Earlier this month, a group of about 30 people gathered at the downtown Miami law firm of delancyhill. Most attendees were not seasoned political operatives, but many are well known within South Florida’s diverse black community, drawn from the worlds of marketing, business and law.
Among them: a retired elected official, the head of a major business trade organization, and a prominent local historian. They came together to brainstorm ways to organize Miami-Dade’s black community, seeking to put Barack Obama into the White House.
The group was briefed by one of the firm’s partners, Marlon Hill, fellow attorney Reginald Clyne, and Obama’s finance and field directors. They were the first of what the campaign promises will be an army of staff who will flood the state in June. By then, supporters hope that Obama will have wrapped up the Democratic nomination. At that point, Hill and other local volunteers will have been in the trenches for more than a year.
Hill, a fixture in South Florida’s Jamaican-American community, was among a small group of Obama “early adopters’’ who took note of the Illinois senator even before he made his official announcement in February 2007.
Hill regularly fires off Obama emails to friends and colleagues, and is known to turn anything, from a breakfast gathering to his 37th birthday party this month, into a fundraiser. As to his official position with the campaign, Hill, a member of the campaign’s foreign policy advisory committee, said he is “not familiar with titles. I’m a member of the state finance team.”
Kirk Wagar, Obama’s Florida finance chair, said Hill is “phenomenal.”
“He's one of those people who had never raised money before, so he had to get comfortable asking people to give,” said Wagar, 38, a partner in the Wagar, Murray & Feit law firm in Coconut Grove.
The veteran of statewide and national campaigns said Hill has been “just tremendous” for the campaign.
“His contacts, his knowledge of the community, his help in reaching out to people; he's a true utility player, and in addition to that, he’s one of the sweetest people you’ve ever met,” Wagar said.
Wagar, whom Hill has affectionately nicknamed “Yoda,” was a Florida finance chair for the Democratic National Committee, and served as presidential candidate John Kerry’s deputy Florida finance chairman in 2004. He joined Team Barack last January.
As one senior Democratic Party official put it, Wagar and other major South Florida fundraisers like Kris Korge (Hillary Clinton's top fundraiser) and Mitchell Berger (who initially backed John Edwards but who has since switched to Obama) “rolled the dice, and Wagar won.”
“I was actually gonna take this cycle off,” Wagar said, “until Barack called me a day after he announced his exploratory committee. I had met him during the 2004 convention and he had come down to campaign for (Democratic Congressman) Ron Klein, and (gubernatorial candidate) Jim Davis in 2006, and we had breakfast a couple of times.”
Wagar said he never imagined Obama would make the run for president this year, “but I don’t think he did, either.”
“I had tried not to get involved,” Wagar said. “At the time my daughter was a senior in high school and looking forward to college,” and he and his wife, Lara Murphy, a retired ballet dancer who teaches at Miami's New World School of the Arts, had a 1-year-old son.
“My wife and I talked it over, and we decided that it was important to be a part of this campaign; that it was important to support a candidate like Barack. I had gotten to know him a bit, and to know his decency.”
Wagar, who is white, said the fact that Obama was “the first person of color of our generation to have a shot” at becoming president sealed the deal. Now, the Ontario, Canada native, who became a U.S. citizen in 2004, will cast his first vote as an American for Obama in November.
“I have the zeal of a convert,” he said.
The candidate arrives
Memorial Day weekend was a whirlwind for Obama supporters. The candidate held back-to-back events across South Florida – speaking to the Cuban American National Foundation in Miami, to Jewish Voters in Boca Raton, and headlining fundraisers in Miami Beach and Hollywood that drew a who’s who of Miami's elite, including developer R. Donahue Peebles, Heat Center Alonzo Mourning and his wife, Tracy, Russell Simmons and Miami arts patron Adrienne Arsht.
Obama capped his southern swing with a raucous rally at the BankAtlantic Center in Sunrise on Friday, May 23, where nearly 18,000 people turned out in driving spring rain to hear him speak, and to be entertained by such diverse entertainment as the steel band Miami Pan Symphony and the Latin funk band Spam Allstars. Wagar spent an exhausting four days county-hopping with the candidate. Hill was in the thick of it, too, even helping plan the arena entertainment.
“Florida was thirsty for some Barack,” Hill said of the rally. “And they were drinking it up like a tall glass of water.”
Hill, who also hosts a talk radio program called “Caribbean Crossroads,” which focuses on issues affecting the African Diaspora, said he liked the look of the crowds.
“You saw a very diverse group in terms of age and race; young, old, black, white, people in walkers, people in strollers … it was a very good cross section of South Florida.”
The fundraising was great too, though the campaign won't say how great (a May 23rd Wall Street Journal breakdown suggested around $2 million). Likewise, Hill won't speculate how much he has personally “bundled,” (putting together contributions from other people,) though he allows that it's “in the tens of thousands.”
The dollars are pilling up, not just from the lavish fundraisers, but also from small donations and events, like “house parties” where friends and family gather to raise $50, $20 or even $10 per person. Wagar calls those the backbone of the campaign.
“The (Federal Election Commission) does not list anyone who gives under $200,” Wagar said. “It just puts them in a basket and doesn't delineate where they came from.” According to Wagar, some $4 million in Florida donations under $200 have been overlooked in that way. (The average Obama campaign contribution nationwide is just over $100.)
“On March 4, (the day of the Texas and Ohio primaries,) we had over 200 (Florida) house parties raising more than $300,000 and signing up over 5,000 people on the MyBarackObama.com website,” Wagar said. “If you add the energy and talent that we have organically here in Florida with the resources, I feel very comfortable about where we are in this state.”
A homegrown campaign
It's Saturday, May 24, and Priscilla Dames rushes her guests inside her home in unincorporated Miami-Dade, dodging the rain that's pelted South Florida all weekend. Dames and her fiancé, David Blake, are hosting a Memorial Day weekend house party to raise money and evangelize for Obama. More than 35 friends and colleagues, many from the Miami-Dade school system, and some who have traveled from as far away as Kendall, quit the outdoor tables near the pool for folded chairs and couches inside.
Blake, who spent 22 years in the military, including four tours in the Middle East, tells his guests his support for Obama has much to do with his promise to end the war in Iraq.
“I looked at my friends who are still serving and asked, ‘What’s the exit strategy?’ ”
Now, Blake encourages friends to give whatever they can, “even $5 or $10. We all know the economy is tight.”
Dames, who worked in the Miami-Dade school system before starting her own conflict resolution company three years ago – Wingspan Seminars – said she has never gotten this involved in a presidential campaign. But she is eager to spread the civic gospel.
“There are a lot of “Priscilla Dames” out there, who just don't know how to get started,” she said.
Hill was at Dames’ gathering too, armed with a stack of fundraising “how-to” packets from the campaign. So was state Sen. Frederica Wilson, one of a handful of black South Florida elected officials on the Obama bandwagon. (Former Miami-Dade Commissioner Betty Ferguson was another.)
Wilson has been a vocal Obama supporter since last August. That month, she introduced Obama at a rally at the Miami-Dade Auditorium in Little Havana. Wilson told the house party crowd that when she met with Obama again on Friday, May 23, she asked him when he was “coming to the hood.”
She said Obama told her not to worry, adding that, “You're going to get sick of seeing me.”
Wilson said she believes Obama's run could change the lives of black men and boys like the ones she guides through her 5000 Role Models program. Speaking to the gathering, she restated a theme she first sounded last summer when she asked, “How could I not support a young man who has done everything we ask these boys to do, and who is so qualified to be president? How can any black elected official not support him?”
That question was raised by some of Dames’ guests, too.
“It's a little confusing to me, because people look up to them for direction,” says Tsitsi Wakhisi, who teaches journalism at the University of Miami.
She said she was attracted to Obama’s message and mission. “If you’ve got these congressional leaders, (not supporting him,) what does that tell their constituents?”
It’s a familiar sentiment among many black South Floridians, but Wagar calls it unfair to expect black officials to support Obama on the basis of race. He cites the longstanding relationships many black elected officials, including Florida’s three African-American members of Congress, Alcee Hastings, Kendrick Meek and Corrine Brown (all Clinton superdelegates,) have with the Clintons. But Wagar admits it was tough getting support from black leaders at the local, state or national level in the early days of the campaign.
Hill said he believes Obama’s message and background, plus the grassroots focus of the campaign, will drive both African-American and Caribbean-American turnout.
“I think the black community may surprise itself because I think it's larger than it thinks it is,” he said.
And, he said, the fact that so many volunteers and donors of all backgrounds are excited and invested in the campaign, “almost like shareholders in an emerging company,” will help Obama win the state, and the presidency.
“One of the things that drew me to the campaign was that from the beginning the campaign has stated clearly that it was really about us, and not about (Obama), and that each person has a role to play. We are the central protagonists of democracy and it's up to us to determine how and when to get involved.”
Photo by Khary Bruyning. Sen. Barack Obama addresses thousands of supporters during a May 23 rally at the BankAtlantic Center in Sunrise.