A year ago, Obama enthusiasts started their takeover of the El Paso County Democratic Party.
At the time, even they didn't know it was happening. Before the state's caucuses on Feb. 5, 2008, many of Sen. Barack Obama's local supporters were political novices. Some had attended mock caucuses to hone techniques for swaying undecided Democrats and maxing the delegate count. Others just ventured to gatherings on Super Tuesday, clueless how things would work.
Passion for Obama's campaign, and that of Sen. Hillary Clinton, brought out an unprecedented 8,000-plus county Democrats for the caucuses. They broke for Obama by a 70-30 margin, and when he went on to become the party's nominee in August, his El Paso County operation, headed by paid staffers and anchored by a handful of local offices, swelled with volunteers.
Local Democratic stalwarts looked on with a combination of awe and wonder: Would the Obama volunteers stick around through November? And was there any way they'd have the appetite for local races?
Nearly two weeks after Obama took the oath of office, Jason DeGroot offered an answer as he vied for the party chair position at a Jan. 31 reorganization meeting of county Democrats.
"Our highest goal has to be making sure that our candidates are prepared," he said. To that end, and to win elections, he argued, the party should "decentralize along the lines of the Obama campaign."
A longtime Democrat, Rita Ague, was nominated as an alternative, but the audience was not moved; DeGroot, who got his political feet wet with Obama's campaign in June 2007, received overwhelming support from the crowd of 233 precinct chairs at Hillside Community Center.
Monday, two days after his election, DeGroot chuckles slightly when asked if his election as county chair truly represents a takeover of the local party by Obama supporters.
"I wouldn't say takeover," says the 36-year-old. "I would say integration."
Spreading the love
The El Paso County Democratic Party mainly focuses on the county, state and national races that take place on even years. DeGroot, as chair, is one of five unpaid officers who will now direct that effort. Alice Hines, selected as secretary, is another; she's a newcomer to the party who helped in the Obama campaign.
Other volunteers serve on committees like Mike Maday, a member of the executive committee who became a prominent Obama supporter. He received booming applause when he was honored Saturday as the county party's volunteer of the year.
Maday had also served as a leader in state House District 21, helping organize the district that spans western parts of Colorado Springs and El Paso County. This time around, many others who had been active in Obama's campaign were tapped when the group picked new leaders for the various state legislative and county commission districts.
Just in House District 18, a saucer-shaped region covering much of central and western Colorado Springs out through Manitou Springs, all three new leaders came in with ideas they got while working on the campaign. Jill McCormick, the district's new chair, was heavily involved in supporting Obama.
"That was really my first foray into politics," she says.
She went big, becoming the staging location director in the campaign for roughly 200 volunteers living in the Old North End neighborhood. With the local party taking a shape more like that of the Obama campaign, leaders like McCormick will be charged with reaching out to new volunteers and helping get neighbors engaged with the political process.
District 18 is now in Democratic hands, but the party will need a new face in 2010 since incumbent Rep. Michael Merrifield will be term-limited. That means the task for district leaders will be planting seeds to help get Merrifield's Democratic successor elected. McCormick says she has some ideas how to do that.
"We've talked about continuing the house party idea," she says.
Removing the trash
Ah, the house party idea. A week before Obama's inauguration, the president-elect announced the launch of "Organizing for America," an organization that some say amounts to Obama Version 2.0.
The group draws upon Obama's campaign supporters to help build momentum for his legislative agenda. In an e-mail sent Monday, Obama solicited questions about the nation's proposed economic stimulus legislation, and then asked recipients to host or attend house parties this weekend.
In the first post-election version of this campaign staple, Obama encourages people to gather with their neighbors to talk and watch a video responding to frequently asked questions and concerns about the measure.
"You can help restore confidence in our economy by making sure your friends, family, and neighbors understand how the recovery plan will impact your community," the e-mail states.
By Tuesday, three such house parties were already planned in Colorado Springs (visit my.barackobama.com/recovery for details). Bob Nemanich, a county leader in Obama's campaign, says such gatherings could put "huge pressure on [legislators] to start working together."
The supporters' network could be asked to make more tangible changes, too. For the national day of service on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the day before inauguration, local leaders tapped it to ask people to volunteer in the community.
Nemanich says close to 300 people responded. One group filled 14 trash bags with refuse collected along Uintah Street west of Interstate 25, and another piled about 30 more bags with accumulated trash at Monument Valley Park.
The symbolism of clearing trash on President George Bush's last day in office clearly appeals to Nemanich, but he gets even more enthusiastic talking about how the structure from the campaign could help bring neighbors together. Local progressives are losing the fear that once came with being a Democrat in El Paso County. As the party decentralizes and local leaders reach out to neighbors with possible solutions to local problems, he suggests, the impact could be huge.
"That will change El Paso County," he says.
Fighting the odds
Colorado Springs city elections, held in April on odd years, are technically non-partisan, meaning the party has no formal role. But that didn't stop two progressively minded candidates in the upcoming City Council race from speaking to Saturday's crowd.
Rob Andrews, a candidate for the eastern and southern reaches of the city in District 4, met many Obama supporters while working last fall as one of the campaign's local paid staff members. He looks well-placed to tap into the network of Obama volunteers he helped organize.
He'll need that help to accomplish the goals he has for the area, including building a community garden and organizing monthly clean-up efforts along the lines of what happened on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It's an effort to restore pride in a part of the city that Andrews believes has been overlooked.
"It feels like it's so controlled by people who don't want any progress," he says.
Andrews, 24, faces a tough race against two, or possibly three other candidates, including Bernie Herpin, a conservative former Council appointee. But Andrews, a graduate of Sierra High School, has strong local ties, both from the campaign and having lived in the region. DeGroot, for one, seems upbeat about Andrews' chances, praising his plan to make community service a part of his campaign.
That DeGroot's in position to talk up the candidacy of people like Andrews is fairly amazing. Until he started working on Obama's campaign just over 18 months ago, DeGroot was registered an independent.
He doesn't advertise this fact, but neither does he shy away from it. Married with one child, DeGroot regarded political involvement as impossible before he separated from the Air Force four years ago. (Now he works with satellites for the Air Force on a contract basis.) He says he realized while working on the Obama campaign that the change attractive to him and other supporters requires new leadership locally.
It won't be easy. Democrats face stiff challenges in picking up more than the three state-level seats they have currently. Many remaining districts in the state Legislature are heavily GOP, and Republicans now hold every seat in county government. At the national level, U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn could be tough to beat now that he's been re-elected for his second term.
John Morris, the party's chair the last four years, says he sees great potential for the party if new people stay involved. Rather than run for a third two-year term, he decided to get back into working on local campaigns.
"I do think there's a tremendous enthusiasm we need to harness," he says.
In addition to keeping new supporters, Democrats will also need to attract independent voters and even some Republicans to extend their reach. But with the current budget crises facing Colorado Springs and El Paso County, DeGroot suggests, more people like him will look away from the Republicans when seeking answers.
"Our county is in a lot of trouble," he says. "It's those leaders who got us here."
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