SAN JOSE, CA — Just now I was reading the California newspapers from my fold-out table in Obama HQ when a woman sat down at my elbow and logged into a MacBook. She hunted and pecked, fretting over her email. I figured her for just another first-time volunteer. Turns out she was U.S. Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, pecking out an email to the county's top voting official. You've got to love Lofgren--if not because she's campaigning for Obama, then for her ability to carry off the standard-issue DC pantsuit along with a very cool pair of blue-and-pink silk Chinese slippers.
Lofgren and her son had just come from eating lunch downtown at Teske's Germania, where she dines before every election. She'd ordered a gigantic pork shank. "It's kind of a good luck charm," she said. "I was going to actually order a salad because I've been trying to lose weight, but I didn't want to break the luck."
Lofgren has been in Congress for 14 years and has never seen an election bring in so many new volunteers. "In a Democratic event I walk in and I know everybody by name," she said, looking around the room. "These are all new people." Most volunteers didn't know her either--no crowd had gathered round until word got out who she was.
This is to be expected of a campaign that has harnessed a new wave of young voters. Several guys working the phones right now haven't even started growing facial hair. It's fun to watch these kids make things up as they go. This morning San Jose State student Sarah Bronstein was talking with another college kid about the Obama pitch they were reciting over the phone to voters. "It's a shitty script," she said. "They should write is as if someone is actually talking." So she tweaked it--one of countless of small examples today of DIY.
Excitement today goes beyond young people and Obama. This is the first time in recent history that California has played such a prominent role in choosing the presidential candidate, and the first time since the '50s that the election didn't feature an incumbent president or VP. Turnout is expected to resemble the much higher numbers of a general election. Of course, the bigger crowds at the polls have made snags more likely--which is why Lofgren has swooped in to fire off an email to the county elections chief. Obama staffers here had received a few reports that poll workers were incorrectly telling independent voters that they couldn't vote in the Democratic primary. If that problem becomes widespread, it would favor Clinton and hurt Obama, who polls better among independents.
Update: Lofgren's concern appears to have been merited. The Washington Post reports that confusion over independent voters and Democratic ballots has been widespread. Still, it does not yet appear to be a major factor in the race.
I'll be writing to you today from the Obama campaign office in San Jose, California. It's one of six Obama offices in the Bay Area, but the battle here will be one of the most closely fought and important anywhere in the state (more on this shortly). The office is a small storefront in a predominately Hispanic neighborhood just outside downtown. Inside, posters on the wall say, "Fired up!" and, for those who've been here a bit too long, "Bang head here." The space lacks any heat (save for two space heaters--any more and the circuit breaker pops) but the 20 people packing into the place are keeping things warm enough. I've sandwiched myself into a row of clicking laptops on a fold-out table in the middle of the room. Everyone is working on getting out the vote; whenever a phone-banker convinces someone to vote Obama, he rings a bell and the room erupts in applause.
The volunteers here have their work cut out for them. San Jose's CA-15 congressional district is one of only 22 in the state with an odd number of delegates; whoever wins 51 percent of the vote in these districts will automatically pick up an extra delegate. (Most California districts are even-delegate and will likely to split between the candidates 50/50). Only about half of the odd-delate districts in the state will be truly competitive. CA-15 is one of those: Here in the Bay Area, Obama leads Clinton overall, but San Jose is predominately working class and has more Latino voters than any other county in the region--two groups that tend to support Clinton.
A new, quasi-political party is aiming to form a "national coalition of peace candidates for U.S. House of Representatives" who will boot out Democrats and Republicans and then elect anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan as Speaker. Sound implausible? It is. But with Ralph Nader unveiling an exploratory website for yet another presidential bid this week, it's clear that third parties on the left see an opening: popular discontent with the inability of the Democratic Congress to end the war in Iraq. Don't expect many of these candidates to pull down more than a percent or two. Still, you have to wonder whether Nader or his acolytes would fare slightly better at the polls if Hillary Clinton--the Democratic bete noir of the radical anti-war movement--is the party's nominee for President. For more on this year's third party dynamic, check out my story on Sheehan's congressional race against Speaker Pelosi.
One morning last August in San Francisco, six women in pink sweaters marched up a hilly boulevard towing pink roller bags full of shoes. They unzipped the bags in front of Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi's house, dumped the shoes on her lawn, and went on to arrange loafers, pumps, and pink glittery sandals like hawkers at a yard sale. Anchoring their display was a pair of combat boots, placed on Pelosi's doorstep. The boots, like the other shoes, had been pulled from a dead body in Iraq—the body of Casey Sheehan, in fact, whose mother, Cindy, is running as an Independent against Pelosi for Congress.
These women believe Cindy Sheehan could succeed where their anti-war group, Code Pink, has failed. Pelosi has refused to meet Code Pink's demand that she end the war in Iraq by procedural fiat: As Speaker, Pelosi has the power to prevent votes on war funding bills, and could demand that any legislation contain a timetable for withdrawing the troops. "Pelosi crosses us out; she won't even meet with us," Code Pink cofounder Medea Benjamin said as she hunched on the House Speaker's curb. "So it takes somebody like Cindy to counteract the pressure from other [less emphatically antiwar] Democrats" by challenging her at the polls.
More mainstream progressives within the Party would prefer to oppose the war on their own terms, which is to say, carefully. The lefty bloggers who first publicized Sheehan's anti-war sit-in outside Bush's ranch in 2005 now overwhelmingly oppose her independent race as a distraction from their goal of forging a coalition to retake the White House. "I feel that working within the Democratic Party is really the only way progressives can operate without sort of turning into just reverse Joe Liebermans," Democratic blogger Chris Bowers told me. The race has hastened a clash between Netizens like Bowers, who prefer to wait patiently for the other shoe to drop in November, and the traditionally impatient anti-war movement, which has flirted with outsiders such as the People's Party and Green Party ever since the war in Vietnam.
Last year California passed a much-heralded law requiring oil companies to cut the carbon intensity of their fuel 10 percent by 2020. The state is allowing ethanol to be used as one low-carbon substitute, and recently raised the cap on ethanol in gasoline from six to ten percent. You've probably read about the ways the ethanol craze contributes to higher food prices around the world, but what nobody has calculated, until now, is how this affects ethanol's true carbon footprint. In an analysis released January 17th, two UC Berkeley researchers found that ethanol actually produces more carbon emissions than gasoline. As a result, the carbon intensity of California fuel has ironically risen, between 3 and 33 percent.
The researchers, professors Michael O'Hare and and Alexander Farrell, take issue with the model state regulators used to calculate ethanol's carbon output, arguing that it did not factor in the indirect effects on the global food supply. Among other things, higher corn prices cause farmers half-way around the world to convert more forests into farmland, and those trees are then burned or decay, releasing more carbon into the atmosphere. The professors pointed this out in a letter sent earlier this month to the California Air Board, which is discussing changing its carbon model in light of the findings.