News and Events
From Pepperdine to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
School of Public Policy Alumni Share Stories From Obama's Campaign Trail
Bryan Small ('08 MPP) will never forget the defining moment of his work on Barack Obama's presidential campaign. It was the moment the exhausted School of Public Policy (SPP) graduate realized their man had a shot at the Democratic nomination.
Small (pictured right) and his team expected just 200 people to attend a rally they were holding in Iowa in the summer of 2007, and were pleasantly surprised when they needed to squeeze in over 500. Afterward, he was approached by a county government official.
"He said he had been a lifelong Republican but that he was going to switch allegiance, and would caucus for the then Senator Obama," recalls Small, who, like the man he campaigned for, is from Chicago. "That's when I started getting really excited."
Not far away, in New Hampshire, Matt Gula ('06 MPP) also signed on as a volunteer for Obama's campaign in August 2007. Having graduated SPP with a master's in international relations the year prior, Republican Gula decided to get involved in the campaign when Obama answered a question in the Primary debates in a way that Gula believed bridged the political divide.
"Somebody asked, 'If you are elected, will you be willing to work for the current minimum wage?'" recalls Gula, who watched the debate on YouTube. "Every candidate said yes, but Obama said something along the lines of, 'Sure, why not? But I have a lot of money.' Then he gave an eloquent answer about the problems of minimum wage. I realized this guy was special, and that I'd never forgive myself if I didn't get involved."
Gula (pictured left) started out by making phone calls and knocking on doors for the largely unknown Illinois Senator. He became the regional field director of the sixth congressional district of Wisconsin, planning strategic events with his staff of 13. One such event in Centre County, when Gula was a field organizer during the Pennsylvania primary, tested his improvisational skills.
Two former Southern Democratic governors were scheduled to spend a day at a rifle range to converse about the issues at hand with Gula's team and local press. It was an important opportunity to highlight Obama's campaign support for sportsmen to the more conservative Democrats in the area, especially as it was preceded by Obama's infamous comment that Americans "get bitter and cling to guns and religion."
But at the last minute, the rifle range they were scheduled to visit backed out. Gula had one evening to pull together an outdoor sporting event for the governors. "I was panicking," he admits. Making what felt like hundreds of phone calls, he eventually called one of the volunteers. "It turned out her husband was a fisherman, they lived on a creek, and knew a nationally renowned fly fisherman. So in one night I found the area, got a local newspaper to show up, and it all worked out."
For Small, having returned to Pepperdine in the fall of 2007 to complete his master's of public policy, the picture looked much different when he rejoined the campaign a year later. Hillary Clinton was no longer the inevitable Democratic nominee that she had been just months earlier, and John Edwards was mired in scandal. Obama had a serious chance of becoming the nominee. Small was made a field organizer in August 2008 for Seminole County, Florida, organizing and motivating the growing number of campaign volunteers.
Once Obama had won the nomination, the stakes were raised for Gula and Small. "For the record, I'm a moderate and middle of the road, but it became clear I had to do what I could to help Obama win the presidency," states Small. "We tried to make sure our message got out. Keep it simple, get it out, and good things will happen."
When Barack Obama was historically elected as America's 44th President, it was the victory that Small and Gula had dreamed of, hoped for, and worked incredibly hard to help realize.
"It was almost too good to be true," remembers Gula of election night. "I was so tired! I don't think I'll ever feel like that again."
Fast forward to the days leading up to Obama's inauguration. With all of the uncertainty behind them, the two SPP alums are headed to Washington D.C. for the historic event on January 20 as invited guests. Both hope for positions in the new administration; Small has a passion for Native American policy while Gula is looking for a position in national security. "I'm also considering joining the military, which has been a childhood dream of mine," he adds.
Small and Gula have both met the incoming President. Gula has met him briefly twice and recalls a "starstruck" moment, when he was introduced to Obama on an airport runway in New Hampshire. "He said he thought I was a secret service agent!" Gula recalls. Small met him in June 2007 for a short conversation and a photograph that he will treasure always (pictured right).
A decisive moment for America, the election showed the two what they were made of. Both are proud of, though modest about, what they have done for their candidate and for their country. "All I did was get people together and give them motivation, and showed what they could accomplish when they work together," Small says.
Motivating ordinary citizens to become involved in modern politics was what the campaign was really all about, after all. Adds Gula about the legacy of this historic election, "A lot of people got involved, and I hope that spirit stays alive."
By Sarah Fisher