NAME: Kenny Thompson | AGE: 28 | HOMETOWN: Pflugerville QUALIFICATIONS: Member of the advance staff for Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign / Visited more than three hundred cities in 31 states over an eighteen-month period
• In February 2007 there was an Obama rally planned at the University of Texas at Austin for maybe six or seven thousand people. Within two hours of announcing the event, the campaign had 12,000 RSVPs. I was policy director for an Austin City Council member, and one of my campus connections called and asked if there were any city parks available. I said, “Sure, let’s put this thing together.” A couple weeks later I got another call, saying that Michelle Obama was coming to town and could I help. Basically, I kept getting calls like that until they brought me on full-time that June.
• The goal of an advance person is to get the candidate to and from an event safely and smoothly and to prepare him for anyone he is going to meet. “This is a supervolunteer who knocked on three hundred doors yesterday.” Or “This is Jim, who just lost his job at the auto plant where he’d worked for seven years.”
• We work as a team with the Secret Service, though we have competing interests. They want him in and out of events quicker, and we want him to stay a little longer. We meet in the middle.
• We’ve got an advance manual that’s evolved from campaign to campaign that has things in it like the proper way to hang flags and banners. There’s a formula for how many port-a-potties are needed. You also need to know the [Americans With Disabilities Act] rules for whatever state you’re in. What’s the handicap accessibility rule? What’s the fire code? The bottom line is always “figure it out.”
• I did the St. Louis event with 100,000 people under the Arch. We set an initial goal of 55,000 to 65,000, but we saw fantastic weather coming and realized we might get as many as 100,000. That meant closing more streets, renting more sound equipment, and positioning the stage to maximize the crowd and give the press a good shot. But we have to be prepared for anything, because if only 45,000 show up, we’ve got to crank up some American flags and make the place look smaller. It can’t look half-empty. The number of people doesn’t stick as firmly as the picture.
• The advance staff knew that anywhere there was a basketball hoop, we needed to get a basketball. I cannot tell you how many high school gyms I have been in across America. On event days [Obama] would just shoot around or play H-O-R-S-E. But on election days we’d play five-on-five, full-court games to twelve or fifteen, best two out of three. He’s pretty good—not fast but quick, and he’s a lefty. He gets knocked down, and he knocks people down.
• On election night, I was in the friends-and-family tent at Grant Park, watching CNN. When Wolf Blitzer said [Obama] had won, I ran outside the tent, and every advance person was dog-piling behind the flags. It was one of those moments of pure exhilaration.