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May 18, 2021

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Momentum from Obama campaign dissipates

Activists’ achievements in state fall short of goals


Sam Morris

Volunteers Ruby Waller, left, and Loretta Jordan share a laugh Friday at state Democratic headquarters. Waller has thrown herself into activism after losing her job.

Click to enlarge photo

Volunteer Yvette Williams works the phones Friday on behalf of Henderson mayoral candidate Andy Hafen. Williams recently led a lobbying mission to Carson City.

Six weeks after Barack Obama won the presidency last year, political activists — empowered and enthusiastic, ready to take on the world — filled Teresa Crawford’s living room.

They had participated in a grass-roots movement the likes of which the country, and especially Nevada, had never seen. Now they were ready to capitalize on their political swagger. They promised one another to maintain their momentum.

There in Crawford’s living room, they declared it was time for Obama’s people to make a difference not just in Washington but in Nevada.

The sentiment was the same at nearly two dozen other house parties that weekend. Obama’s Nevada legacy wouldn’t end with an election; emboldened citizens would step up and hold their state elected leaders accountable.

Today they’re wondering what happened, how an opportunity was squandered, how a seemingly invincible Obama organization that turned Nevada from red to blue ended up spitting and sputtering and never gaining traction. They wondered: What happened to the Obama organization?

It stumbled, its supporters and political analysts say, for reasons that, taken together, made it mostly ineffective.

• Workers were fatigued by the two-year presidential campaign, and the best of intentions couldn’t refresh them.

• It was much easier to marshal forces behind a single, charismatic candidate than to lobby for state legislation running the gamut from taxes to energy. “Elections bring people together,” Dave Damore, the UNLV political scientist, said. “Absent that enthusiasm, trying to sit down and get a seat at the policy table is difficult.”

• Obama’s national advocacy organization, Organizing for America, has served chiefly to advance the president’s agenda in Washington but, without solid leadership native to Nevada, the energy and enthusiasm of disparate groups of volunteers became too diffused to influence the Legislature.

• From a logistics standpoint, the sheer distance to Carson City proved problematic.

• For all the excitement of the initial house parties, a focused agenda was not developed in follow-up meetings, discouraging would-be field workers.

Activists and volunteers say they simply underestimated the challenge before them, expressing a sense of disappointment that their much-vaunted organization had little effect on lawmakers. As the legislative session stumbles to a conclusion, Barbara Stark, a retired social worker and Obama activist, says “a lot of what I see seems to be business as usual.”

To be sure, the Obamaites can claim small victories in Nevada, in both policy and political arenas. A handful of hard-core volunteers now hold leadership posts in the Nevada Democratic Party — and harbor dreams of running for office themselves. And they’re gearing up for 2010, with more than 350 volunteers attending an organizing convention last month for Sen. Harry Reid’s reelection campaign.

But there had been greater hopes.

Take Dan Hanna, a 40-year-old customer service representative for Internet shoe retailer, who, as an Obama precinct captain, canvassed neighborhoods and called voters. After the November election, he worked through Organizing for America as a team leader, running a few house meetings aimed at building support for Obama’s agenda.

“They said have a meeting, talk about ideas, discuss what you can do in your community,” Hanna said. “There wasn’t as much guidance as during the campaign. Ours was very much a blue-sky type of meeting.”

Lacking a larger mission, Hanna has volunteered for the campaign of Henderson mayoral candidate Andy Hafen. The Obama apparatus, he said, needs to step up its game.

“I’m an eager troop who feels underworked,” Hanna said. “I’m willing to do more. I just haven’t been contacted as much as I expected.”

Damore said the Obama organization in Nevada failed to mobilize public opinion on a large scale. As a result, and in a case of “classic insider versus outsider politics,” Obama activists placed a distant second to Carson City lobbyists representing entrenched interests.

Damore said Obama workers were sabotaged by the Democrat-controlled state Legislature, which decided, for instance, not to lean on the mining industry to pay higher taxes at a time it is enjoying record revenue.

“That ought to tell you something,” Damore said. “Democrats decided not to make themselves vulnerable when they have a chance to run everything in two years” when they might take the Governor’s Mansion as well.

And Obama activists are staking their place in the state party.

Take Yvette Williams, an uber-volunteer who leads the hard-core wing of Obama’s organization here.

In 2007, she hosted a house party for candidate Obama, and in 2008 was an elected delegate to the Democratic National Convention. Since then, she has founded the county party’s black caucus, which now boasts more than 200 members, and was recently elected secretary of the state party.

In March, she led a delegation of grass-roots activists to Carson City to lobby legislators on a number of education bills. She, along with a dozen other Obama activists, continued to bring pressure by testifying before committees via videoconference from Las Vegas on select legislation, including a bill aimed at closing the achievement gap between whites and minorities.

“We’ve got a real grass-roots movement in our state party and you can really see it,” Williams said. “We have not stood still. We have continued forward.”

Still, Williams said, the nascent lobbyists were handicapped by inexperience. After they pushed for legislation that would have introduced multicultural education to the curriculum, the bill died because it “got caught up in red tape,” she said.

“It was one of those things,” Williams said. “But that’s OK. We learned from that. I feel empowered and our members feel empowered. It won’t happen next time.”

Williams wants Organizing for America to get more involved in local issues.

But Obama volunteer Ruby Waller says focusing on national versus Nevada issues is appropriate for the organization.

She was fired from her job as a call center supervisor on Election Day last year for attending an Obama rally on company time. Since then she’s thrown herself into politics, becoming an unpaid team leader for the Organizing group. Waller says she feels compelled to continue the work she started during the campaign. She’s still looking for a job, and she and her husband are without health insurance.

Faced with a governor who she says thwarts the Democratic agenda, Waller said the focus should be on Washington. “We have Obama’s back,” she said. “The priorities we voted for were the economy, health care and green energy. But all of us know this change is going to take some time.”

Waller is hosting a house party next month as part of an Organizing for America initiative dedicated to health care reform. The group has launched a series of “listening tours” across the country to develop state-specific plans, but the Obamaites aren’t waiting.

“It has to be our responsibility,” Williams said. “We can’t expect Barack Obama to do this for us. He gave us some great tools. Now it’s just a question of what we are going to do with them.”

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