By Tibby Rothman
My friends, if you have relatives that, even after Barack Obama’s election, are still cynical about party politics, go to them now and apologize. I was at the California Democratic Party’s election night celebration at the Century Plaza Hotel and left wanting to puke.
Though Californians placed 1.1 million telephone calls to voters as part of Obama’s get-out-the-vote drive during the final weekend of the 2008 presidential campaign, and experts have cited the candidate’s superlative ground game and grassroots base as key components behind his victory, not one volunteer was scheduled to speak at the California Democratic Party’s official election night bash… or even to be allowed onstage.
Instead, the schedule touted such party insiders as California Democratic Party chair Art Torres and Antonio Villaraigosa—who spent the better part of the primaries promoting Obama’s rival Hillary Clinton. And his own profile.
Ironically, that party took place only one floor away from a huge phone bank where, according to Jessica Howard, deputy director of the effort, a revolving volunteer crowd of 200 to 250 people each hour placed calls to voters throughout the United States on Election Day.
Two adjoining conference rooms could not contain the volume of callers. Volunteers took over adjacent halls, meeting areas, floor space and even made calls from the hotel’s bar. From 6:00 a.m. to about 7:30 p.m., they used cell phones to cross the American time zone spectrum, per instructions from Obama's Chicago headquarters.
“We’ll close when Chicago tells us we are done,” Howard told the Weekly.
In fact, Chicago didn’t tell them to close until after a full frontal phone assault on, of all states, Alaska.
The two functions, one a self-congratulatory, self-promotional enterprise staged to appear to be a free “party,” the other a roll-up-your-sleeves-get-to-work volunteer campaign, served as a literal “upstairs, downstairs” on Election Night.
While reporters were free to roam the phone bank and were given unguarded access to anyone ranging from California Campaign director Mitchell Schwartz to phone bank coordinators, they were rapidly escorted from the California Democratic Party’s closed-door reserved room and barred from an area dressed up in gold fabric and reserved for VIPs and “electeds.”
Schwartz fielded friendly and unfriendly questions with exhausted authority. But the California Democratic Party party, in contrast, was all about hierarchy.
Even on election night, party functionaries protected the message that they really did care about acknowledging voters, when the schedule of speakers clearly demonstrated that they did not.
Asked why the event and VIPs weren't focused on the grassroots army that returned the party to power in Washington, a spokesman for the California Democratic Party, Brian Brokow, contended that it wasn’t “accurate” to say that the efforts of the grassroots weren’t being acknowledged — and that ten thousand volunteers had been included.
He told the Weekly that “the chairman,” as staffers refer to Art Torres, had been “all over the county” that day “thanking people in the field.”
The notion of a bureaucrat like Torres thanking people versus the party actually honoring the grassroots effort was put into further relief by Eric Garcetti, who was Obama’s California Campaign chairman. Los Angeles City Councilman Garcetti was not out thanking volunteers that night, or relying on some personal need for stature. Instead, for a half-hour he was a volunteer, sitting with the hordes in the phone bank, calling in the last hours to get out the vote. Though his press aide was at the bank, like the rest of the volunteer venue, access to Garcetti wasn’t shielded.
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It turned out that the mega phone bank, not the elected official-infested ballroom, was the place to be. While the phone bank was packed, the “electeds” room was empty, a tired relic of a time before “Yes We Can.” The ballroom itself? With its cash bar, show of electeds and turnout of thousands who did not know each other, it felt empty of spirit I saw at the phone bank.
To keep noise levels down in the phone bank, people silently wiggled their arms in the air each time an electoral vote haul flashed on the screen, coordinators kept discipline by making a keep-calls-rolling motion if the room got too loud, and new call sheets were rapidly disseminated each time a new state was set on the radar.
The phone bank was also the only place news was broken that night—and it wasn’t just the information that Chicago was including Alaska in its push, or that they added the words “vote for Barack Obama and the Democratic ticket” in their pitch.
Though the Democratic Party earned its first White House victory in eight years on November 4, in truth, its future was more uncertain than any Bush-regime executive order. Whether the California Democratic Party will remain as successful in keeping the electorate off the stage as it did in Century City on November 4, 2008, or whether the phone bank and the electorate it represents will demand power rather than back room space, will be Obama’s defining change… or not.