Dan Morain

Army of Obama’s aides running for office to fight off Trump agenda

Buffy Wicks, who grew up in a trailer outside of Auburn, sat in Zoë Kleinfeld’s rented West Oakland duplex last week explaining why she’s running for California Assembly, and recalled a night watching C-SPAN in the Roosevelt Room with the president and senior White House staff.

As the vote was cast on March 21, 2010, and the Affordable Care Act passed, the room erupted with applause, she remembered. People hugged. The “blood, sweat and tears, and political capital” paid off.


Wicks talked of the friend who, on the night bombs began falling in Iraq in 2003, received test results showing he had HIV. People like him, with preexisting conditions, now would be guaranteed care. Young people could stay on their parents’ plans until age 26. Women could get free breast pumps, important to Wicks who, at 40, is a new mom.

In the era of President Donald Trump, Wicks is part of the resistance, one of 47 candidates listed on the Obama administration alumni web page running for public office. They aren’t the household names from the Obama years. They are special assistants and organizers, a few former U.S. attorneys, and people who served on commissions, and in the State Department and national security apparatus.

They are running for mayoral seats in Albuquerque, Seattle, and Kentwood, Mich., and for city council in Atlanta and New York. One is running for tax collector in Arkansas, several seek congressional and legislative seats, and three are running for attorney general.

John Norris, an Obama appointee to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, returned to his roots in Iowa, planning to build a business. Then Trump won and Tom Vilsack, Obama’s agriculture secretary and former Iowa governor, urged him to run for governor.

“The Koch brothers’ agenda is being rammed down Iowa’s throat,” Norris told me by phone. “I couldn’t sit back and let them dismantle all that Obama had done.” The Koches don’t hold much sway here. But like Norris, Wicks wants “to protect the Obama legacy that I helped build and expand on it.”

Obama’s popularity is part of Wicks’ appeal in the Oakland-Berkeley-Richmond district she seeks to represent, replacing Assemblyman Tony Thurmond, D-Richmond, who is running for Superintendent of Public Instruction. Not that it will be a cakewalk. Oakland Councilman Dan Kalb and Richmond Councilwoman Jovanka Beckles are running, so Wicks speaks to whoever will listen and dials for dollars. She raised more than her opponents combined in the first half of the year – $209,314.

Former Obama aides have donated, as have several big Obama donors, including Laurene Powell Jobs, Susie Tomkins Buell and Eleni Kounalakis. Kounalakis, an Obama-appointed ambassador to Hungary, is running for California lieutenant governor against Jeff Bleich, an Obama-appointed ambassador to Australia.

Former Rep. Gabby Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly donated, too. Wicks’ husband, Peter Ambler, was an aide to Giffords and works for Americans for Responsible Solutions, the group created after a mentally ill gunman shot Giffords in the head in 2011.

In the White House, Wicks’ job was to generate public support for the Affordable Care Act. The goal was to push Democratic members of Congress to support it. Who knew that seven years later, there would still be a need to defend the law? But the bill by Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Bill Cassidy, R-La., appears headed for a vote soon. It would strip 6.7 million Californians of their health care.

“That Republicans are playing politics like this is morally irresponsible. It angers me to no end,” Wicks said.

And so there she was in the West Oakland living room, talking to seven 20-somethings. They asked questions about issues that mattered: health care, reproductive rights, child care, pay equity, criminal justice reform, the ungodly price of housing. Wicks asked them to volunteer, and they signed up.

Zoë Kleinfeld, a recent Cal grad working for a digital ad firm, was 14 when Obamacare became law. She didn’t grasp its full significance then, though recalls: “I think much of my satisfaction in its passing was due simply to the fact that I deeply supported Obama, and the fact that this was so clearly a huge win for his administration.”

The election is 14 months away, way too early to tell whether Wicks or any other Obama alumnus will win, and where it might lead. Then again, 22 years ago, a young lawyer was raising money and organizing support on the south side of Chicago as he muscled his way into an Illinois state Senate seat.