Barack Obama would not have called me a friend, but we had several meetings and spoke on the phone more than weekly when he ran Project Vote and I was a naive just out of college kid running voter registration projects for the election office.
Our initial meeting was in a Hardee’s, and I remember it vividly, not least for the retrospective embarrassment that it hadn’t occurred to me that our goofy logo and various things we were doing might not actually be all that effective in the black community. He was canny, someone I think was cognizant of my foolishness, but also aware that some of what we were doing would be useful to him, so he let me think that yeah, what I was doing was unparalleled and ground-breaking and he was lucky to have such a great partner. So I left with an even bigger head, and he left knowing he could count on us for resources that wouldn’t be as forthcoming from the other election office he had to work with.
I remember asking him what he intended to do afterwards, and he said there were a lot of things he wanted to do, but he had already been paid for this damn book that he hadn’t written, and he guessed he’d better get that done – Dreams of My Father.
Most of our cooperation consisted of training registrars who were then eligible to register voters in the other, larger jurisdiction – predominantly black. Their office was much less responsive, whereas we’d agree to train people whenever Project Vote called. He had hired 4 really top-notch organizers, pretty radical, one a former Black Panther (20 years before) and at the end of the campaign, I insisted we hire two of them. A third now works in the election office, though she worked elsewhere for 15 years before heading there. The former Panther is now a columnist for the Black Commentator, who writes some very compelling stuff, and is in pretty much complete breach with Obama and everything he stands for; the second fell out of politics disillusioned, and we haven’t been able to track him down in years; the third is still at the election department, and I don’t remember the fourth, only that whoever it was, I was impressed.
My only claim to have helped Obama’s career is that when he ran for state senator, I and a few others in our office had volunteered in the Congressional campaign of the woman who had previously held the seat – a nice and progressive woman. She was destroyed by Jesse Jackson Jr. In 500 precincts, she won a single precinct, and that was the one we had volunteered.
Anyway, after the loss, she decided she wanted the seat back, and the person we worked for and some of his older advisers said “great, let’s gather signatures for her.” I and most of the younger folks said, no way in hell. Barack Obama is running and we’re not working against him. Famously, she didn’t gather enough signatures, and he knocked her off the ballot.
There was another time when I offered to volunteer for him – after he won his state senate seat, a friend and I had lunch to see if he wanted us to pull together an issues committee for him. He said sure, though again, that may have been the canny side – why tell someone no who wants to help – never alienate anyone, even if you don’t really want them running an issues committee for you. But we never followed up. As missed volunteer opportunities go, there are few missed chances quite as big as deciding not to bother forming the issues committee for Barack Obama in 1996 or 98, whatever it was.
Anyway, the one insight I felt I had was that he was pretty thoroughly committed to the voter registration drive and the idea of black empowerment through voting. I find it a little hard to square the portrait of a cynical corporatist with someone who finished Harvard law and went to the Gamaliel foundation and Project Vote. I know what my motives were for doing voter registration, and I also know, of myself and others, that motives are mixed. But I don’t really believe in a life path that is still making decisions based on altruism at 27 or 28, and is rotten to the core at 40. But maybe that’s just me.