[14 June 2007]
Chicago Tribune (MCT)
CHICAGO—The prime real estate in most Chicago high-rises sits on the side with a view of Lake Michigan’s blue waters.
So it’s no coincidence that the fundraising department in Barack Obama’s campaign headquarters commands an easterly view. The people who bring in the money also have a new Ping Pong table to entertain them when they’re not dialing for dollars.
Like an emerging start-up business, Obama’s presidential campaign has grown from just a few advisers last December to one that boasts about 100 employees in Chicago alone, part of a national staff now totaling roughly 200. His staff includes key veterans of the 2004 John Kerry campaign as well as a co-founder of the social networking Web site Facebook.
After initially setting up shop in temporary space a few floors up, the headquarters staff is settling into its new space at 233 N. Michigan Ave. They occupy the entire 11th floor—more than 33,000 square feet—with plenty of room to grow.
The office is first class. The $25 million Obama raised in the first three months of the year easily covers the rent.
This isn’t the first time a presidential campaign has been headquartered in Chicago. Still, it’s rare. The Rev. Jesse Jackson headquartered his two presidential bids here during the 1980s. Former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun did four years ago. Then-Sen. Paul Simon had his 1988 headquarters in Washington, while Adlai Stevenson based his 1952 presidential bid in Springfield.
With its proximity to the early voting state of Iowa, which Obama has already visited 10 times since February, Chicago has proven to be a good home base for his campaign.
Staff members can catch nonstop flights to just about anywhere. And Obama, who has traveled mostly by charter jet since February, can occasionally catch a night’s rest at home amid a coast-to-coast campaign that has already taken him to California five times and Nevada three times.
The candidate does not have a desk in the headquarters, based on the belief that he has better places to spend his time, such as fundraisers or key early-caucus states.
His chief strategist, David Axelrod, spends most of his time at the office of his firm, AKP&D Message and Media. Campaign manager David Plouffe has an office inside headquarters on an opposite corner of the floor from the money raisers.
The staff is heavy on young Washington operatives. Many live in or near downtown.
At 31, Alyssa Mastromonaco is one of the oldest in the room. The campaign’s director of scheduling and advance work, she is one of several alums from Sen. Kerry’s 2004 presidential bid, where she also was charged with scheduling. With the candidate’s time being the most valuable commodity a campaign has, Mastromonaco must be a master of logistics.
She can cite runway lengths for some of the smallest airports in America, places in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina—key early caucus and primary states—where she knows Obama’s rental jets can safely land. And she can estimate flying times between just about any two points.
Scheduling downtime at home for Obama has been easier than it was for Kerry, who owned homes across the country but mostly was based in Boston.
“You can get a decent day in on the West Coast and still be home in time for dinner,” she said. “I can explain a long day (to Obama) if the end result is dinner and bedtime with the girls.”
His Secret Service detail, assigned last month, has helped with some logistics. The agents are able to move him more quickly in and out of buildings, saving a few minutes here and there.
Mastromonaco said she mainly focuses her efforts on events 30 to 45 days in advance; trying to plan any further out would be pointless because of the constantly changing nature of the campaign. She tries not to be more precise than 15-minute increments so that some flex time is available for shaking hands, signing books, posing for photos and other campaign needs.
A firm chip shot across the way from the old-school schedulers sits the cyber arm of the campaign.
One of its key employees is a 23-year-old. Chris Hughes, the campaign’s “online organizer,” also has the unofficial title of guy worth the most money (at least on paper). He co-founded Facebook, the hot social networking site. The experience gives him serious dot-com credentials for using the Internet to organize voters, donors and volunteers.
“This is the cycle where it’s really going to matter,” he said. “The Internet and politics is at a historic point.”
Obama’s Web site features about 7,000 discussion groups, 65,000 user profiles and 11,000 blogs. Hughes’ boss is Joe Rospars, head of the New Media department. Adorning his office is a white board filled with the kind of scribbles and formulas that would make a Google employee proud.
Rospars, who worked for Howard Dean’s Internet operation in the last presidential election, said that virtually every part of his team’s efforts is designed to convert online gadgetry to actual votes. “For all the blog posts,” he said, his department is fixated on persuading all those computer users to get their friends and neighbors to vote for Obama.
Just a few footsteps away sits another key, young operative. Jon Favreau, the 26-year-old speechwriter, who also worked for Kerry. He joined Obama’s Senate office then moved to the campaign early this year.
On a recent morning, he toiled away on a speech to be given in Detroit, where Obama would call on economic leaders in the Motor City to push for more fuel-efficient cars.
An article titled “Autos to Armaments” sat on his desk, as he studied how Detroit reacted when America became embroiled in World War II.
For a 30-minute speech, it’s not unusual for Favreau (the candidate calls him “Favs”) to work off and on for two weeks. There is typically a lot of input from the candidate, who has written two best-sellers. “He’s the chief speechwriter,” Favreau said.
While Favreau spends his time researching historical and literary references, across the way sits Devorah Adler. She looks out on the historic Carbide and Carbon Building, a nice view of Michigan Avenue befitting her crucial role in the campaign. As the head of Obama’s eight-person research shop, she is in charge of knowing everything there is to know about Obama’s opponents and—just as important—about him.
“Research is about public accountability,” said Adler, 32, a former Democratic National Committee research director who also worked in the Clinton White House.
When Obama was coming under fire a few months ago for possible contradictions in his memoir, “Dreams from My Father,” it was Adler who led the rapid-response effort to try to knock down those news stories.
The research staff, which mines all kinds of paper and electronic records, has “the best job of the campaign, hands down,” said Alder, who left the DNC on Jan. 23 and started with Obama the next day.
Adler’s office sits next to one occupied by campaign spokesman Bill Burton. Like many walls throughout the headquarters, his have four state maps plastered on them: Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
The communications operations, led by Kerry veteran Robert Gibbs, includes eight people based in Chicago. Mounted on the wall above the communications area are six televisions to monitor news and appearances by all the candidates. A nearby pillar is plastered with more than 30 sheets of paper, each bearing a printout from the front page of national newspapers and those in important states.
The campaign is in the process of opening a separate call center for volunteers. But some of that work already is going on in the headquarters, which has about 200 telephone lines and a massive Internet data pipe.
Cuauhtemoc “Temo” Figueroa’s office view is not as great as some. It’s due north toward the Tribune Tower. But he does have a giant bowl of free candy.
As the head of Obama’s field operation, Figueroa is responsible for organizing the campaign’s ground game for classifying, courting, counting and turning out voters.
Like Burton, he has maps for the first four primary and caucus states on his walls. But he also has a national map filled with pushpins representing activities in the still-changing mix of more than 20 states expected to hold primaries or caucuses on or before Feb. 5.
“All we can do is plan for what’s in front of us,” said Figueroa, who previously worked as the assistant political director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. “We have to focus like a laser beam on these early states.”
Asked whether recent rumors are true that Obama will open 35 field offices in Iowa alone, Figueroa would not bite. “We’ll have whatever it takes,” he said.