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On the Road: Northern Virginia

“The only thing to do was go. Dean leaped up and said we were ready to go back to Virginia. He took a shower, I cooked up a big platter of rice with all that was left in the house, Marylou sewed his socks, and we were ready to go.”

– Jack Kerouac, “On the Road”

Leans Left -

Ah, “Communist Country.”

Communist Country, which includes Falls Church, Virginia, taught us about Hub Directors. Two aspiring Leninists, Kate Stanton and Kim Peyser, and one longtime Trotskyite, Ed Gerwin, ranted to us about Che Guevara and talked about how the Obama campaign is running its GOTV operations here in northern Virginia.

What’s a Hub Director? In essence, Hub Directors are full-time volunteers who manage the inflow and outflow of volunteers for get-out-the-vote (GOTV) canvassing efforts. Because there are such an enormous number of volunteers for Barack Obama’s GOTV efforts in NoVa, the regular field offices simply cannot physically accommodate all the people. (Obama’s DC suburbs operation is not alone in this happy logistical challenge.) As GOTV kicks in, separate physical staging locations have mushroomed all over the state and country. These are offices dedicated entirely to GOTV, and in turn many have their own satellite locations.

Stanton, a recent University of Michigan grad, became a full time unpaid volunteer shortly after she showed up at the office in late August. She’d come to volunteer for a phonebank, because she’d heard that was something she could do to help. Before she knew it, an organizer recruited her to sign on for much greater responsibility than she’d anticipated. “I guess I looked like I had a lot of free time,” she joked. “You seem like a reasonably intelligent person. Here, go do this.” Now she works from 9 am to at least 12:30 or 1 am every single day.

While we were there, a volunteer informed the Hub team, “Jackie has no canvassers.” Jackie, apparently, was one of the canvassing coordinators out at a staging location. Since one of the canvassing coordinators out in the field didn’t have anyone at that moment, Stanton and the team shifted on the fly. The team had a priority alert, and moved swiftly to redirect volunteers toward the staging location running on empty.

Peyser, who’d worked for the Democratic National Convention in Denver, was used to working with scheduling events. Like the other Hub Directors, she worked full-time volunteer hours. Asked how she had time to do this, she said she had an understanding father who happened to be a lobbyist, could not donate to the Obama campaign for that reason, and his contribution was subsidizing her living expenses while she worked. (If Obama wins, he may be open to charges of the unique but still suspicious lobbyist-daughter-volunteer-influence-peddling.)

She told us about one of the wall lists that adorn every Obama office — this one had positions like “Data Trainer,” “Phonebank Captain,” “Master Trainer,” and so forth, with names, numbers and shift times filling the wall sheets. As Peyser managed “runners,” those volunteers responsible for going back and forth from the Hub Director team to the GOTV staging locations with information, literature refills, and any other items needing to be shuttled, she told us about the GOTV shift plans.

On Election Day, beginning at midnight until 3 am, Obama canvassers will quietly drop literature at the houses of sporadic voters who commute long distances beginning as early as 4 am. A small reminder piece of literature about Election Day needs to hit those voters at a precisely-timed moment: before they begin their long workdays. Another canvassing shift goes from 5-8 am, another no-knocking lit drop, but timed to voters who would be ideally caught at their cars and met with a smile and a reminder about which voting location is his or hers.

Remember, these are highly targeted GOTV-universe voters, ones that have been identified through the massive voter contact effort and/or profiled with Catalist, the Obama team’s advanced datamining tool, so these are voters the campaign thinks will vote their way, provided they go vote. Actual knocking on doors will likely begin at 10 am on Election Day. Peyser said that the average canvasser will do a three-hour canvassing shift and be given turf with 30-40 doors, depending on the compactness of the turf. High-density turf will likely have more doors. Turf with more doors will be given to the better, more efficient longtime canvass volunteers.

Ed Gerwin, who recently retired from the law firm where he was a partner, had been donating extensive volunteer time to the Obama campaign since the primary season. Falls Church was his 13th office, and he’d worked in South Carolina, Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, West Virginia, Kentucky and South Dakota. He likened his role to that of a bartender after a long day’s canvass. Other volunteers would return, talk about a tough day out at the doors, and he’d listen to the telling before reinforcing the value of each door knocked and each data point collected.

Noting that he and one of the organizers had helped identify and rent the Falls Church office, which used to be a beauty salon, Gerwin talked about “the luxury of space.” With so many people trying to help out — 660 people attended just this one office opening — having workspace to accomplish critical organizing tasks made all the difference.

Stationed tight at the front of the entrance, Gerwin was often the first line of attack in fielding yard sign complaints. He ruefully recalled one woman telling him, “you guys are incompetent,” in what surely is as ironic a statement as has been made in this campaign season.

Adjacent to the Hub Director space is an entire room dedicated solely to walk packet assembly line operations. Priscilla Mendenhall, another full-time volunteer who’d started a walk packet assembly operation at the Fairfax office and moved up to create one in Falls Church, demonstrated her organization. She manages approximately 20 regular volunteers and a myriad of others who assemble 700 walk packets a week. Some come from Maryland, DC, and some are local, people who aren’t as comfortable going to the doors but who want to work and help.

Up until GOTV, Mendenhall said, she had standing orders from field organizers what turf they wanted cut and packaged, and so she’d just run the orders. One challenge is that the turf organized by the Falls Church office comprised two separate Congressional districts, so separating literature for downballot candidates added an extra wrinkle that Mendenhall handled adroitly. Suggested that the language she used in describing her operation sounded like that of a regular business (running orders, etc.), she noted that as someone used to running an interpreter service in the District she found thinking of her operation as a business a natural way to run things.

Still, Mendenhall, who also has done much community organizing for multicultural populations seeking affordable access to healthcare, told us the work didn’t come without sacrifice. Like the other full time volunteers, this is all she does. “I don’t cook, I haven’t gone grocery shopping in weeks, and I mostly go home, take a hot bath, sleep, and come right back.”

By our observation, the Falls Church, Virginia Obama office is as impressive an operation as we have seen in the dozens and dozens of offices we’ve seen across the nation. In one of Al Giordano’s reports from the field in North Carolina, he included a note that one of that state’s RFDs (regional field directors) had sent her organizers:

Stay calm – and BE RELENTLESS today. Get everyone motivated, educated, and into the field as quickly and as often as possible…

GET THEM COMFORTABLE WITH A BREAK-NECK PACE. They need to be the cool heads by the time GOTV rolls around…

Report your numbers like clock-work. Call me if you need me. Don’t stop until your last shift is confirmed for Sunday…

Barack really is expecting a lot out us – and there isn’t much else for him to do. He has placed this election in our hands at this point. It’s up to us now. We may never again have our hands on history quite like this again for as long as we live. That makes each hour so so precious. We can slack off, sleep in, and make excuses for the rest of our lives. But today – and for the next 3 weeks… whether we knew what we were getting into or not… we have ended up with people’s lives, livelihoods, and dreams for their children – all dependent on our performance day in and day out. This is our one chance at history… our one chance at perfection. Our one chance to live forever. So today – breathe this in… realize that your grandkids will be reading about you… realize that you will miss this feeling very very soon… and win every single hour.

Proud of you in advance for a big day…

“Win every single hour.”

Nothing better summarizes the feeling we got in the Falls Church, Virginia office of Senator Barack Obama’s Campaign for Change.