In July 2008, Roz Blau, was looking for the next major connection in her life. Recently retired after a 27-year career as a social worker, she had moved this spring from Massachusetts to Mountainside, New Jersey with her husband, who was still working. "My life has been a series of transitions in which I don't know what I'm going to do next so I just feel my way," Roz says. This summer, she was determined to feel her way into a sustained commitment to the Obama campaign.
I caught up with Roz for the Huffington Post at the suggestion of Michael Passante, assistant state council and formerly field organizer for the New Jersey Campaign for Change. Michael, who took a leave of absence from his job as a prosecutor to work full-time for the Obama campaign, identified Roz as one of his most tireless and effective volunteers. Over the past four months, Roz has not only made thousands of phone calls to supporters but almost single-handedly constructed the GOTV database that is a focal point of Union and Middlesex County efforts in the final days. Here's what she told me about her experience.
What led you to devote your summer and fall to Obama?
I responded to Obama's hopefulness - the idea that we can turn this country around. The optimism factor. The feeling that I want my grandchildren to grow up in a world that. feels different from the way the world has felt the last eight years - the cynicism, the disrespect for our government and our president. In 1968, I knocked on doors for Gene McCarthy. Obama is the first candidate since McCarthy who's inspired me.
Doing a bit here and there didn't feel meaningful, didn't feel connected enough. I needed something more. At an event in Plainfield, I told a woman who works in Westfield, the next town over, "I'm retired, I need to do more." She said, "You need to talk to Mike." So I introduced myself to him, and said I'll come in on Monday. I came in on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and he figured out I was serious and started giving me things that had some continuity. I knew by day three that this was what I was looking for.
I've worked directly with Mike, building a database of volunteers -- calling self-identified supporters and getting them to come to events, do phone banking and canvassing from home. I enjoy calling multiple people for the same event. I developed a kind of ease about connecting with people; people were very receptive.
When I did calls on barackobama.com, I felt time-pressured; I wanted to get done fast. This feels different -- making notes on paper is a whole different experience for someone not comfortable with a computer. I'm always working off the same list; I can go back through list, I manage it myself. I can look it over and think, I spoke to this person, I need to call her back. That gives you a sense that you're managing this yourself - you can stay on top of it.
What's been your greatest accomplishment?
Mike started me building a database of supporters, and it felt very laborious, stacks and stacks of paper, lists of volunteers. I'm not very good with the computer - I can use it, but I don't understand all the workings. And mechanically going through this process...the list was so long, so many names, I was the only one. Halfway through, I said, "Mike this is taking so long, the campaign's gong to be over by the time I'm finished." He explained, "No, we don't need this until Get Out the Vote weekend." And in fact I finished two weeks ago - two weeks ahead of time. Endless pages of people I had entered into the system - it was very tedious, the most effortful part of the work. Luckily, now I'm getting to call these people, and I'm getting a good return. I'm not getting a lot of no's.
We're asking people to make commitment to come in from the 31st to the 4th. We're trying to get people to vote the whole Democratic ticket.
Do you relate differently to your community because of this work?
Not really. I'm a social worker: my greatest delight is to get to connect with people I talk to. I've worked in a variety of settings with a variety of different populations, and I grew up in Hackensack, NJ. I'm comfortable talking to lots of different people.
My greatest delight is to get to connect with people I talk to. One day last week, I spoke to a woman in her mid-seventies, a black woman, president of the NAACP in this county. She started talking about how excited she is - she said it doesn't even matter if Barack wins, just to see what this means to her children, her grandsons. I get goose bumps just thinking about it. To be able to talk to people about what he means to children, grandchildren.
One other young woman I spoke to who I had called to see if she could help with the GOTV told me that when Barack won the nomination, she and her family booked hotel rooms in Washington for the inaugural. They are all going to meet in Washington, and I thought, how did they think of that? She said, "We just all want to be there together." I'm impressed with how families think together about things like this.--maybe it's the social worker in me. Her whole family had come together to plan this, and now they're going to come together to celebrate this event, gathering from all over the country.
How has your volunteer work affected your family relationships?
The most wonderful part has been how much support I've gotten from children and my husband for doing this. My husband's a supporter, very much on board; he met Barack months ago at a New Jersey event and has a great photo of the two of them together. My young son and daughter-in-law in Philadelphia, they're so proud of my efforts. I didn't know it would have so much meaning to them, didn't know how proud of me they are.
A couple of weeks ago, my son went gallivanting with his friends, and I went to stay with his wife and new baby and three year old so he could go on this guys' weekend. After, he told me how his friends were so impressed that I was working for Barack. I was astounded he would tell them -- it didn't occur to me that he would share that. It's heartwarming to think kids are proud of you and pleased with choices you're making. nice to feel supported and to feel their pride.
One of the great things as far as that goes: early on in the campaign I had gotten an Obama car magnet. When my grandson was born, I wanted to give my daughter-in-law something...I gave her the car magnet, and she was so excited.
How are you feeling as the election approaches?
I'm cautiously excited...I feel like the Obama campaign has been so smart. Everybody laughed at that 50 state strategy, and now look at them, they're talking about South Carolina, Missouri, Georgia...boy they're smart.
What's next for you?
I'm a little concerned about falling off the edge after Nov. 4. I've committed to working twelve hours per day from the 31st through the 4th. And if we've elected this guy, I feel I'd like to sleep a lot!
Afterwards, what will I have to look forward to? I've told Mike, I don't know what there will be. I heard Michelle Obama give a speech, and she said she hoped there would be those of us who would stay involved because they would still need us.
Over time, I've developed confidence that when I get to one of those "I don't know what I'm going to do next" moments, something will come to me." That's how I feel about this -- I'll find my way in the end. I'm pretty optimistic about it.
Andrew Sprung is a media consultant with a lasting interest in how democracy works, how it malfunctions and self-corrects. He blogs at xpostfactoid.