Grass-Roots Reform Battle Tests Weary Obama Supporters

By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 23, 2009

RACINE, Wis. -- The last three years had unfolded in an unrelenting series of what Jeremy Bird called Big Moments, and here began the latest on a sweltering afternoon earlier this month. Another rental car, another unfamiliar highway, another string of e-mails sent from his BlackBerry while driving 70 mph. Bird took a sip from his coffee and looked over at Dan Grandone, a co-worker riding in the passenger seat.

"I don't know about you, but I'm running on adrenaline right now," Bird said. "I love this feeling that we're on the verge of something crucial."

Bird had lived at that precipice ever since joining Barack Obama's campaign as a top organizer in 2007, but rarely had he faced a challenge so daunting as the one awaiting in Racine. As deputy director of Organizing for America, a national network of Obama supporters, Bird was scheduled to speak with a group of volunteers who had been threatened at town halls, outshouted at local rallies and weakened by a general sense of post-campaign fatigue. With one 90-minute visit, Bird hoped to leave them confident, empowered and reenergized.

"We want these people to feel like they can control almost anything that happens in government," said Bird, who had traveled from his office at Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington to spend two days visiting volunteers across Wisconsin. "They should feel like there's no barrier between the regular people out in the states and the power players in D.C."

The outcome of the health-care debate weighed partially on Bird's success, and on the effectiveness of Organizing for America (OFA) in general. When Bird was named deputy director of OFA last year, he became the vanguard of much more than 13 million e-mail addresses collected from supporters during Obama's campaign. He became one of the people most responsible for validating Obama's campaign ethos: that grass-roots support can power government and shape legislation.

It is a theory that now faces a defining test. Conservatives have waged an angry and effective battle against Obama's health-care legislation, and OFA has responded by asking its volunteers to visit congressional offices and flood town hall meetings in a massive show of support. This month, Obama sent an e-mail to OFA members: "This is the moment our movement was built for," he wrote.

When Bird arrived at a Racine coffee shop called Cup of Hope and sat down with 10 OFA volunteers, he spoke with similar urgency.

"We need to flex our muscles on this, and we need to act fast," he said. "We always said in the campaign that this was not just about one election but about a chance to make some major changes. Well, here's the chance."

Bird had a lifetime of experience thriving against long odds, and he relished the role. The son of conservative Baptists, Bird grew up in a Missouri trailer park before attending Harvard Divinity School. He organized underfunded schools in Boston, worked for Howard Dean's presidential campaign in 2004 and started a company that lobbied Wal-Mart -- his mother's former employer -- to improve its benefits and wages. On behalf of Obama, he had moved to five states, helping the candidate overcome racism in South Carolina and Islamophobia in Pennsylvania and Ohio.

When Bird arrived in Wisconsin last week, he recognized all the familiar hallmarks of an underdog fight. Gone were the 44 field offices across the state where Obama organizers had worked during the campaign; now Bird spent his visit searching for power outlets in Wisconsin coffee shops and conducting conference calls at sidewalk cafes. Gone were the 100 paid staffers who orchestrated an Obama victory in the state; now OFA employed one person in Wisconsin, Grandone, who hoped to hire two or three assistants if the budget allowed.

"Right now," Grandone said, "we are kind of building this thing as we fly it."

Around the table in Racine, Bird listened as the volunteers rattled off evidence of OFA's growing pains. Local membership was relatively stagnant because Racine residents were exhausted after volunteering during the long presidential campaign. Newspapers had focused their coverage of health-care town halls on the most vocal conservatives, even when the crowd contained more Democrats. One OFA member said he was now the target of repeated threats. "I've had a guy say to me, 'Why should I be afraid of a liberal when I have a .357?' " said Ryan Gleason, 32.

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