Thursday, February 07, 2008

"Obama's strength? Volunteers like Peter"

Robert Jamieson JR (Seattle P-I):
Obama Power gets its fire from folks like Seattle's Peter Masundire.

Wednesday, the phone at his Seward Park-area home began ringing at 7 a.m. An elderly stranger, ecstatic over Sen. Barack Obama's strong showing on Super Tuesday, somehow tracked him down to ask about Saturday's state Democratic caucuses.
Masundire had been in a slumber, but he didn't mind -- sleep is a tiny sacrifice in times like these.

Masundire, 47, has a wife and a couple of kids. He's got a demanding job as a health care consultant.

But for more than a month he's been married to Obama, volunteering 35 hours or more a week as the Illinois senator's presidential bid ratchets up.

Every campaign boasts people who donate prodigious time or sweat. But political observers say one reason Obama, a relative newcomer to the national scene, has come so far, so fast, is his grass-roots strength.

Masundire is part of an expanding support system that helped Obama claim a financial edge over Sen. Hillary Clinton in Washington state. According to the Federal Election Commission, Obama raised $1.8 million here in 2007, compared with Clinton, who raised slightly more than $992,000.

But beyond coffers, there is a perception that the Obama camp -- in the Seattle area, at least -- is more agile, more accessible, less tightly wound than Clinton's.

"The tide seems to be going away from her," Masundire told me over coffee Wednesday.

Spoken like a true believer -- but, hey, not so fast!

After Super Tuesday, Clinton won more big states, including New York and California. Obama kept the delegate count close, winning more than a dozen mostly smaller states. Still, he trails.

Obama comes to KeyArena Friday morning as his campaign grows: Offices for Obama have opened in Spokane, Olympia, Vancouver, Everett and Bellingham. His staff is on the ground in Wenatchee and Tri-Cities. Seattle is the site of his state headquarters.

Jeff Giertz, the official spokesman for the Obama campaign in Washington, just arrived from D.C. on Saturday. But surveying the Seattle political landscape, he had nothing but praise for the intensity of the grass-roots efforts.

Volunteers have given the campaign a crucial boost, organizing rallies, passing out literature, working phones and raising money at backyard barbecues. The paid Obama staffers will join these folks for the final push.

At the Super Tuesday party Obama backers threw at a downtown pub, Giertz gave credit where it was due. "Peter Masundire has been so great," he told me. "So much energy."

After hosting the party, Masundire had enough left in the tank to dash over to the Paramount Theatre and pass out hundreds of fliers in the cold to fans leaving a Jill Scott concert.

Born in Zimbabwe, Masundire came to America after studying in Britain. He dove into Democratic politics, and later worked on two successful campaigns for former state Insurance Commissioner Deborah Senn. After he heard Obama speak in 2004, "I was hooked."

Now, as "a grass-roots media communications director," he is one of many volunteers who believe Obama's bid represents a people's campaign for regime change.

So far, Obama has beaten Clinton in most states with a caucus -- and that speaks to the power of grass roots.

He's shown a knack for reaching independent voters.

Obama also appeals to the college-educated; Western Washington is one of the brainiest parts of the country.

Add it up, and it could augur well.

Masundire hopes Gov. Chris Gregoire nudges things favorably along with an Obama endorsement, but short of that, he says a neutral stand by the governor would be just as good.

As he spoke, he moved his arms like an orchestra conductor. A stranger walked up to our table.

"You for Obama?" she asked, smiling after she noticed the Obama pin on his coat and Obama fact sheets on the table. Smiling back, Masundire said that, yes, he was.

"I'll be there working the phone banks on Friday and caucuses on Saturday," she gushed.

If you could have bottled the exchange -- the energy, the hope, the excitement -- you would have captured, if just for a moment, the people power that makes Obama run.



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