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Minnesota State University, Mankato
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Students adding punch to Obama local campaign

Students are an important piece of an expanding Obama campaign office in Mankato.

By Mark Fischenich. Free Press Staff Writer [published in The Free Press, Mankato, MN, 10/11/2008]

Photos by Pat Christman
group of campaign volunteers in office
Eddie Haubrich prepares a group of volunteers to door-knock neighborhoods on behalf of Barack Obama and other Democratic candidates. Amanda Barr (second from the left) is a former College Republican who is now one of the Obama office's most faithful volunteers. Melissa Riedy (fourth from the right) was preparing to volunteer on a political campaign for the first time in her life.
Student volunteer on phone
Kyle Hartman makes phone calls at the Mankato Campaign for Change office, one of 31 offices around Minnesota working toward the election of Barack Obama and other Democratic candidates for federal offices.

For all the debates, for all the television ads, for all the political rallies and news stories, in the end the presidential election will be decided by the work done in the basement of 220 E. Main St. — along with 30 other Campaign for Change field offices throughout Minnesota and thousands more in battleground states across America.

Nick Meyer is convinced of it.

"I think ultimately it is going to come down to the volunteer work and the grass-roots politics," said the regional field director for the Obama campaign in southern Minnesota. "It's all going to come down to the sheer number of people we can talk to."

The impact they're having isn't one the campaign is sharing in detail. They don't talk specifics, just like football coaches don't publicize playbooks and game plans. But Meyer says there is a target for the number of votes the Obama campaign wants from each of the 1,065 precincts in the 1st and 2nd congressional districts, along with all the other precincts across the state.

The Obama campaign's St. Paul headquarters says the Mankato office has been responsible for 60,000 attempted voter contacts in the past three months.

They have high-tech computerized voter identification systems, that the campaign won't talk about at all, which pinpoint prospective supporters and the issues that matter most to them.

They have low-tech bumper stickers, campaign buttons and yard signs (the campaign estimates that more than 600 yard signs have been passed out by the Mankato office). They have brochures and position papers and fliers.

They have Meyer, an Illinois native who circulates between Mankato, Rochester and Northfield, coordinating the Obama efforts in the two congressional districts.

They have a couple of paid staffers assigned to the Mankato office, which allows the office to have long and regular hours — open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. weekdays, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturdays and noon to 9 p.m. Sundays.

They have daily activities, whether it's door-knocking or phone banks or debate-watching parties.

Most importantly, Meyer said, they have an ever-growing legion of volunteers.

Amanda Barr, one of the most faithful volunteers, said the first Obama staffer assigned to Mankato for the general election campaign — Robert Connally, who's now working out of the St. Paul headquarters — can take credit for at least three Obama votes that otherwise might have gone to McCain.

Barr, 23, laughed at Connally when he approached her at Minnesota State University, identified himself and asked if she would consider supporting Obama.

"I said, ‘I'm a College Republican, my dad's a wounded, disabled Vietnam vet. Who do you think I'm voting for?"

Barr, in fact, had volunteered in Rochester when President Bush came there in 2004 for a campaign rally.

Connally didn't give up easily, asking her about what issues motivated her choice, talking about where Obama stood.

"Poor guy, I drilled him on his issues," she said.

First was abortion. She's adamantly opposed to abortion.

Connally talked about Obama's position that political battles over banning abortion were doing nothing to prevent the root causes, that preventing the number of unwanted pregnancies was more important.

"We started having a dialogue, and I could see the enthusiasm in this person," said Barr, a St. Peter resident who's pursuing a master's degree in public administration at MSU. "... It was contagious."

The July encounter was enough to get Barr investigating the candidate's positions. She already was concerned about the growing inequality in wealth in America and other social justice issues. She was impressed with Obama's background, his performance at Harvard Law School and his decision to do community organizing rather than take a high-paying job after graduating at the top of his class.

So Barr agreed to volunteer at the Obama office, enjoyed the contact with voters and has provided hundreds of hours of work since then. Her parents, Jack and Carol Penning, were impressed by her enthusiasm for Obama and agreed to let her lay out the issues and make her case.

They've both decided to vote for Obama.

"I convinced the unconvinceable," she said of her father, "just by being so passionate about what America can be and what Obama can do to get us there."

Melissa Riedy, by contrast, stopped by the Obama office for the first time one night a couple of weeks ago. She came on her own, hearing they needed volunteers for some door-knocking.

"This is my first time ever," said Riedy, an MSU student and former member of the South Dakota National Guard.

Riedy was eligible to vote in the presidential election for the first time in 2004. She was torn then, somewhat persuaded it's not good to change leaders in a time of war but eventually settled on John Kerry.

Last time, Riedy tried hard to care about the election out of a sense that it was her duty as an American. Now the mother of a 11⁄2-year-old daughter, she said the election feels more personal.

Most of her driving issues involve the sort of world her daughter will inherit, worries about the skyrocketing national debt, a desire for a more sustainable economy, a conviction that America needs a leader "with good judgment and even temper."

Although Riedy admitted to being a bit nervous about door-knocking, she was motivated by the memory of 2004 — that her candidate came up short despite all of the young people that came out to vote. The Milbank, S.D., native decided this time she needed to go beyond voting.

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