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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Jon Carson Will Soon Be Obama’s Most Important Man in Chicago

The brilliant organizer from rural Wisconsin is coming to Chicago to lead Organizing for Action. There, he’ll try to make Republicans a permanent minority.

Jon Carson OFA

Photograph: FEMA

Jon Carson addresses the National Preparedness Symposium in August 2012.

When President Obama writes his memoir, Jon Carson—a Wisconsinite who has worked hard for Obama in Chicago—is assured a place in its pages. And not just because he’s heading Organizing for Action (OFA), a spinoff of Organizing for America, the Obama ’08 and ’12 campaign apparatus; and not just because he’s raising big bucks from the one percent to push Obama’s second-term agenda. More crucial to Obama’s storybook trajectory was Carson’s contribution to then-senator Obama’s exhausting win over the supposedly inevitable candidate, Hillary Clinton, in the 2008 primaries/caucuses. 

Carson’s Who’s Who entry lists his office address as “The White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.” In Obama’s first term, after serving as a member of the ’08 transition team, Carson held a number of low-profile jobs at the famous address. His profile is sure to be raised as he moves to Chicago, where OFA will be headquartered, and where he’ll run it with the title of executive director. It could be tarnished, too, as the OFA head with the nice-guy rep begins to court big-money donors.

OFA will also have a Washington office, and that’s the location tomorrow for its first big event—a “Founders Summit” (i.e. fundraiser) at D.C.’s Jefferson Hotel featuring a speech by Obama and an admission fee of $50,000.

By most accounts an unassuming, nice guy, Carson will also speak and will be recognized by insiders not for his speaking skills but for his organizing super-smarts. He has come a long way since managing Tammy Duckworth’s 2006 campaign for Congress—the one she lost to Republican Peter Roskam.

Carson describes himself as a “Wisconsin guy [who] grew up on a farm in in the western part of the state” (Chaseburg, Wisconsin, population 284); he graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Platteville before heading west to UCLA for an MA.

The 37-year-old went in and out of campaigns—in 1998, he worked in Wisconsin for Russ Feingold’s Senate campaign and from 2004-06 served in the Peace Corps in Honduras, working on water systems.

He made his mark in the 2008 drama-a-minute presidential primaries. After Hillary Clinton was vanquished, members of Obama’s team realized how key Carson—carrying the mundane title of director of voter contact, and described then by a Washington Post reporter as “a little known strategist”—was to Obama’s unlikely win.

Carson was “credited,” wrote reporters for the New York Daily News, “with the post-Super Tuesday strategy that centered on winning arcane caucuses around the country, catapulting Obama to victory over Clinton, who had banked on the race being over by Feb. 5. `He is a damn genius,’ said an Obama staffer in Chicago.”

Carson had recognized that Obama needed to accumulate electoral votes and it didn’t matter if they came from electorally insignificant states. He was essential to the Obama strategy of putting people into red states that Democrats generally ignored, positing that a delegate is a delegate. As Carson told a Washington Post reporter in June 2008, after Obama snatched the nomination, “We kept waiting for the Clinton people to send people into the caucus states.”

Task accomplished, Carson changed titles to national field director and turned his attention to besting veteran war hero and senator John McCain by sticking to a formula: figure out who your voters are, talk to them, get them to the polls. Carson would tell a reporter for USA Today that, since Labor Day 2008, the campaign had communicated with  12 million voters and had mobilized 1.5 million volunteers “in every corner of every state.”

Today, Carson is said to have an unprecedented 20-million-plus email list, which will help him to mobilize volunteers on behalf of Obama’s agenda (stronger gun control laws, immigration reform, climate change legislation, raising taxes on the rich), help him to rally them to call and flood the email in-boxes of Republicans, as well as to raise small amounts: “$25 or more to ….[this] “grassroots movement,” as he put it in a fundraising e-mail last week.

His White House experience and contacts will help.

In January 2011, he became deputy assistant to Obama, operational director of the Office of Public Engagement (OPE). In that job he worked for Obama friend/senior advisor Valerie Jarrett who oversaw OPE. To help Jarrett, widely viewed as distant and prickly, Carson organized “Thursday evening listening sessions.”

For the two years before that, Carson, educated as a civil engineer, was Chief of Staff for the White House Council on Environmental Quality, placing him on the frontlines of the battle against global warming, an important item on Obama’s second-term agenda.

In 2006-07, during the earliest days of Obama’s quest for the presidency, Carson was Illinois field director and, working out of a Loop high-rise, headed “Camp Obama,” the operation that trained volunteers to go to states such as Iowa. His farm-boy background gave him an understanding of rural issues and he had worked Iowa for Al Gore in Iowa in 2000. 

When the new OFA issued its birth announcement,  it was met by howls of protest,  not only from Republicans and conservatives,  but also from good government types and editorial writers. Organized as a 501©4 nonprofit, which allows it to keep donations secret, it was derided as Obama’s permanent campaign. Republicans doubled down on their criticism that Obama acts more like a campaigner-in-chief than a commander-in-chief.

Worst of all, for those who worry about the role of money in politics, was the news that donors who give $500,000 or more will be named to a “national advisory board” and be rewarded with quarterly meetings with the President. Lesser amounts will entitle donors to special briefings and other privileges.  A Times editorial, titled  “The White House Joins the Cash Grab,” proposed not only “refus[ing] all corporate contributions,” but limiting individual donations to “a few hundred dollars” or risk “playing the same sleazy game that its opponents do….”

From the start, OFA pledged not to accept money from PACs or registered lobbyists. It would, however, accept unlimited donations from individuals, unions, and corporations. In the face of outrage, OFA stepped back, announcing that it would not take money from corporations—loophole alert: individuals, of course, could certainly represent a corporation or special interest—and that it will identify donors by name if they contribute more than $250.

Both critics and fans see OFA as a potential game changer: using, in an unprecedented manner, the digital organizing skills that propelled Obama to the White House and kept him there to generate support for Obama’s agenda—not to mention winning back the House from Republicans in 2014, and, if all goes as planned, making the Republicans a minority party for years to come.

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