Obama volunteers ponder

by Keith Barber


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Obama volunteers ponder


Election night marked a time of elation and dancing in the streets for the scores of Barack Obama campaign volunteers across the Piedmont Triad. The Obama campaign put together an organization unlike anything seen before in politics, utilizing technology and the universal appeal of the candidate himself to mobilize an army of dedicated believers that canvassed every square mile of Forsyth and Guilford counties. The celebration has continued during countless spontaneous reunions of campaign volunteers, said Lynne Holzapfel, who managed the Obama campaign office in Winston-Salem. Holzapfel recounted a chance meeting with a fellow volunteer while doing some Christmas shopping last month. The connection was immediate and powerful. No words were spoken. Holzapfel said she embraced the young lady before bursting into tears. “It’s a real intense experience,” she explained. “You form a strong bond. Everyone worked very hard for very long hours with people they really didn’t know before.” The unique bond Obama volunteers forged during 16hour days throughout the primary and general election campaigns formed the essence of the movement. “We all want to stay involved because it’s an intense experience and it stays with you afterwards,” Holzapfel said. “You go through like a period after the primary, you feel this big loss. And you’re just waiting for the general election campaign to start because it’s not something you can let go easily.” Illinois become the 44 th President of the United States. With the presidential inauguration less than two weeks away, the future of the millions of Obama volunteers remains up in the air, which begs a number of questions: Will the Obama administration effectively harness this collective energy and enthusiasm for social change or to further its own policy agenda? Is “the movement” political or social in nature? And most pressing for local volunteers: What’s next? On Dec. 17,One of the byproducts of the Obama campaign appears to be that emotional connection shared by the thousands of volunteers who gave their time and energy to help the first-term Senator from Obama volunteers Jaya Gokhale, Ginny Johnson and Martha Hanson Chafin gathered outside a vacant storefront off 4 th Street in Winston-Salem that once housed the Obama campaign headquarters in Forsyth County. Johnson described her time with the campaign as an experience that transcended politics. “change” about which Obama spoke so frequently began at the grassroots level of his campaign, Johnson said. “It was transforming.… You never look at people the same way again,” Johnson said. Obama’s leadership ability impressed Vokhale more than anything else, and that leadership kept campaign volunteers focused on the ultimate goal of putting Obama in the White House.President-elect Obama was more than just a political candidate to his millions of followers. He became the personification of the desire of millions of Americans to change their country. The Leadership will ultimately be the key to keeping a movement alive in the first days of the new administration, Vokhale said. “It brought out a sense of common purpose — that was Obama’s gift as a leader. Whether that can be sustained now that we’re in power, that’s the challenge,” Vokhale said. “When you’re not in power, it’s a movement,” she continued. “How do you channel that energy? To keep that enthusiasm once you’re in power is very different when you’re creating that enthusiasm to get in power.” Since Obama’s victory, Chafin has looked for ways to live out the principles that underpinned the campaign. She admitted she’s felt a void in her life since the general election, and expressed hope that an organizational structure similar to that of the campaign emerges in the coming months, one that will keep volunteers plugged into the movement. Chafin suggested creating an organization separate from the campaign apparatus and making its mission the fulfillment of Obama’s message of unity and community service. Holzapfel articulated a slightly different vision for the future direction of the movement. She said she agrees that leadership on local, state and national levels is essential, but that she believes the movement should remain a political one. “Although structure of that has not been decided, there will be state leadership,” she said. “That’s what I see happening the next four years. I see staff having regions of states and being responsible for coordinating that type of effort. I see different ways of having different volunteers involved, whether it’s community-based or a policy issue.” also sees Obama volunteers advocating specific policy positions before elected bodies, while donating their time and energy to the campaigns of candidates who reflect the ideals of theHolzapfel’s vision includes Obama volunteers running for local boards and elected offices. She movement. Like Chafin, another Forsyth County volunteer named Lois Roewade, said she’s felt a big letdown since the Election Day. Last month, the 69-year-old Roewade spurned an invitation to a house party in her hometown of Chicago organized by the Obama campaign. “I wasn’t quite sure what the purpose of those house parties was. It was like, ‘Get together,’ and I said, ‘For what?’” Roewade explained. “I know they’re trying to keep people involved, but wine and cheese parties, inauguration parties? I’m feeling frustrated.” She completed an extensive survey from the Obama campaign that asked for her input on the future of the movement. But the survey didn’t ease Roewade’s sense of frustration with the dearth of leadership while Obama transitions into the White House.

“I’m all fired up and readyto go, but there’s nowhere to go right now,” she said.

Vokhale andJohnson also declined invitations to similar gatherings last month. Vokhale,61, said she’s more interested in keeping the spirit of the campaignalive than meeting fellow volunteers for meet and greet functions.Vokhale said her vision includes Obama volunteers giving back to theircommunities in an organized fashion. “It’s going to be a realchallenge to help people transform their lives,” she said.

Since theNov. 4 election, Holzapfel said she’s participated in conference callswith campaign staffers at the state and national level. She sees aleadership structure evolving during the first year of Obama’spresidency. She believes Obama’s transition team would like to have anorganizational structure at the regional level similar to the one thatproved so successful during the campaign. Holzapfel firmly believesObama’s message of a shared purpose will continue to resonate withvolunteers long after he takes the oath of office. “He wantspeople to stay involved in the process,” she said. “His challenge forAmericans is, ‘This is your country and you need to stay involved.’This is what’s going on and I think it’s a really great idea.”

Roewadesaid her focus going forward will be on political action rather thansocial change, and believes the Forsyth volunteers can easilyreassemble and make an impact.

“There’s a core of people therethat could come back there and work,” she said.

“We’ve got municipalelections coming up and people realize how important those localoffices are. That’s something I could get behind.” As a unitedfront, Obama volunteers represent a large voting bloc and a formidablelobbying group. Roewade said she plans on organizing volunteers topetition state and national representatives to support Obama’slegislative agenda in the first year of his presidency. “Iwant to know how I could help on a local level to influence thoserepresentatives how to vote,” she said. “I want to make sure on agrassroots level, those senators and representatives are hearing loudand long from us.”