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Back to Where it All Began

By Louise Bernard, Director, Obama Presidential Center Museum 

As we build the Obama Presidential Center Museum in Chicago, we’re working to design a space that tells the story of Barack and Michelle Obama and the moments that defined their historic journeys. But just as importantly, we also seek to paint a broader picture of democracy in action and the power of people working together to create lasting change.

A key part of that story is the 2008 election, when hundreds of thousands of Americans from all walks of life joined together to create real and lasting change. But we know we can’t tell that story alone. To capture that moment in time, we must include the voices of those who lived that history by going into communities and meeting people where they are.

That’s why this past fall, the Obama Foundation took a trip to Iowa, the place where it all began, to record stories and collect community artifacts. As President Obama has noted, had he not won Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses, he would not have been elected president. But more than just another campaign win, the experience in Iowa was “proof-of-concept” for the presidency that followed.

When he launched his campaign in 2007, then-Senator Obama was betting that empowering citizens to organize for change could be a winning political strategy, one that could attract both traditional voters and those who had long felt left out of the electoral process. As a candidate, he and Mrs. Obama spent months traveling across the state, engaging directly with voters and answering their questions. But the centerpiece of the effort in Iowa was the hundreds of volunteers and staff who fanned out to Iowa’s 99 counties. These precinct captains and field organizers were charged with building neighborhood volunteer teams who would serve as the local face of the campaign.

President Obama has called January 3, 2008, his favorite night of his entire political career. And after three days on the ground, hearing Iowans talk about the relationships formed over the course of that year, it’s easy to understand why.

Former Johnson County volunteers show Louise Bernard an early Obama "barn sign" from the caucus campaign.

Former Johnson County volunteers Sue Dvorsky, Dennis Roseman and Robin Roseman show Louise Bernard an early Obama “barn sign” from the caucus campaign.

At our first stop in Johnson County, former volunteers drove from as far as two hours away to share their Obama keepsakes. When we asked one woman from Fort Madison why she had traveled such a long distance to meet us, she teared up, saying, “I still cry about how excited I was about Barack Obama. All these years later I still have such a big place in my heart for the Obamas. I would drive to Chicago if you needed more stuff.”

In Mason City, former precinct captains and county chairs gathered from across north central Iowa at the home of Dean Genth and Gary Swenson. They hauled out boxes of old campaign buttons, newspaper clippings, and photos saved from 2008, and shared memories of the organizers they spent a year getting to know. “The organizers that lived with us, they became surrogate children,” Dean recalled. “They and the other people involved with growing the Obama movement, they became a political family of choice.”

In Des Moines, the Isiserettes Drum & Drill Corps hosted us for a community collections gathering. We heard about the Isiserettes’ performances at both Obama inaugurations and looked through the staff badges of caucus advisors Jackie Norris and Emily Parcell that dated back to then-Senator Obama’s first tour of Iowa.

Jackie shared excerpts of her spring 2007 letter to the candidate explaining why she had joined up at a time when he was widely expected to lose: “I want to show my children that we can do better and that the way to change the world is to engage and commit.”

These stories don’t exist in a vacuum—taken together, they speak to the powerful connection between this state and President and Mrs. Obama, forged over 89 days of campaigning and the two-term presidency that followed.

Here are some of the moments we’ll be reflecting on as we build a Presidential Center that tells the story of organizers and volunteers who propelled that watershed campaign towards history.


EMILY PARCELL

Emily Parcell's staff badges I’ve kept these badges since 2007, so I’ve had them for 12 years. I’ve moved them all over the country. Through multiple jobs and multiple states. I was the Iowa political director for the Iowa Caucus, and then the political director for the first inaugural committee. One badge is from the Iowa Announcement tour, the very first swing that he did in Iowa after announcing in Springfield, Illinois. We started in Cedar Rapids and ended in Ames.

Being a staff member during the ’08 campaign in Iowa on the caucus, it was an honor. We were such a close-knit staff family. Everybody really had each other’s backs. The culture on the campaign was great, and I totally credit Paul Tewes, the state director, and President Obama himself for setting that tone from the top down.

There was a lot of pressure, especially when it really felt like we were on a rocket ship that had finally taken off. He and Michelle both came back on December 26. They brought the girls, they had rented extended stay suites out in one of the Des Moines suburbs, and from December 26 to January 3rd was nonstop events.

When people look at the badges, I think they represent the staff work that goes into the campaign events that you see on TV. It’s hours and hours and hours of not just the event itself, but all the people behind the scenes who are organizing. Who are out there recruiting volunteers, training them to knock doors and make phone calls. It’s really the public-facing image of the campaign, but behind that there is so much work that goes into it that people don’t see day in and day out. Hopefully when people see the badges, they think, not just of the people who were there traveling with the candidate and putting the event together, but the entire team behind the candidate.

It was the first presidential campaign that I worked on that won. It was a historic campaign. It’s where so many people that I know met their best friends, their spouses, significant others, now 12 years on.

I think too, President Obama’s legacy is important to me. I didn’t ever think that I would work in politics. Before I got involved in political campaigns I had planned to be a librarian or work in a museum. To me it’s important that you leave behind some representation, and tell the story of such an important point in time. Having artifacts or examples that people can look at, I hope they’ll feel like they get to be a part of that experience. Even if just on the other side of a display case.


DEAN GENTH AND GARY SWENSEN

[on the 2007 Jefferson-Jackson Dinner]

Dean Genth and Gary Swensen with a Ready to Go Sign

Gary Swenson:

At the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, all of the table seats were sold by the time we got our tickets. So we were barricaded out from the main floor, up in the balcony, and I remember it being a monstrously large group of people together in support of Barack Obama in the cheap seats.

Dean Genth:

There was the wild screaming and applauding and excitement for Obama when he walked on stage. And then he delivered one of his hit-it-out-of-the-park messages that night.

You had two camps yelling, “FIRED UP!”; “READY TO GO!” back and forth across the room.

It became a really important emotional rallying cry, so it energized every crowd.

Gary Swenson:

And I was sitting there saying, “Here is a true cross-sectional picture of Iowa”, and yet also America–every socioeconomic class, every religion, every ethnic group, any sub-categorization that you can think of was there together in the cheap seats supporting this guy. That speech just electrified the house, and it was an amazing experience to be part of.

I see it as we were witness to a miracle. A genuine impossibility became possible because of Iowa.


JOHN COLUMBO

John Columbo with a button from the 2008 campaign

I was born here in Mason City, graduated here in Mason City, lived most of my life in and around this area. I’m a union electrician. IBEW, local 288, out of Waterloo. I had always considered myself a Republican before the 2008 election, but I decided that I was definitely not going to be voting for a Republican again.

There was an organizer in our area that worked for our local union who encouraged us to check out Obama. I didn’t know who I was going to support quite yet, but I just walked into the Obama office in Mason City.

At the very beginning, I thought there was no chance. None. I mean we’re talking about a freshman Senator, an African American. We were in Iowa and nobody knew who this guy was.

I put a lot more effort into learning about the candidate and I fell in love with what he was saying, what he stood for, and the idea of change to a brighter future–that we can be a part of something larger than ourselves. So I ended up knocking on nearly every single door in the city and a lot of farm houses out in the county.

I had never caucused before. I’d never been a Democrat before. But I learned everything I could about the caucus process and explained it to others who had signed up to be precinct captains. I just wanted to DO something. I felt like I needed to make amends for voting wrong in the past two elections, and wanted to help anyway I could. It was more than just policy. It was the idea that we need to be part of something bigger than ourselves. The idea of being hopeful for a brighter future and that we can change it.

We worked as a team too. It wasn’t just me, it wasn’t one person doing this. It wasn’t a huge group of people–we’re talking about maybe 20, 30 people in the Mason City area that were constantly involved–and we had a task. We wanted to get this guy elected and nominated. We worked any way we could to do it. The organizers were so perceptive to different people’s abilities and the fact that they let them do what they wanted was a huge deal.

After he won the caucus, it was a surreal moment. It was an incredible feeling. We had worked so hard leading up to this. I was at the office every day leading up to the caucus. I’d wake up, I’d go there, and stay until the organizers were done and make phone calls, knock doors, enter data, whatever needed to be done.

After he had pretty much clinched the nomination, he came back to Des Moines in May 2008. They invited all of the folks that had really worked with the caucus crew early on and gave them a special invitation to stand up behind the podium of the rally.

Now, it’s hard to walk up to Barack Obama and shake his hand. But back in 2007, this guy was just sitting in gymnasiums. You could walk up to him, shake his hand, give him a hug. Like it was no big deal. He was just there. It was like he was another guy that was just hanging around. It was interesting to see the transformation from when I could approach him in a gymnasium and just shake his hand to Secret Service all around him and snipers sitting up on the roofs of buildings.

That night in Des Moines, he pulled up in six black SUVs and gave this amazing speech in the evening under the lights with a huge crowd in the middle of downtown Des Moines. It was great, having him come back and seeing the admiration that both Barack and Michelle have for Iowa and what the volunteers here did for them.

Nowadays, a lot of the people that I hang out with, and things that I do, involve people from the Obama campaign in 2007. The caucus basically set up the rest of my life, because up until then I hadn’t been involved in any way.

But after 2007 I got onto the central committee of the county Democratic party. After I moved out of the County, I got on the central committee of Franklin County and became County chairman down there. All of the volunteer work that I have done since, was because of the people and the things that I learned during the caucus.

Button from the 2008 campaign

At the time you don’t realize that you are making history. The things that we did in Iowa during the caucus ended up being historic. We didn’t realize that then. In the moment, it felt like work. It felt like we were trying really hard to do something that felt impossible.

These buttons and car magnets are small things. They’re cheap disposable items. But a hundred years from now, when I’m old and gone, my son will have all my junk. Maybe he’ll be able to show his kids and be like, “This is what your grandpa did.”


CORY WILLIAMS

In 2013, members of the Isiserettes Drill and Drum Corps of Des Moines, Iowa were invited to participate in President Obama’s Inauguration Day Parade. “We wanted to make sure that every kid left with some kind of memorabilia to say, “I was there,” said Cory Williams, lead drum instructor, so each young person left with a patch to forever mark their participation at the historic occasion.

We’re a non-profit organization from Des Moines, Iowa. We work with kids to keep them off the streets. We teach them drumming and drill and marching and choreography.

The actual Inauguration Day is very stressful. There’s so many things that go in to just getting to the actual parade route, but then as soon as that first beat plays all of that stress goes away and it’s just the most euphoric feeling you’ve ever felt in your life.

We wanted to make sure every kid left with some kind of memorabilia to say, “I was there.” Looking at that patch, it’s a feeling of promises that we’ve made over the years to our kids and our organization: that hard work pays off. And that if you put the effort in to it that it will come back tenfold. So every time I look at that patch it reminds me of our presidential runs with the Obamas. Those are the most meaningful days of my life and the most meaningful days of our organization in over 40 years.

 

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