Allen Van Note went more than the extra mile for Barack Obama during the senator’s presidential campaign.
The 47-year-old Austin resident was so committed to Obama that he left his wife, Beth, and 9-year-old daughter, Grace, this fall to move 350 miles away to Rochester, Minn. to spend two months working as a field organizer for Obama’s presidential campaign.
“On a personal level, leaving my family was really hard,” said Van Note, back in his home on Ohio Street a week after Obama’s election as president Nov. 4. But he felt he had no real choice. Van Note was committed to everything he could to elect Barack Obama president. He’d been a supporter of Obama since the first evening in the mid 1990s when he was watching Chicago Tonight on Channel 11 and saw Obama for the first time. Watching the youthful state senator from Hyde Park, Van Note was immediately impressed.
“He was a guy who jumped off the screen. What struck me when I first saw him was that he had that law professor’s ability to think through an issue,” recalled Van Note. “He had that ability to look at an issue, break down its components, and then come up with a solution.”
In the last few years, Van Note had begun to spend more time at home after working as a builder and remodeler specializing in historic restoration. The sinking housing market reduced the amount of work available to his company, and he was busy at home caring for his daughter.
But when Obama began what started out as a long-shot campaign for a United States Senate seat in 2003, Van Note was ready to sign up. He tried calling Obama’s state senate office but didn’t have much luck. Eventually, he was invited to a garden party in Oak Park for Obama on a Sunday afternoon in August 2003. He was just as impressed with Obama in person. Soon, Van Note was working hard on Obama’s 2004 U.S. Senate campaign.
In the Democratic primary, Van Note worked mostly in Austin where he has lived since 1996. After Obama won the primary, Van Note, who grew up in Wheaton, worked as a volunteer in the general election in the west Cook County suburbs. When Obama launched his presidential campaign in 2007, the Austin resident was ready to go. Working mostly with activists from the Democratic Party of Oak Park, Van Note made repeated trips to Dubuque, Iowa to knock on doors for Obama.
He spent the entire month of December in Dubuque working feverishly in the final run up to the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3. Obama won Dubuque and Iowa catapulting him on the path culminating in his election three weeks ago. After Iowa, Van Note returned to Chicago, working out of Obama’s volunteer headquarters in the Loop, regularly putting in 45- to 50-hour weeks.
But soon he was on the road again, traveling to Charlestown, South Carolina in late January for the final get-out-the-vote effort in the state’s primary, which Obama won handily. Soon after that, he spent 10 days in Milwaukee for the run-up to the Feb. 19, Wisconsin primary. Van Note then went to Dayton, Ohio for five days of work before the state’s primary in March. When he got the offer to work as a paid staffer in Minnesota for the fall campaign, he didn’t hesitate, even though it meant leaving his family for two months.
“At that point I was all in,” said Van Note, noting that he couldn’t have done it without the support of his wife, Beth. “She was pretty supportive. She knew I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I missed it.”
They figured how to manage when he was gone, his wife explained.
“This was kind of a family effort. I knew it would make a difference in how we operated, but it was an important thing to do,” said Beth, who works as an architect for the city. “We worked out the logistics of running the household.”
Organizing in Minnesota
When Grace started fourth grade the first week of September, Van Note packed a suitcase and drove 350 miles to Rochester in southeast Minnesota to begin work as a paid staffer for the Obama campaign. His take home pay was about $900 every two weeks.
Rochester has a population of about 98,000 and is the third largest city in Minnesota behind Minneapolis and St. Paul. Home to both the Mayo Clinic and a major IBM manufacturing facility, Rochester is a traditional Republican stronghold that’s recently trended more Democratic. Its population is 88.7 percent white, 6.3 percent Asian and 4.3 black, according to the Rochester city Web site.
Van Note, one of two Obama field organizers in Rochester, was responsible for organizing five state legislative districts. The well-funded campaign had more than 60 paid field staff in Minnesota this fall. Most of the field organizers were in their 20s tended to be louder and more aggressive than the soft-spoken, Van Note. Still, he fit right in. His work day started a little before 9 in the morning and usually didn’t end until well past midnight. He was responsible for recruiting and managing volunteers, nearly 200 of them in Rochester.
Every night, long after the volunteers had gone home, Van Note would sit at his computer and one by one painstakingly enter each and every voter contact he and his volunteers made that day into the campaign’s database. After spending many hours calling voters, he has more sympathy for telemarketers and others who make their living calling strangers.
“I will be more patient and kinder to people on the telephone,” Van Note said.
Headed toward victory
On Election night, Van Note was in a noisy, crowded Marriot Hotel ballroom in Rochester where he watched Obama’s victory speech from Grant Park. After a few days shutting things down in Rochester, Van Note drove back home to Austin. He’s still trying to reorient himself after spending more than year the campaign trail.
“It really hasn’t registered for me yet,” he said. “I’m still trying to figure out in a larger sense what it all means.”
Van Note feels a deep connection to Obama, and not just because he has spent more than a year working to get him elected. Both are 47 years old and each have spent time living as a minority in a neighborhood-Austin is predominately black-and trying to find ways to fit in.
His wife got to know Michelle Obama a little when the future First Lady served on Chicago’s Landmarks Preservation Commission and Beth was a staffer for the commission. The Obama’s oldest daughter, Malia, is just a year older than Van Note’s daughter Grace.
“He has, in an odd way, lived my life,” Van Note said. “He was saying what I thought before I could really articulate it. This has been my guy for such a long time. I’ve seen such promise in him for a long time.”