Brooklyn’s all-weather friends of Obama

Obama. (Chuck Kennedy)
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The Toren Condo in downtown Brooklyn is slim, modern, and tall. Perched on a small block on Flatbush Avenue at the edge of Fort Greene, it’s accessible only from the north, though all sides gaily proclaim its available units. Last Tuesday, about 10 strangers met in Toren’s new third-floor library intending to watch a live stream of President Obama addressing a town hall meeting at George Washington University.

The president’s speech was on behalf of Organizing for America, the grassroots-leveraging offshoot of his campaign that is now a project of the Democratic National Committee. There were only two problems: the host of the event did not show up, and the library’s lack of internet prevented those gathered from actually catching the President’s speech.

Two of these strangers, Lisa Hardaway and Barney Latimer, elected to walk to the next-nearest designated viewing location, on Clinton Avenue. As they walked through the quiet streets that two years before had been the site of one of the city’s most jubilant celebrations of Obama’s victory, Latimer observed, of their deadbeat host, “I wonder if they just made it too easy to sign up.”

The “they” in this case is Organizing for America, which—after its much-celebrated role in the history-making elections of 2008—seems to be suffering from a bit of an enthusiasm hangover in this year’s midterm elections. Whereas the impressive breadth of the organization's electronic appeals to volunteer activists—its reported 13-million-subscriber email list is as big as it gets in politics—is a vestige of the massive, Obama-inspired buy-in of two years ago, the response to those appeals this election season has come from a relatively small number of hardy loyalists.

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Several emails had been sent out promoting this event to an enormous number of Brooklynites, listing six watch parties, all in predominantly African-American parts of Brooklyn: Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Bedford Stuyvesant, Flatbush, and East New York.

Organizing for America is well known for the massive amount of correspondence it sends out. OFA sent 18 emails to me (and many, many other people) in the first 13 days of October. OFA’s tendency to spam has been parodied with a fake Twitter account, called “FakeOFA,” which consisted of tweets like “URGENT! The stakes are just too high for you not to DONATE NOW” and “Sign up to host a State of the Union watch party! Effect real change in Washington by meeting people who already agree with you, in private.”

Hardaway and Latimer arrived at the location of the Plan B event, and, after joining with three other OFA supporters in a protracted struggle with a broken buzzer, made their way to the proper apartment. The president’s speech was more than half over, but they were the first to arrive, and they settled in to watch the final minutes. Afterward, Latimer, the least active of the group in OFA, took down some contact information and left. The rest of the party had some tea.

The host, Khadija Boyd, served the tea to the ladies (for they were now all ladies) in the manner of her native Morocco: mint green tea poured from some height into glasses. Boyd has a lovely apartment, filled with books and art, and boasting a fantastic view of the Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument in Fort Greene Park. A few more stragglers trickled in. The entire group was female, middle-aged (except for Hardaway, who isn't, yet) and, other than Boyd, African-American. The group discussed their involvement with OFA. Most had volunteered for Obama in 2008, and many had participated in OFA’s efforts to push health care reform last year. All had donated money to the Democratic National Committee this year. In this way, the group was typical of the all-weather friends of OFA who have remained involved. (A large portion of OFA’s emails, like most political emails, are fund-raising appeals.)

It was unavoidable that there should be some fall-off in OFA’s size and ambition over the past two years. The Obama campaign had as much grassroots energy as any presidential campaign in history, and mid-term elections always have less voter involvement. OFA’s New York director Melissa DeRosa told me in a phone conversation, correctly, that comparing 2008 to 2010 is comparing “apples to oranges."

DNC spokesman Michael Czin warned me against drawing too many conclusions, based on limited anecdotal evidence, about OFA’s continued ability to motivate a large, diverse number of supporters for party- and Obama-related causes. He told me that OFA in one day last October got 315,000 people to commit to calling their representatives in Congress to urge support for health care reform.

When I asked him how many volunteer calls OFA had made nationwide in the last week, he demurred, telling me, “We’re not going to get into the robust numbers of our field plan.”

As of this writing, the OFA New York website listed about 111 RSVPs statewide for all volunteer events this coming Saturday. That’s a very respectable number, akin to what a largeish union might provide a few weeks before an election, but it pales in comparison to the legions of volunteers the Democratic party had coming out of New York at the end of the 2008 campaign.

I mentioned my findings to Jordan Thomas, a co-founder of Brooklyn for Barack, who was also active in OFA’s battle for health care reform. Thomas went on an early bus trip to Long Island this cycle, but has not been involved with Organizing for America for some time. He disagreed with my impressions in the strongest possible terms, arguing that I had jumped to conclusions based on a tiny, skewed sample.

“Unless you can tell me the names of the people who are running these neighborhood organizations,” he said, “who are leading trips to Long Island, who are running regular phone banks, then this is not an honest piece.”

I sent Khadija Boyd an email after the event asking what it is that keeps her involved with OFA when so many former volunteers are no longer active.

Her response: "Belief in this nation, and for the future of my child and all young people in the USA, and as a symbol and inspiration for all young people worldwide. (There are a lot of crazies within and without.) That's all."