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Political Notebook: Democratic Party opens campaign office in Columbia

The office shows signs that its tenant, who moved in last month and will be out in November, is there temporarily: bare, paint-chipped walls, carpet-stripped areas of the floor left uncovered, and folding tables and chairs for furniture.

Located in Suite 210 of 5560 Sterrett Place in Columbia, the office is home to volunteers for the coordinated campaign for President Barack Obama, U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin and Democrats running for Congress in 2012.

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It is one of four spaces the Maryland Democratic Party has rented for its coordinated campaign, which was officially launched Aug. 1, according to party spokesman Matt Verghese. In areas where an official campaign office is not set up, the party partners with local central committees to find space for its volunteers.

"Columbia is one of the top spots for volunteerism across the state," Verghese said, noting the party has seen an uptick in volunteer activity in Howard County since the local office opened.

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Amanda Pleasant, the coordinated campaign's regional field director for Howard and Anne Arundel counties, said the Columbia office "is great because people have a set location to come to and it's not always changing."

Previously, local volunteers for the different Democratic campaigns worked separately out of donated spaces and residents' homes.

The Columbia coordinated campaign office officially opened July 12. A week later, on July 19, the Howard County Republican Precinct Organization team, which does not have a local office, held a "Work for 2012 Victory" meeting at Eggspectation in Ellicott City to ramp up volunteer efforts started last year.

"When we meet there will only be 109 days till the election — not much time to get organized!" an e-mail from the HCRPO director to local GOP members said.

Local Republicans expect to open a campaign office in Howard County next week.

Volunteers enthusiastic

The second-floor entrance to the Democratic coordinated campaign office leads to a small room covered in campaign posters and materials for Obama, Cardin and U.S. Reps. Elijah Cummings, John Sarbanes and Dutch Ruppersberger.

Inside on Monday, Aug. 6, office manager Mae Beale and data entry coordinator Patricia Jones worked at the office's two main desks. Off the room is a long hallway leading to 13 even smaller rooms — offices with seats and computers for about three or four volunteers in each — a kitchen and a conference/gathering room.

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Most volunteers work specific shifts during the hours the office is open: Monday through Friday from 3 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. and Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. However, volunteers are also allowed to drop in during those hours as their schedules allow.

Monday's afternoon shift was quiet, but the volunteers said the office is often packed for evening and Saturday shifts.

Beale, a Columbia resident who calls herself a "staunch Democrat," said she feels it's her duty to help ensure Democratic candidates succeed. She became an active volunteer when Obama first ran in 2008.

Now, working with people who want to re-elect the president, Beale said she feels a sense of enthusiasm she can't fully explain.

"You meet so many people that really believe in what he's trying to do," she said.

Jones, of Columbia, also started volunteering for the Democratic Party in 2008, energized by Obama's run.

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"It was historic," she said, noting she wanted to be a part of the effort to elect the first black president.

Reporter turned volunteer

One of the volunteers in the office Aug. 6 was retired Baltimore Sun reporter Larry Carson, who covered government and politics in Howard County for 13 years.

"I think it's a very important election. ... Since I have the time, I want to help as much as I can," Carson said.

A Columbia resident, Carson said he has been volunteering a few times a week since February — which increased to four days a week when the office opened last month. Mostly, he works the phones, calling registered Democrats in hopes of increasing the campaign's volunteer base.

"I've got a lot of practice making phone calls," Carson joked.

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Most of the volunteer activity in the office involves phone banking — scripted calls to registered Howard County Democrats asking them to volunteer their time or money or to Virginia voters asking them to support Obama.

"When we get closer to the election we'll be doing more get-out-the-vote efforts," phone bank coordinator Jeff Biggs, of Columbia, said.

On Saturdays and occasional Sundays, volunteers meet at the office and carpool to Virginia for voter canvassing — door knocking, literature dropping and spreading a pro-Obama message in a battleground state both parties consider key to a presidential victory.

This past Saturday, Aug. 4, the coordinated campaign in Howard County hosted a party for Obama's 51st birthday. The office was packed with volunteers who not only celebrated but worked, making nearly 1,000 calls that day, Biggs said.

One of those volunteers was Ellicott City resident Barbara Salzman Hastings, who was at the office Saturday and again Monday for her first 2012 campaign shifts. She had previously volunteered in 2008, making phone calls and canvassing in Pennsylvania and Virginia for Obama.

Now, Hastings said she wants to put her people skills to use again to help Obama get re-elected.

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"I really feel strongly that I want Obama to win," she said. "I can't even conceive of him not winning."


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