Why you should care

Because you never know who’s going to be your boss one day. 

I hear her before I see her. Her laughter, really. It rolls through the hallway, trips through the eighth-floor campaign office that, even after three weeks in the building, still holds some prior tenant’s nameplate on its door. An aide leads me to an unglamorous waiting area, all ibuprofen bottles and strewn gum packets. I look up and see a photo plastered on the wall of a smiling blonde, and a caption: “Buffy the Bernie Slayer.”

In a political arena dominated by brash billionaires, wealthy politicians and high-priced consultants, Hillary Clinton aide Buffy Wicks is an outlier. The California state director is “just full of love,” says Marlon Marshall, the national director of states for the Clinton campaign. “She is brilliant in strategy, tactics, but she’s an organizer at heart.” Wicks is responsible for corralling nine campaign offices, hundreds of volunteers and 475 delegates. Hopes are pinned on this likable yet shrewd former Obama-ite, who helped elect the president and push through his signature legacy, the Affordable Care Act, to make the difference for Clinton. The challenge has become more difficult: A recent NBC/WSJ poll had Clinton up over rival Bernie Sanders by just 2 points in the Golden State.

Wearing a rugged forest-green jacket and black pants, Wicks plonks down on the couch next to me in her Oakland headquarters, legs crossed as phone bankers tap away around us. “I grew up in the dirt,” the 39-year-old says, building forts near her trailer in the shadow of the Sierra Nevadas. Then came community college — all she could afford — before leading antiwar protests in San Francisco, campaign events for Howard Dean, protests for the now-defunct Wake Up, Wal-Mart protest movement in D.C.

She tells these stories alongside anecdotes of standing on the Truman Balcony with bigwigs such as David Axelrod and Rahm Emmanuel, toasting the successful passage of Obamacare. As deputy director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, Wicks was charged with drafting nonprofits and advocacy groups to support the health care bill, a task she promised to complete before stepping down from her position in 2010. “Everyone is heading out, and as we walk out the door, (Obama) looks at me and says, ‘OK, Buffy, you can go now,’” Wicks recalled in a recent episode of her weekly podcast, “The Riveters,” which calls for “an unfiltered ode to the modern woman.”

Her philosophy is shaped by fellow Obama alums, from Axelrod and Emmanuel to David Plouffe and Marshall Ganz. “I don’t come from the school of slash-and-burn,” Wicks says, adding that while she’s building for the primary, she aims for on-the-ground excitement to carry into November. Authentic relationships are key, she says, as well as crafting a community around her candidate … even as that candidate’s historically unfavorable ratings continue to crest over 50 percent. Which would be the worst seen since 1984 if not for a certain, even less-liked real estate mogul. Here, Wicks’ advocacy has to address the same problem the campaign faces nationally: “Clinton’s not particularly popular,” says Claremont McKenna College political scientist Jack Pitney. Wicks defends Clinton, saying it “wasn’t even a question” that she’d back the secretary of state this time around: “I have so much respect for her ability to get up and fight again.”

Wicks’ state is rarely competitive, and remains expensive because of its size. Unpaid but often experienced volunteers become pivotal. “You can turn California into a phone bank to other battleground states,” Wicks says, and volunteers are making calls in several languages, including English, Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, Tagalog and Spanish. “There is so much grassroots energy to tap,” adds Marshall, who oversees strategy in all 50 states. “California is crucial for going into Nevada and making phone calls, knocking on doors.” Marshall knows how convincing Wicks can be … and how ruthlessly strategic she is beneath it all. When Wicks pitched him in 2008, she called members of the Democratic National Committee to make sure they didn’t offer him a position. The pair worked together as co-state directors in Missouri, which Obama lost by just 0.1 percent of the vote. “It was 3,000 votes out of 3 million,” Wicks says. The fact that Obama won the presidency wasn’t consolation enough. “I ask myself what I could have done better every day.”

In recent years, grassroots gurus like Wicks have enjoyed devotion from Republicans and Democrats alike, thanks to the legacy of another former community organizer’s campaign. But “that appreciation is new,” notes Sidney Milkis, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. Democrat Michael Dukakis, known for his landslide loss to George H.W. Bush in 1988, told OZY in a recent interview that his national advisers in that ill-fated presidential race “pooh-poohed this idea of precinct-based grassroots organizing. ‘You know, maybe for city council or something,’” he remembers them saying. Mobilization efforts gained steam with the campaigns of George W. Bush and Dean in 2004, before Obama created his “triumphant framework,” as Milkis puts it, for others to follow.

Just as Wicks’ philosophies are finally being accepted, they could be put to the test like never before — by none other than Donald Trump. “He’s shown that you can at least get the nomination without a strong ground game,” says Milkis. And if Trump wins without all the theories Wicks holds dear, would it be an asterisk to the work of grassroots organizers like her? “He’s the huge caveat,” the political scientist says.

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OZY2016

The route to the White House: news, stories and analysis from on and off the presidential campaign trail.