Former Obama staffers run for office to protect his legacy

In this Dec. 6, 2010, file photo, President Barack Obama walks across the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, to board Marine One helicopter as he travels to Winston-Salem, N.C. More than half of Americans view President Barack Obama favorably as he leaves office, a new poll shows, but Americans remain deeply divided over his legacy. Less than half of Americans say they're better off eight years after his election or that Obama brought the country together.

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In this Dec. 6, 2010, file photo, President Barack Obama walks across the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, to board Marine One helicopter as he travels to Winston-Salem, N.C. More than half of Americans view President Barack Obama favorably as he leaves office, a new poll shows, but Americans remain deeply divided over his legacy. Less than half of Americans say they're better off eight years after his election or that Obama brought the country together.

As one of Barack Obama's top political organizers, Buffy Wicks plotted national campaign strategy, marshaled thousands of volunteers and mobilized support for the Affordable Care Act.

Early on Thursday evening, Wicks stood in front of a circle of 14 voters in a living room in the Oakland hills, fielding questions about housing costs, charter schools and bicycle safety. This time, she was working on her own state Assembly race.

Wicks is one of at least 20 former Obama administration staffers around the country who decided to run for public office in the eight months since President Donald Trump's election.

Part of the inspiration is simply being out of work. If Democrat Hillary Clinton had won the presidency, many would have been contenders for administration jobs. But most say they also feel a responsibility to protect Obama's hard-won policies as the Trump administration tries to dismantle them.

"We have to let Trump know that we're not all standing here watching him dismantle the legacy of President Obama," Wicks said.

Only a few of Obama staffers quit their jobs to run for office in the eight years he was in the White House, including Obama's first chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, now Chicago's mayor. But Trump's election "accelerated a lot of people's decision-making about wanting to serve and wanting to lead and get out there," said Jeremy Bird, another top organizer on Obama's campaigns. "I don't know how many would have run without Trump."

In his farewell address in January, Obama encouraged his fans to start their own campaigns. "If you're disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures and run for office yourself," he said. "Show up. Dive in. Stay at it."

Many have taken that advice to heart.

Wicks, who grew up in a trailer in rural Placer County, joined the Obama campaign in 2007 after stints on local campaigns and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's presidential campaign in 2004.

As the field director for Obama's California primary campaign, Wicks is credited with developing a model of grass-roots organizing that became the bedrock of his national campaign strategy. She adopted ideas from social movements, dividing volunteers into local teams and enlisting them to run the campaign neighborhood by neighborhood.

In the White House, Wicks organized groups supporting the passage of the Affordable Care Act.

Seeing Trump and Republicans work to repeal the health care law prodded her to run, Wicks said. "They are literally trying to defund and take away health care from the most vulnerable in our society in order to give the wealthy tax breaks," she said.

Wicks, who also ran Hillary Clinton's 2016 California primary campaign, moved to Oakland a year and a half ago. Her campaign to represent the 15th Assembly District _ which includes Richmond, Berkeley and north Oakland _ has ruffled some feathers among the other candidates, local office holders who have lived here for decades.

"Voters want people who have been doing the work of standing and fighting alongside the residents ... not someone who has lived in a district for just one year," said Jovanka Beckles, a Richmond City Council member who's also running for Assembly.

"I get that I'm an unorthodox candidate," Wicks said, but "I had my daughter in this district. I bought my home in this district. ... I'm committed to this district."

Other Obama staffers running for office in California include Ammar Campa-Najjar, who is running for a congressional seat in San Diego.

Obama's 2008 victory was revelatory for Campa-Najjar, the son of a Mexican mother and a Palestinian father, who at the time was "a brooding, biracial kid" struggling to define his identity.

Campa-Najjar organized volunteers as San Diego field director on Obama's re-election campaign, interned at the White House reading letters to the president, and worked in the Labor Department helping develop job-training programs.

Obama "gave me this ticket to my dreams to serve in Washington," he said. "But it was always a round-trip ticket _ I'd always come back home and serve."

He's one of several Democrats challenging Rep. Duncan Hunter, a Republican in one of the most Republican districts in California. Campa-Najjar said he's planning to "do the Obama model" of campaigning and focus on a strong ground game.

Kelly Gonez interned on Obama's campaign and worked as a policy adviser in the Department of Education before running for and winning a seat on the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education this year.

"I'm a very introverted person, so being in elected office was not something I pictured for myself," the former science teacher said. But Trump's election made her realize that her work for the federal government _ helping write handbooks for educators about how to support undocumented students and consulting on policies banning immigration enforcement activity in schools _ was threatened.

"Seeing someone try to take away undocumented kids' opportunity to get a good public education made me think a voice like mine was needed," she said. Besides, the fact that Trump became president helped alleviate her doubts that she was qualified for school board.

Other Obama administration veterans turned California candidates include Jeff Bleich, a former presidential counsel and ambassador to Australia, who's running for lieutenant governor; Eleni Kounalakis, Obama's ambassador to Hungary, who's also a candidate for lieutenant governor; and Alejandra Campoverdi, the former White House deputy director of Hispanic media, who ran unsuccessfully in the special election for a Los Angeles congressional seat this year.

Obama isn't expected to make many endorsements or campaign appearances, but his alumni network is a powerful support group for candidates launching their first campaigns. Candidates such as Wicks can turn to their former colleagues for help raising money, recruiting staff, earning endorsements and fine-tuning campaign strategy.

"It's not unusual for people who served in presidential administrations or campaigns to run for office in their home states," said Jim Brulte, chairman of the California Republican Party. But "it seems like with (Obama staffers) it's more organized than in previous administrations."

Obama is watching his former staffers take up the mantle from afar, Kevin Lewis, Obama's spokesman, said in an email.

"It doesn't surprise him that the staff that joined him on (his) journey, and worked every day on behalf of the American people in the Obama administration, are emerging as the next generation of leaders and elected officials," Lewis said.

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