Obama’s former staffers hope to build upon his legacy as they run for office

Seema Mehta | seema.mehta@latimes.com | Los Angeles Times

When bidding farewell to the nation in January, President Obama urged perseverance in the face of political change.

“If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures and run for office yourself,” he said.

Dozens of people who worked in his administration or on his presidential bidshave taken that call to action to heart, with several top political aides, policy staff and ambitious millennials from the Obama era mounting campaigns of their own right here in California. All are Democrats, and some of their races could be tipping points in the 2018 midterms as the party attempts to win back control in Washington.

Among the former government officials is Ammar Campa-Najjar, who is seeking to oust Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter in San Diego County.

Born in the U.S. to a Mexican mother and a Palestinian father, Campa-Najjar recalls questioning if his fellow Americans would ever truly accept him in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

He brooded and struggled, but his faith was renewed when another biracial man with a unique name and an absent father, Barack Obama, won the presidency of the United States.

“In 2008, the country said, ‘Yes, we can,’ and elected this skinny brown kid with a funny name. It really kind of inspired me,” said Campa-Najjar, 28.

In the short term, that resulted in Campa-Najjar interning at the White House, where he was assigned the task of reading the letters Americans sent the president about their heartbreak and their victories, and helping select the 10 that were sent to Obama for him to read himself daily. He later worked in the Department of Labor and on Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign.

Today, he is among the youngest congressional candidates in the nation. And he is one of several former Obama campaign and administration officials who are running for office across the nation at all levels of government.

It’s not unusual for political staffers to seek elected office, but the number of Obama alumni who have entered the field for the 2018 election is notable. In California alone, there are at least four congressional candidates who worked for Obama, as well as several others seeking legislative and statewide posts.

Their campaigns are driven by the election of President Trump, fewer opportunities in Washington, D.C., with Republicans in control of the White House and Congress, and the desire to protect and build upon the former president’s legacy.

“Coming out of the Obama administration, people are particularly motivated by what Donald Trump has been trying to do to this country,” said Bill Burton, who served as a spokesman for Obama during the 2008 campaign and his first term in office and is now a Democratic operative in Southern California.

He added that early Obama supporters who signed on at a time when Hillary Clinton was perceived as the unstoppable nominee have already shown a natural willingness to take on long odds, a quality that can help them achieve their own political goals.

“When I started working for [Obama], the only person in America who thought he was going to win the Iowa caucuses was him,” Burton said.

The congressional candidates in California are all running in districts historically dominated by the GOP.

Sam Jammal is trying to defeat Rep. Ed Royce (R-Fullerton), who has represented Orange County in Congress for nearly 25 years. Jammal said his experience growing up in the district as the child of immigrants, attending law school and then working on Obama’s 2008 campaign and in the Department of Commerce proved to him that anything is possible.

“Our story is the embodiment of that,” said Jammal, whose parents are from Jordan and Colombia. “The same day my dad landed here, he was working at a gas station …. For me, his youngest son, I was able to work for the president of the United States. My proudest moment in the administration was taking my parents to a White House naturalization ceremony where they were able to meet President Obama. It’s full circle.”

Others, including Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis, said they expected Clinton to win the November 2016 election, giving them the opportunity to work for the first woman president. The experiences the Sacramento-area native had as Obama’s ambassador to Hungary cemented her desire to continue working in public life once he left office.

“It took me a few months after the election to recalculate how I could best serve,” said Kounalakis, who is one of two Obama alumni running for lieutenant governor. “It [became] clear: It was more important than ever that California lead the way on our values, whether it’s fighting for the climate or supporting and celebrating our immigrant community and our LGBT community.”

Trump’s actions since taking office, including trying to institute a travel ban on people from several Muslim-majority nations and withdrawing from the Paris climate accord, quickened the Obama alums’ resolve. But nearly all said Trump’s recent statements placing neo-Nazis and white supremacists who violently protested in Charlottesville on the same moral plane as those who protested against them exemplified why they decided to run.

“What has happened … with this presidency and what Donald Trump stands for and believes in is in such stark contrast to everything we worked on for eight years,” said Buffy Wicks, a grass-roots organizer who worked on Obama’s campaigns and as the White House deputy director of public engagement. She is now running for the California Assembly.

But an impressive political résumé is no guarantee of success.

Ultimately, the races will come down to how voters connect with the politicians and their policies, said Massachusetts state Sen. Eric Lesser, who went from shepherding luggage during the 2008 campaign to working steps from the Oval Office as the top aide to one of Obama’s must trusted advisors, David Axelrod.

“Show, don’t tell. You have to be elected on your own merits and your own vision, and ideas for your community,” he said.

While Lesser speaks reverently about his time working for Obama and Axelrod and the counsel he received from them during his 2014 campaign, he noted that voters want to hear how a candidate is going to address their needs, not about his time in Washington.

“Expecting people to suddenly be impressed or suddenly open doors because of a previous fancy job is not going to happen,” he said.

Lesser recalled that when he mounted his 2014 run, the best advice he received was from Obama, who told him to outhustle his rivals and connect with the people who would become his constituents.

“He asked, ‘How many people are in the district? How many households? How many doors?” Lesser said. “When I ran the numbers, he goes, ‘You can meet all those people.’ I haven’t quite met everyone, but I took his advice to heart.”

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Reed Galen, who worked for President George W. Bush, said that while some administration posts could be particularly relevant to a race — one Obama administration official who worked on the auto industry bailout is now running for Congress in Michigan, for example — most candidates with such experience probably worked in a vast bureaucracy that few voters know or care about.

“My guess is most of these folks, the best thing they have going for them is a picture of them and the president [that shows] Barack Obama reasonably knows who I am,” said Galen, a former California GOP operative who worked on both of Bush’s campaigns and in his administration.

The greater advantages, he said, are the relationships forged with donors, leaders, strategists and the alumni network that remains tightly knit after their tenure ends.

Wicks’ fundraisingreport illustrates the political value of the connections that come from working for Obama. Axelrod, elected officials including former Rep. Gabby Giffords of Arizona, and scores of people from Washington, D.C., have donated to her campaign, names unlikely to appear on the donor list for most other California legislative candidates.

Wicks’ campaign also follows a grass-roots blueprint she helped craft for Obama when he was unknown, introducing himself to voters in diners and coffee shops and talking about their concerns.

“I’m doing house parties all over the district, really spending a lot of time in living rooms, 20 to 30 people at a time and having a really thoughtful conversation about what kind of community do we want to live in,” she said. “It’s a way to build relationships with voters, investing on the front end of that relationship and not just plying you with direct mail pieces and television ads.”

And for those who lack Wicks’ campaign experience, the connections to some of the top Democrats in the nation is invaluable.

“When you haven’t been an elected official before, you have a lot of questions .… You understand the policies, you know what your positions are, but the actual architecture of running a campaign is something that’s inherently new,” said Brian Forde, who worked on technology in the Obama administration and is now trying to topple Republican Rep. Mimi Walters in Orange County.

“What’s most helpful is being able to pick up the phone or send a text message to a friend who was a speechwriter for the president or the first lady, or someone who did work on communications who does understand all of these things because they worked on the campaign,” Forde said.