Ronnie Cho got the name nickname “Chobama” while knocking on doors in Iowa in 2007, and then followed the president to the White House as a youth affairs aide call-to-arms from his commander in chief is not something he can ignore.
“Barack Obama, I never want to disappoint,” Cho said.
On 10 January he stood amongst the thousands gathered in McCormick Place, Chicago, for Obama’s final speech as president. Cho’s mother, originally from South Korea and now a retired customer service worker, flew out from Phoenix to be there with her son.
So when Obama told the crowd that if they were disappointed with their elected officials, “grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself”, that was it.
Cho turned to his mother and his 2008 campaign and White House cohorts and announced he would run for New York city council in 2017.
“He challenged us: if you really believe in the work we did and what we fought for, let’s keep working for this and I’m counting on you. If it weren’t for that, how many of us would have the courage?” said Cho, 25, speaking to the Guardian at a Puerto Rican restaurant in his East Village neighborhood, in the council district 2 seat he’s hoping to win.
His campaign manager is Frankie Martinez Blanco, who worked for Obama during the 2008 campaign and later for Obama’s education secretary.
Cho is one of a handful of Obama alums who started as fresh-faced college kids working on his campaign or in his administration and have now decided to run for office or help others run in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election. They’re responding to Obama’s call – and their own desire to protect and support the progressive policies they built.
Obama, Cho recalled, used to regularly tell staff that people on school boards and local councils had more impact on citizens’ day-to-day lives than what they were doing in the White House.
Before Obama left office and Trump won, only a few of them ran for public office – such as Michael Blake, the New York state assembly member and new vice-chair of the DNC who started with the Obama camp in Iowa 2007; White House aide turned Massachusetts state senator Eric Lesser and mayor of Stockton, California; and Michael Tubbs, who was a White House intern in 2010 and got an endorsement from Obama for his mayoral race last year.
Part of the reason, says Ravi Gupta – who worked as an assistant to David Axelrod during the 2008 election – is that Obama alums know how terrible running for office can be. And thanks to working for Obama, most of them have good jobs and lead comfortable, successful lives.
“You’re going to quit your job, spend less time with your family, go into an effort that requires you to expose every mistake you’ve ever made to a group of political hitmen on the other side and run ads where you grew up about what a terrible person you are, raise money full time, if you’re successful, you get to spend time in Washington DC, largely away from your family, with a group of sociopaths? Up until Trump, most people looked at that and said ‘no, thank you’,” Gupta said.
“Now, people look at that and say ‘all right’. My grandfather fought in Korea, my great-grandfather fought in world war one and two. If they would go out of their country and do that and expose themselves to bodily harm, years away from their families, to protect their country, I think our generation can go to DC and take on this group that’s been stealing our democracy.”
After his time with Obama, Gupta, 33, set up a network of charter schools in the southern US. His students spoke at a town hall meeting about their fears of a Donald Trump presidency just after the election. Would they be deported? Would Mike Pence make them do conversion therapy?
“I left that room and started calling Obama colleagues: ‘What are we going to do right now? Not for midterms, not 2020, now’,” Gupta said.
Gupta, with the help of several Obama mates, launched The Arena, an organization that holds summits across the country to teach progressive candidates how to run for office – how to raise money, how to launch social media campaigns. At their first event in Nashville last November, 400 attendees turned up and 150 pledged to run for office in the next five years.
“You’re going to see an explosion in 2018 [midterm elections] of candidates that are alumni of the ’08 campaign and probably even the 2012 campaign,” Gupta said.
He noted that Staten Island, where he grew up, has the only Republican member of Congress in New York City and a state senator who is conservatively aligned.
“They should expect energized challengers in 2018 and, if need be, 2020,” Gupta hinted.
Amanda Litman, who founded a political action committee to support progressive candidates after Trump’s win, said the former president has been an inspiration for many doubting they should run, since “the system would never have chosen him to run, the party would never have recruited him and that’s the kind of person that should be in charge and serving”.
Litman, who worked on Obama’s 2012 re-election and as email director for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 run, hoped 100 people would sign up when she launched Run For Something, an organization she runs with the help of many other Obama and Clinton veterans.
More than 8,000 people have pledged to run for office, and already around 40 are on ballots – from school boards in Pennsylvania to local councils in Michigan, Virginia and Kansas.
Alejandra Campoverdi is running as a Democratic candidate for Congress in California this year.
Raised in Los Angeles by her mother and grandmother, both Mexican immigrants, Campoverdi dabbled in modeling and reality TV before graduating from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Campoverdi turned down a business school scholarship to join Obama’s 08 campaign, racking up $16,000 in credit card debt while working as an unpaid volunteer before joining the Obama White House and becoming the first-ever deputy director of Hispanic media.
“This is the moment for those who don’t have the cookie cutter background, because the experience of those of us in the Obama family is that running sometimes improbably could be the way to make the biggest change possible,” said Campoverdi, 37.
Campoverdi said her own race is as much about who she is as what policies she supports.
“I want to protect the progress we’ve made but I also want to shine a light on the personal side of issues as much as possible,” she said, referring to her public announcement that she will undergo a double mastectomy because she carries a family genetic mutation that often leads to breast cancer.
Campoverdi is on the ballot for the 4 April election. Cho’s primary election is in September, but he’s already quit his job as vice-president of external affairs at MTV to focus on the race. Gupta expects many more candidates to come forward as the midterm elections approach.
“You’re going to see the legs of this in 2018 election. It’s a little too early now probably, but I feel confident you’re going to see the ripples of this for a generation,” Gupta said.