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11.26.08

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Phaedra

Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
PREACHING TO THE CHOIR: Julie Lythcott-Haims addresses a large congregation of fellow Obamanauts at the First Presbyterian Church in Palo Alto last Thursday.

Morning in Obamaland

Silicon Valley Obama 'movement' takes a new direction—local races and issues

By Erin Sherbert


OWEN BYRD ducked out the front doors of the First Presbyterian Church in Palo Alto. It was a cold Thursday night, two weeks after the presidential election. He appeared a bit overwhelmed.

The head honcho for Barack Obama's Silicon Valley volunteer organization knew local politicos were basking in the post-election afterglow, but he never expected this. "Leave it to Obamaland, where you invite 75 people to a potluck and 500 show up," Byrd said wide-eyed. "Clearly, people want more." He then dashed back into the darkness, preparing to address the hundreds of supporters who packed the pews inside the church.

They were there not just to celebrate their victory but to begin what volunteers view as Part 2 of the Obama Movement, otherwise known as the "Yes We Will" stage. A few minutes later Byrd took the stage, standing before an excited crowd that was chanting "Yes we did," another spin-off from the well-known slogan.

He made a few quick comments about the upcoming Inauguration Day, and those inevitable parties to come. And he finally arrived at the point of the night's focus: keeping the momentum alive in Silicon Valley.

"There is a difference between the Obama government and the Obama movement," Byrd said. "Barack Obama made a calculated decision to build his own army of volunteers and it resulted in a national movement that will continue to grow, separate from the task of governance."

Now that the election is over, the foot soldiers of this local army plan to redirect their energy. That includes grooming candidates for local races, volunteering to work on economic and environmental issues or just volunteering for nonprofits and the like, a main tenet of Obama's grassroots political campaign.

Already, local volunteers are phone-banking to voters in Georgia, urging them to vote for Jim Martin, a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, who faces a Dec. 2 runoff against Republican incumbent Saxby Chambliss.

And when and if the president takes up the issue of health-care reform, you can bet that volunteers here will carry that flag locally, Byrd said.

"We are still carrying the Obama banner in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties," Byrd said. "There will be lots of local folks doing stuff and self-branding as Obamans, and we think that's great."


Moving the Email

In the back row of the church, Steve Ahlgrim sat upright, hanging onto every word with obvious curiosity. He explained that he had given some money to the Obama campaign and made a few phone calls to voters the Sunday before Election Day, but that had been the extent of his involvement.

When he got the email from the Obama volunteers, informing him of the upcoming town hall meeting, he RSVP'd, and showed up to the Thursday night potluck event. "I wanted to tap into this euphoria while it is still present," said Ahlgrim, a Mountain View resident.

The event had grown organically out of similar online communications. Giselle Schmitz, a local volunteer, had sent out an email to Obama supporters, thanking them for their help on the local election front. Within 24 hours, she was being inundated by hundreds of emails from volunteers and supporters who wanted to know what was next.

The volunteer team quickly put together a town hall event, where some 500 people showed up. It was reminiscent of the local volunteering and outpouring during the campaign.

In fact, Silicon Valley volunteers became known for being one of the most aggressive volunteer headquarters in the nation. The group was in one of four districts in California that Obama won in the primaries. After that, the volunteers—there were some 40,000 listed in the database—continued phone-banking and even traveled to swing states to help usher Obama into the presidency.

"There was never a lull," Schmitz said of the Obama campaign. "This is something people really want."


Partying Politics

Two days after the election, the Obama headquarters in San Jose and Palo Alto were closed. The head volunteers who oversaw the local efforts from the get-go moved their meeting space to a vacant room in office building in downtown Palo Alto, where Byrd works. Where the group will move from there all depends on how the movement takes shape, Byrd said.

In the meantime, the volunteers are working on updating their database of volunteers—and planning inauguration parties around Silicon Valley. After the inauguration, the Silicon Valley Obama movement will reconvene and tackling Obama issues locally.

"The Obama movement has a broader mandate," Byrd says. "Its task is to mobilize and empower and include people into making change—not just to a government, but to their community."


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