Obama camp strong in Ashland

"This man's willing to step up and do it."

Sen. Alan Bates props one foot on the base of the podium as he talks about Sen. Barack Obama. His audience consists of 45 to 50 members of the Mountain Meadows retirement community. They came here, some of them in wheelchairs, to listen to Bates' endorsement of their presidential favorite. Bates estimates that he speaks at two or three of these local Obama gatherings every week.

In one corner of the room, behind a table strewn with Obama buttons, pins and stickers, sits Suzanne Frey. Before her sits a three-ring binder marked "House Parties."

Frey, 63, works as a volunteer at the ground level of Ashland's Obama campaign. She organizes campaign house parties in Ashland. She also runs the "Obama Booth" on the downtown plaza every Sunday (and the last Saturday) in April from noon to 5 p.m. She aims to register as many Democrats as possible before the end of the month &

the registration deadline to vote in the primaries. Voters in Oregon must be members of a party to vote in that party's primary.

Arlene Rogers, co-chair of the Mountain Meadows Democratic Caucus and the organizer of this event, credits Frey with the idea to call Sen. Bates. Rogers got a higher turnout than the 30 or 40 people she expected.

"I think it was extremely successful," Rogers said.

While attendees take in refreshments and campaign souvenirs, Frey kicks into action. She explains the process of making a donation (according to federal law, any individual who donates more than $200 must fill out a disclosure form). She holds up the small-change donation jar. She points out the voter registration forms.

Frey first got involved through Obama's official presidential campaign Web site. The site features a Facebook-style social networking element geared toward local volunteers.

Frey had little experience in campaigning before she started volunteering for Oregon South for Barack Obama. She did not get involved in politics in the '60s, as some of her fellow volunteers did. Born in Chicago and raised in Roseburg, she has worked as a real estate agent, business owner and psychologist, among other things.

Frey's life changed along with the millennium. She retired from full-time work as a behavioral health administrator in 2000. She spent most of 2003 and 2004 (the first years of the Iraq War) recovering from chemotherapy.

"I rearranged my priorities is what I did," she said.

Frey's first forays into campaigning did not go smoothly. She once did some phone banking through MoveOn.org and hated it.

"I was probably the least productive phone caller," she said.

Since then, she has hosted three Obama house parties herself, and keeps a ready supply of campaign flyers that include her contact information for prospective house party hosts.

"I kind of graduated from doing house parties to getting other people to do house parties," she said.

Joanna Niemann, a volunteer who attended Frey's second house party, now has her own party planned for April 25 at the Ashland Library.

On April 6, the first day of the Obama Booth, Frey and her fellow campaigners signed up 18 new volunteers, despite the wind and rain.

"I try to hook up volunteers with something they have a talent and the interest in doing," she said.

The Ashland Obama campaign started two days after Obama announced his candidacy in February of 2007. Victoria Law, 52, owner of the Ashland Historic Railroad Museum, opened an online group through the Obama campaign site. Others sprang up in the following days and weeks.

July, the various groups had formed into one: Oregon South for Barack Obama, headed by Matt Sutton. The Obama campaign became the only presidential campaign represented in Ashland's 2007 July 4 parade.

"We had a group that worked really easily together," Law said.

Like Frey, Law came to the cause without much prior experience. Inspired by what she knew about the senator, she drove to Oakland in March of 2007 to hear him speak.

Law believes Obama's visit to Medford last month helped to push the campaign forward.

"We've really blossomed," she said.

Former Ashland Mayor Cathy Shaw got in on the act Sunday morning, as campaigners and volunteers met at her house before venturing into the unseasonable cold (and snow) to distribute yard signs. According to Frey, yard signs and other supplies have been in such high demand that at one time the Obama Web site had a five-week shipping delay.

The campaign even extends onto the Southern Oregon University campus. Law refers to student and volunteer Kathryn Ferrara as "Kate the Great" for her ability to organize campus events.

The grass roots approach of the Ashland Obama campaign is not unique. Molly Claflin, 26, volunteers for the campaign out of Palo Alto. She holds a Stanford law degree, and part of her work involves traveling to voting sites to ensure the enforcement of voting laws. She works mostly in California, but has traveled to Nevada and Texas.

"The local campaigns are pretty self-sufficient," she said.

Claflin volunteered for the Kerry campaign in 2004 and believes that the Obama campaign differs from others in its emphasis on face-to-face friendliness.

"They're really focused on being polite," she said.

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