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Obama assembles a volunteer army in Florida

ST. PETERSBURG — Ervin Baker dropped his son at middle school one day last week, then squeezed in a few hours before work to help Barack Obama. The 42-year-old restaurant manager had voter call sheets to drop off and pick up for the three precincts he is assigned and he finds that fellow volunteers are more likely to reach their contact goals when he personally visits.

"It's best when you can build that personal intimacy, because friends don't let friends down,'' Baker said as he pulled his SUV up to the Obama campaign's downtown St. Petersburg office.

It was only 9:30 a.m., but inside the dingy Central Avenue storefront, volunteers filtered in and out. A half-dozen 20-somethings hunched over laptops and worked their cell phones. A sign taped to the wall said: "How am I increasing my infrastructure? How can I empower my team leaders? How can I multiply my field army?"

Across Florida, there are about 60 such offices, an estimated 500 paid organizers and tens of thousands of Ervin Bakers on the front line. Florida Republicans have been fielding daunting get-out-the-vote programs for years, but this is the most massive organizing operation Florida has seen from a presidential campaign.

So sweeping and so lavishly funded is the volunteer-focused campaign that many Democrats think, win or lose, Obama's efforts will reverberate well beyond this election cycle in Florida.

"Absolutely, it will," said U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson. "It will have a lasting effect. Just the information and detail we have on our voter file is incredible because of all the work the Obama campaign has done here."

• • •

Spend a little time talking to the Obama volunteers and campaign staff, and it can seem like you've stepped into a modernized Frank Capra movie. The endless talk of empowerment and the capacity of individuals to improve the world would be painfully corny if it weren't so heartfelt.

Shawana Wilson, 33, lives in Lake City, a conservative bastion long written off by Democratic campaigns. She had never heard of Obama until a friend urged her to go to the community center and listen to a campaign worker.

What happened that July afternoon, she said, was an almost ethereal experience.

"Everything I had been asking for I found in Barack Obama," Wilson said. "I said to myself, 'Do I walk away and do nothing or do I apply myself and make a difference?' "

She figured she could volunteer for 30 minutes once a week.

But Wilson, who has a full-time job as a Head Start counselor, now spends more than four hours a day working for Obama in Lake City, often bringing her four children with her.

Wilson has become a team leader, overseeing about 10 other volunteers in Columbia County, a conservative area that favored George Bush 2-to-1 over John Kerry in 2004.

"We may never see Barack Obama come to Lake City but we see him every day," Wilson said on a recent Saturday as she prepared to canvass a black neighborhood in the city's north end. "We were raised by the single parent. We were poor. We have college debt."

"I am," she continued, "Barack Obama."

• • •

In Miami, Arielle Simon, 22, started paying attention to Obama about a year ago. A registered Democrat who had never volunteered for a campaign, Simon left her job in late August and signed onto the campaign as a full-time unpaid volunteer.

It started with her just showing up at Obama's Miami offices and introducing herself. "They were thrilled," she said, especially when she volunteered to return the next day. "I think they thought I was kidding."

She has worked round the clock, rising from super-volunteer to intern to deputy field organizer, all in five weeks. She now works alongside a paid field organizer, monitoring early voting at Miami City Hall, manning phone banks and canvassing.

"It's just been fantastic," she said, standing with a homemade "Bubble for Barack'' poster outside an early voting precinct on a blustery morning. "The energy on the campaign is incredible."

• • •

What you have is essentially a giant multilevel marketing operation. Volunteers pull in more volunteers who pull turn in more volunteers, and the campaign gives those volunteers wide latitude.

"That comes straight from Barack. He would say to us very early on, and I think it's sustained itself, that if anybody wants a role in this campaign they can have it,'' said Paul Tewes, the campaign's top general election strategist who recently relocated to Tampa.

Today the campaign counts 230,000 volunteers in Florida, including 19,000 "neighborhood team" members focused intensely on 1,400 neighborhoods across the state, usually covering four or five precincts. Those volunteers, many largely working free of a paid field organizer, become responsible to one another and motivate their cohorts to get out the vote in their own or an assigned neighborhood.

"There's so much work to do and the time is so short,'' said Baker, who is targeting three overwhelmingly black St. Petersburg precincts where roughly 60 percent of the voters did not turn out in 2004. "My goal is if we could reverse that trend, so that instead of 62 percent of the people not voting it would be 32 percent not voting, that would make me feel better, that we delivered the areas we were responsible for, that we delivered Pinellas."

The campaign has the luxury of enough money to encourage the grass roots enthusiasm even in overwhelmingly Republican areas of the state. It estimates that since Labor Day, Obama volunteers have directly spoken to 1.3-million voters. Last week alone, as a result of Barack and Michelle Obama events in Florida, the campaign says 40,000 people committed to five-hour canvassing or phone banking shifts.

In the end, it might not be enough to overcome the Republican machine in Florida, but the Democrats' organizing structure won't disappear on Nov. 5.

"I think the fundamentals of the Obama campaign will be studied by political scientists and academics and the rest of the political class for some time to come," said Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com or (727)893-8241.

Obama assembles a volunteer army in Florida 10/26/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 3, 2008 6:59pm]
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