Southwest residents organize state campaign for Obama

Grassroots campaign kicked off in recent weeks

Two Southwest residents have taken the lead on statewide campaigning for presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill.

Paul Provost of Lyndale and Carl Holmquist of CARAG have spent the last several months organizing a local push for Obama's election in 2008. The progressive senator announced his candidacy officially in February. If elected, he would be the first black president of the United States.

Many Obama support groups sprang up in Minnesota after the senator decided to run, but few existed prior to his candidacy announcement. Provost and Holmquist started searching for supporters in December through networking website meetup.com. They have since become state leaders of a volunteer, grassroots effort to usher Obama into the Oval Office.

&#8220If they were to call anyone, they would call us,” Provost said referring to Obama's Chicago-based campaign headquarters, with which he has recently communicated. &#8220If they're looking to do something in Minnesota.”

Provost is a stout Republican-turned-Democrat whose campaign experience includes promoting former Gov. Arnie Carlson. He runs a commercial cleaning business for a living, but this year, he's spent 25-30 hours a week campaigning for Obama, he said. The Illinois senator is the first politician in about a decade to inspire him, he said.

&#8220I hadn't felt motivated enough about a candidate to get up off the couch and do anything until Barack Obama,” he said.

Provost said he thinks Obama can unite a polarized America.

Holmquist, who has been involved in the recent campaigns of Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn. and Minneapolis City Council Member Ralph Remington (10th Ward), shares that view. The active CARAG resident also campaigned for 2004 presidential candidate Howard Dean, former Democratic governor of Vermont.

Holmquist's day job is operating a home improvement business, but he has kept busy with the Obama campaign this year.

He and Provost host monthly meetings with supporters, help organize campaigns in other Minnesota cities, plan events and update several online networks for Obama backers including the meetup.com site and a blog called Obama Minnesota at barackobama.com. They also direct the Minnesota chapter of draftobama.com, a campaign site used by thousands of supporters throughout the nation.

Provost said he didn't expect the movement to grow so rapidly. When he created the meetup.com site, it was the only local Obama support group he was aware of. It wasn't long before he and Holmquist were packing Southwest coffeehouses with eager volunteers from throughout the state.

&#8220It's amazing how hungry people are for information,” Provost said.

At a recent meeting at Urban Bean Coffeehouse, 2717 Hennepin Ave. S., more than 60 people gathered to share their thoughts on Obama and discuss campaign tactics. The grassroots movement is a &#8220bottom-up” approach that allows supporters to campaign pretty much however they want, as long as it helps the cause, Holmquist said.

If someone wants an Obama sign, for instance, they should make one. Or if they want to organize an event, they should do it. No higher power is dolling out the rules.

&#8220Use your own personal initiative,” Holmquist said at the meeting. &#8220That's what grassroots is all about.”

Mayor R.T. Rybak, who vocalized his support for Obama this year along with Council Member Remington, attended the meeting at Urban Bean. Rybak touted the effectiveness of grassroots campaigning - calling the Obama campaign &#8220a giant political Tupperware party.”

Larry Jacobs, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota, said the Republicans have the upper hand in grassroots campaigning. Their nationally organized use of profiling technology to locate potential voters in Democratic strongholds worked well in 2004, he said.

But in 2008, it's anyone's race, Jacobs said.

He said no particular candidate in either party is a clear primary winner. And because Minnesota has a late primary (scheduled for early March), the race could be decided before the state has its say.

Even though the Minnesota primary is nearly a year away, campaigners are behind if they haven't started, Jacobs said. &#8220We may be on the verge of the most massive mobilization of people we've seen in years.”

Southwest GOP activist Tracy Eberly said Southwest is one of the weakest areas in Minnesota for Republicans, but he thinks Obama is beatable on a state and national level. However, he said the Illinois senator is a stronger candidate than Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-New York, and will make a worthy adversary.

Eberly said he would like to get a local campaign going for Republican candidate Rudolph Giuliani, former governor of New York. He said the GOP will likely campaign using a hybrid of grassroots efforts and national coordination this year.

He said it's early in the campaign season and the groundwork for a local GOP campaign has yet to be laid.

Provost also recognizes it's early and said he's been careful not to tire volunteers.

&#8220We're trying to limit communication so we don't burn people out,” he said.

But he expects the campaign to gain momentum in the coming months.

&#8220I think people still want to get information about the candidates,” he said. &#8220People are still waiting to see who they are going to support.”

Reach Jake Weyer at 436-4367 or jweyer@mnpubs.com.