Operation Oregon

Barack Obama has an army on the ground here. And most of its leaders aren’t even 30.

By Bart Blasengame May 19, 2009 Published in the May 2008 issue of Portland Monthly

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NICK SHAPIRO looks like he’s crawled through the Technicolor gore of some World War II flick. Jaw overgrown with stubble, a gray half-moon under each bloodshot eye, the 28-year-old would need only a cigarette and a hand grenade to complete his resemblance to Sgt. Rock.

There’s a reason Shapiro looks like hell. For the first time since Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy dueled in ’68, Oregon’s 65 Democratic delegate votes will actually matter in the presidential primary, which means that Shapiro, who arrived in Oregon in March to become the communications director for Barack Obama’s Oregon campaign, has had to mobilize a battalion of troops. Obama’s contingent was on the ground recruiting supporters weeks before Hillary Clinton’s team even touched down at PDX.

Jim Nam, regional field director for Obama’s campaign in Portland, calls the squad “Obama’s A-Team”: a handful of young, good-looking field organizers from across the country who parachute into a city to galvanize thousands of local volunteers to register the unregistered, sway the undecided, and make sure every Democrat in town casts a ballot. At the end of every 18-hour day, the team gladly crashes on strangers’ floors and couches.

One evening in March, the crew gathers in a former Wild Oats grocery store on SE Division Street that serves as Obama HQ, where they trade war stories from previous theaters: Iowa, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Mississippi, and Wyoming.

Kristen Gwinn underlines the importance of not touching mailboxes (it’s illegal), while Aaron Cooper—who gave up his teaching job in China nearly six months ago to help spread Obama’s message—relives the time he was chased by wild dogs in South Carolina while handing out pamphlets. Meredith Bennett, a recent college grad, recalls a vicious bout of flu that nearly felled her in Colorado.

“Now I’m in charge of Southwest Portland,” she says. “I have no idea where that is. I’ve only been here, like, 18 hours.”

They may not know the city yet, but they can recite policy platforms verbatim. The words “Obama,” “hope,” “change,” or “Hillary who?” are never far from their lips. In fact, every fresh-faced field director is on message at all times. In the lunch line, in the car—hell, even in the headquarters’ bathroom, where a handmade flier reads, “I’m asking you to believe, not just in my ability to keep this bathroom clean, but in yours. Yes, we can!”

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