When Mary Ann Lyons called the national Barack Obama for President campaign last November to see who she could contact locally to help out, there wasn't anyone to contact. No one in Humboldt County working toward his election, not officially anyway. They wondered, did she want to become the local point person?
Lyons had never worked on a presidential campaign before, but she volunteered to lead the effort.
"I wasn't even a Democrat," said Lyons with a laugh last week. "I was a decline-to-state voter. I only became a Democrat after he got the nomination."
Up until then Lyons' background had not been in mainstream politics; she was more a radical community activist, a protester. She'd served as one of the organizers of the Eureka march against the war in Iraq in 2003 and had worked on the local anti-GMO initiative. "In the political arena I've always been pretty far to the left," she conceded.
When the 2008 election started approaching she began research on who the candidates were. Obama won her over.
"A big thing for me is that he was against the Iraq war from the beginning, and he was a community organizer, an activist like I was," she said. "That was the first thing that made me delve deeper into his story. I read his book and I was really struck by his story. He seems to embody something about America that was different from anything I'd seen before in politics. I thought how wonderful it would be to have someone who walked the streets in a poor neighborhood."
The bottom line for Lyons: "It feels like we're walking in the shadow of history right now. It's just awesome ... He has a way of bringing both sides to the table. At this time, when our country is so polarized that it's like we're in the middle of a divorce, that's important."
As more people came on board, she organized gatherings and raised some funds, first to buy a sign to put on a billboard along Hwy. 101 that Allpoints Signs had offered gratis. It wasn't something they could just ask for from headquarters. "It's a grassroots campaign," said Lyons. "It's not like campaigns of the past where lobbyists and PACS paid for all the gear."
As the primary campaign heated up, the locals swung into action. "We got groups together during the primaries for call parties. We called them 'Cell Phone Saturdays,' because you can usually use your phones for free Saturdays. We called all over the country, wherever they were targeting."
Once Obama had the nomination clinched, the Humboldt Democratic Central Committee stepped forward. "All across the country, including here, it took quite a process to bring the Obama campaign and the Democratic Central Committees together," said Lyons. "In the end they were awesome. Milt Boyd, the head of the local Central Committee, was really helpful with advice. I had never worked with a group that was so close to the center."
Then there was "Camp Obama," a day-long event held at a Eureka union hall. "That was a grassroots training to train others to become grassroots activists. It's all about finding your passion, finding your story -- why are you looking for this change? And figuring out what you can do. Now we have little cells, so to speak, down in southern Humboldt, up in McKinleyville, in Del Norte, Arcata, Eureka. It might be one person, like I was -- just me and my sign -- or a group of people who get together."
Since they're assuming that Humboldt County is firmly Obama country (he took the primary here) and there's no worry that California might go Republican, the local campaign hasn't put a lot of money and effort into what Lyons describes as "visibility items" -- billboards, lawn signs, bumper stickers and the like.
"The local focus at this point is voter registration," said Lyons. "Every vote counts, because not only do we want to have a progressive agenda in the White House, we want a progressive agenda locally. Linda Atkins, who was working with me on the local Obama campaign, decided to run for Eureka City Council. That falls in line with the Obama agenda, to move toward progressive change across the country."