before Obama declared his candidacy, Rischard said he devoured the senator's two books, his speeches, and every newspaper and magazine article about him.
In recent months, he has spent 70 hours a week on the campaign, skipping meals and sleep, to organize trips to New Hampshire and South Carolina and to recruit volunteers. "I was really turned on by Obama's message," he said.
The campaign's fervor also has swept up those firmly entrenched in middle age. Bill Felmlee, 38, of Vienna sacrificed Saturday with his 3-year-old son to make calls for Clinton from her Ballston headquarters.
"Good morning, I'm a volunteer calling on behalf of Hillary Clinton's campaign," he repeated throughout the morning, reading from a script.
Politics is in Felmlee's blood. In 1992, he volunteered for Bill Clinton and, more recently, he worked for Timothy M. Kaine's gubernatorial campaign. His devotion, though, is not that of a volunteer in full and early love with his candidates. Instead, it has evolved over time. Hillary Clinton, he said, had to win his loyalty over and over, throughout the Clintons' trials and tribulations.
"It's always been tough to be a Clinton supporter," he said. "But my loyalty is earned and re-earned."
Now Felmlee is so determined to see Clinton become president that, at his own expense, he has traveled to New Hampshire and South Carolina to rally voters. Yet no vote might have been sweeter to capture than that of his mother, whom he called every other day in Colorado for weeks until she dropped Obama.
"A mother is always the toughest person to convince," he said.
As Felmlee spoke, he was surrounded by dozens of Clinton volunteers, many of them calling potential voters in Nebraska to remind them to attend yesterday's caucus there.
At the same hour in the District, Clinton volunteers commandeered an Adams Morgan corner, among dozens of spots across the region where supporters of both campaigns could be seen yesterday.
By 9:30 a.m., about 150 Obama volunteers assembled in College Park before fanning out to drop leaflets on doorsteps across Prince George's County. Many said that no presidential candidate had ever inspired them to lift a finger for a campaign, let alone get out of bed before 10 a.m.
"Essentially, my whole weekend is planned around Obama," said Melissa Morales, 21, a University of Maryland senior who expected to make phone calls for the senator, as well as canvass voters and attend his rally Monday. The inspiration for her allegiance is simple: Obama, she said, "will make a difference in Iraq."
Corrie Mauldin, 32, of Hyattsville said she was helping Obama not only because she views him as a unifying force but because she's fatigued by the prospect of another Clinton following a Bush. "Barack has such a different message," she said.
But the possibility of another Clinton inspires others, including Mary Boergers, 61, who surrendered a vacation in California to hand out "Hillary" stickers at a Bethesda Metro station on a recent frigid morning.
"How much do you get paid for this?" a man in a tweed cap growled at her.
"I'm a volunteer," she replied.
Boergers has watched as fellow Democrats have been swept up by Obama, including her daughter, a lawyer who she suspects voted for him in California. But she remains committed to Clinton, she said, because "it takes someone who understands the system" to make substantial change.
Paige Shevlin, 24, a production editor at the Brookings Institution, doesn't buy that argument. She's firmly in the Obama camp, and she can recite a litany of reasons why, as well as a litany of ways she has helped his quest.
She's also looking forward to when the campaign is a memory and the moment when she can stop making phone calls, writing e-mails and traveling to unfamiliar states to help him. The other night, she said, she dreamed that she sent out dozens of dozens of Obama e-mails, all to the wrong people. "I'm very excited," she said. "But it's starting to wear thin."
Staff writers Valerie Strauss, Mary Otto, Megan Greenwell and Christy Goodman contributed to this report.