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San Mateo County Times: Obama Backers Hit The Ground Running

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San Mateo County Times: Obama backers hit the ground running

By Rebekah Gordon

After U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., spoke at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Brad Lyau, a convention delegate and San Mateo resident, remembers remarking to the person next to him that surely the man would someday be on the presidential ticket.

"It was like a life-changing event," Lyau, 53, said. "There are speeches, and then there are speeches."

Three years later, with Obama now a Democratic primary candidate, the inspiration lingers. So much so that Lyau was one of the founding members of Obama San Mateo County, a fledgling but fast-growing grass-roots group that is bent on getting the local vote out for the junior senator from Illinois.

Lyau, an equity shareholder in a software startup, has spent much of his life volunteering in politics, but he said it's been a long time since he has seen excitement quite like this.

"There are a lot of great people out there, but it seems like Barack Obama has a singular appeal," said Lyau, the group's vice chairman. "He's a special person who can make a difference."

In that belief, the group, which formed in February and held its first meeting in March, is committing itself to the basics of political organizing. Its members are staffing information tables, registering voters, phone-banking, and hosting gatherings at homes to spread the Obama word. Though this is a national election, Lyau said the February 2008 California Democratic primary will be won "precinct by precinct, neighborhood by neighborhood," making their local work totally necessary.

"People will respond better if one of their neighbors asks them, 'Hey, I'm really excited about this candidate â€" will you join me?'" Lyau said. "It's much more effective than 30-second commercials."

The group now has a list of more than 50 members. About half are showing up for meetings every other week, which are held in a conference room loaned by Veterinary Medical Services on North Amphlett Boulevard in San Mateo.

Several members of the group expressed a palpable excitement for Obama, calling it unlike anything they'd seen for a long time. The group's chairman, 73-year-old Wallace Esler, should know â€" he has volunteered for several presidential campaigns â€" starting with Adlai Stevenson's in 1956.

"I've never been involved quite this early in a campaign before," said Esler, a Redwood City resident and semi-retired accountant. "But I was so enthusiastic about Barack Obama that we're doing this grass-roots stuff that was never done before."

The San Mateo County group is not the only local organization that's sprung up in support of Obama. Dem Pilafian, a San Carlos resident, noticed there were so many small groups in the Bay Area â€" from "UC Hastings Law Students for Obama" to "Mission + Noe + Obama" â€" that on April 23 he launched a Web site, http://www.bayareaforobama.com, to list them and all their happenings in one place.

Obama San Mateo County also has its own Web site: http://www.obamasanmateo.com.

The level of local organizing seems unmatched by any other Democratic or Republican candidate. There appears to be only a sprinkling of groups in San Francisco and the East Bay for other candidates on Meetup.com, a Web site that connects people with similar interests. One Corps, the online local action arm of the presidential campaign for Democrat John Edwards, has a local chapter in Pacifica with just three members and one in Menlo Park with seven.

There are even some filial ties within the San Mateo Obama group, as San Carlos resident Mary Kunitake, 54, joined with her 23-year-old daughter, Sara.

"It's really fun, though we chafe every now and then as mothers and daughters do," Kunitake said. "I learn more from her than she does from me."

Wanting to do something other than just vote pushed San Mateo resident Mark Brickman to get involved in the group. He and his wife were smitten with Obama after his appearance in Oakland in March. The 50-year-old court reporter said he got seven more people to join the group after "tabling" outside of Safeway.

"People are really feeling like, if they don't get personally involved, we could very well have the same type of government that we've had for the last six years," Brickman said. "I think a lot of people think that would be very damaging."

The group represents a variety of ages and backgrounds, and even includes a registered Republican. They've also been joined by members of Obama groups in other counties, such as San Francisco, looking to emulate what San Mateo has done.

"It's not a bunch of ideologues," Brickman said. "It's just a bunch of people who care about our country and care about the people who will be leading us."


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