January 10, 2008
By MEGAN JAMES
WEYBRIDGE — On the drive back to their Barack Obama campaign office in Boone, Iowa, after sitting in on caucuses last Thursday night, none of the Kirekers, who had flown out from Vermont to work on the campaign for the final week, knew their candidate had won.
Benn Kireker, 23, and his dad, Charlie, knew something was up when a slew of text messages saying, “Congratulations!” and “Way to go!” started streaming in from friends who were watching the news back on the East coast.
Benn’s mother, Marie, found out Obama had won on the radio while driving back from her caucus.
“We had been so on-the-boots involved, we hadn’t been watching any media,” she said. “We were just in our own little world talking one-on-one with people. I really was pinching myself that this had happened.”
The Kirekers, who live in Weybridge, had flown out right before Christmas to help Benn’s twin brother, Matt, who has been working for Obama’s campaign in Iowa since June, with the final push before the caucuses. Both Matt and Benn graduated from Middlebury Union High School in 2003.
Always interested in politics, Matt hit the road for Iowa five days after graduating from Princeton University last spring. He had been hired by the Obama campaign as a field coordinator for Boone County, a largely agricultural region in the northwest with a population of about 35,000.
Matt had had some firsthand experience with American politics before when during the summer of 2005, he interned in the U.S. Senate. The experience left him disillusioned with American politics, which he characterized as full of bitterness and hostility. But instead of turning away from it altogether, he decided he wanted to do something to change it.
“I’m part of a new generation, and I think we need a new type of politics,” he said. “I thought, if I’m going to get involved in politics, I wanted to be part of something I could stand for.”
He found that in Obama, whom he called “almost an anti-politician.” He was attracted to the Illinois senator’s authenticity, the way he steers away from sound-bite answers, and how he is able to look beyond party lines.
Matt’s family has always been interested in politics, as well. His parents, Marie and Charlie, had both worked on political campaigns in the past and had flown out to Iowa for a couple days when Howard Dean was running in 2004 — so the idea to pick up and spend a week in Iowa wasn’t too far-fetched.
“They sensed there was something different about Obama,” Matt said. “And they didn’t want me to spend Christmas alone.”
So Marie, Charlie and Benn flew out the day before Christmas Eve and spent the next two days visiting with Matt. By the 26th, each member of the family had been assigned to a different precinct, and they were hitting the streets with clipboards in hand.
“Matt was delighted to have us come out because he was the only paid field staff that was working on this one county,” Charlie said. “He had 16 separate caucus locations that he had to organize, identifying and training someone to become the precinct captain. He had to start from scratch, learn the whole county.”
Crucial to the campaign was understanding not just where the residents of Boone County aligned themselves in U.S. politics, but where they fit into the politics of a small community.
“You realize that when you’re in these small Iowa towns, part of getting the right people on your side, is knowing the local politics, knowing who gets along with whom,” Matt said.
So for the next 12 days, the family dispersed throughout the county, working with about six other out-of-state volunteers and 25 local volunteers. Their office was in an airplane hangar at the tiny Boone airport. The airport manager, a Republican, and his Independent wife had leased out the space to the Obama campaigners, and by Jan. 3, both were caucusing for Obama.
Each morning they would arrive at 9 a.m., weed through a database of county residents and map out individual routes to visit those people, ask them if they planned to attend a caucus and who they were supporting. After a full day of canvassing — often with doors slamming on them, but just as often with offerings of freshly baked brownies — the volunteers would return to the office around 8 p.m. Then they’d get to work entering their updated data back into the database, usually until at least midnight, often until 2 or 3 a.m.
“There were times that I said, ‘I’m getting too old for this,’” Marie said. “I was walking around in the tiny town of Ogden door to door going, ‘Oh geez, I can’t believe I’m still doing this. I was working with young people, who can go until 2 or 3 a.m. and be back in the office at 9 o’clock. I can’t do that.”
But the campaign was rough on her sons, as well, especially Matt, who worked the grueling hours for six months straight, taking only a week off in the summer.
“Like any campaign, there were ups and downs,” Matt said. “When you’re in one place for so long, you’re going to have people who you thought were strong for you and suddenly they switch. You can’t take anything for granted.”
It grated on the Boone County residents, too.
“In the final week, they (Iowa residents) were averaging about 25 phone calls a day, if not more,” Benn said. “Most of them weren’t even real callers, they were just automated voice messages from each campaign.”
That was on top of the house visits, stacks of daily mailings and TV ads.
“They couldn’t escape it,” Benn said.
HARD WORK PAYS OFF
Still, it must have worked, because more than 230,000 people showed up at caucuses around the state on Thursday. Matt believed that was a direct result of the campaigners’ unflinching hard work.
“When you’ve been called three, five, seven times a week and asked to answer a poll, it probably sinks in that it’s important, Iowa’s important, and what you’re doing is a service to the rest of the country,” he said. “That really resonated with young people.”
In fact, 13 percent of this year’s caucus-goers were under the age of 30, compared to 4 percent in 2004.
And Obama’s campaign staff was certainly the youngest and quite possibly, according to Matt, the lowest paid. But their motives for being there were also unique.
“We were in it because we had this notion that Obama was different,” Matt said. “More often, people do it for their own career, but we were doing it to see this man become the next president.”
Matt has been reassigned to Las Vegas, Nevada, where he will work to make sure Obama sees another victory in that state’s primary on Jan. 19.
His brother, Benn, is looking for a job on the campaign as well, though until the Democratic Convention in late August, the campaign will be tight on funds and won’t offer many paid positions, he said. In the next couple of weeks, he may drive out to Chicago to volunteer from there.
As for Marie and Charlie, they’re looking forward to retiring from the door-to-door work and watching their sons carry the torch.
“These young people are very focused, very committed,” Marie said. “It’s a little different from a pie in the sky thing we’ve seen before. They’ve really grown up.”