- September 6, 2021
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Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin and campaign manager Rene Spellman share a triumphant moment on the night he won reelection. (Photo by Bryan Giardinelli)
Rene Spellman is a wanderer. And a wonderer.
The wandering stems from an upbringing so filled with family moves, she doesn’t really own up to a hometown. “I claim the whole mid-Atlantic corridor,” she says with a smile. Even now, the rising political operative spends more time away from Los Angeles where she lives (she’s a partner in a “culture-driven media and marketing agency,” with actor and longtime friend Michael B. Jordan) than in the city.
“Every place I go to campaign,” she says, “is home.”
The wonderer weaves throughout her. It’s in her genes, growing up in a home that was “active and engaged” in affecting change. And as a “distant” cousin of Julian Bond, the erudite activist, leader, and politician who was among the youngsters who founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the 1960s; a decade later, he helped launch the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery and was its first leader.
Bond poured into his curious young relative, sharing not just his elegant passion for change but also the tenets of the organizing blueprint shared by every vital group throughout the movement for civil and human rights.
“I got to learn from him directly,” Spellman is saying now, “specifically organizing down south for obviously some very important goals. What I took from that was how important young people were to the process, that young people represented the future.”
It’s easy to see why Spellman, 36 (or she will be on Sunday), was uniquely suited to serve as campaign manager for Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin’s reelection bid. (Well beyond her surname sounding like the sister school of Morehouse College, Woodfin’s alma mater.) Despite not being from here. Despite not having ever worked on a campaign here.
She’s a self-labeled “numbers person”—an unabashed nerd. (Full disclosure: Spellman, like me, is a Stanford University alum; we wear our nerdiness with pride.) Specifically, she’s a political nerd (as is Woodfin). She’s variously worked on national campaigns for 14 years. For Barack Obama in 2007. (“My first real job out of college was as a youth field organizer.”) For Bernie Sanders in 2016 and 2019-2020, the latter as deputy campaign manager (“I traveled 42 states with them in less than five months.”). For Georgia U.S. Senate candidate Jim Barksdale in 2016.
Spellman also honors what happened here a generation ago—in Birmingham, throughout Alabama. Honors how organizing here changed the nation.
“There was real organizing then,” she says. “Think about how many church basements were used, as Congressman John Lewis used to say, for organizing boycotts, for creating all those messages distributed through communities as a way of taking back power. My family history is organizing, my academic and substantive training has been in organizing. And I had a candidate who values organizing in a place where an organizing history exists.”
It took some persuading—Spellman prefers avoiding the lights, eschewing politics’ scorching glare—before she agreed to allow us a peek behind the curtain of a campaign that won a landslide 65% of the votes in a race crammed with eight combatants, two of whom many believed stood a viable chance at a runoff. Neither came close. Woodfin won at least half of the votes in all but one district, according to the campaign.
Woodfin waltzed to re-election: Here's where he got his votes
Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin won big Tuesday, earning more than 64% of the vote and winning reelection without a runoff.
“The strategy was always to organize,” Spellman began. “Yes, it was an election. But also, it was a continuation of what [Woodfin] started four years ago—just knocking on doors, talking to people, asking what they needed for him to be able to keep promises made to them, and communicating to them about how government can be a partner to people and neighborhoods and communities.
“When I say organized, it doesn’t mean just visibility doing a campaign, it doesn’t mean just doing marketing, it doesn’t mean just doing communications. We wanted to empower people to have conversations about government, about communities, about people, about investments—on their own. And, hopefully, build a very long-lasting infrastructure for organizing to come.”
In our conversation, a couple of strategic components stood out: kids (I say that with all respect, young people) and conversation, with a heavy dose of bottom-up leadership.
Let’s start with the youth.
Spellman says the campaign had a student organizer at every area high school. “What was powerful about that was a lot of them truly didn’t know people outside of their high school,” she says. “Suddenly they were talking with other young people on their teams. And they got to work together—and they were led by a 16-year-old themselves.”
That would be Rylen Dempsey, who previously worked on campaigns for Sen. Doug Jones. Georgia Sen. Jon Ossoff, and President Joe Biden. By the age of 16.
“That was incredible to watch,” Spellman says.
Creating conversations—among and with residents, among supporters from different areas and backgrounds—was as integral, Spellman says, as the other ubiquitous campaign “c” word: Canvassing.
“That’s not even necessarily political,” she says. “Organizing is all about conversations within communities, between communities, people to people. What will be long-lasting, hopefully, are those relationships, those networks. It’s not about an actual political position or piece of policy. It’s about the way the community can move together to create a new vision, and new outcomes for the future.”
Campaigning amid COVID
To be sure, canvassing—walking the streets, knocks on doors—was a vital, old-school campaign fixture. Before arriving in Birmingham, from a city where you pretty much had to show your vaccination card to buy coffee, Spellman wasn’t sure what canvassing could look like here, amid a second iteration of COVID-19. What she found, alas, in Alabama, was a damn-the-mask, my-body-my-choice culture far different than the one she left behind.
“I realized we could canvas here, that we could organize, hold events and it didn’t all have to be digital, which is that I imagined,” she says. “Randall wanted to get out there and canvas, and I saw that we could do it successfully and keep my entire team healthy the whole time—that was unexpected but an incredible surprise. I’d say a revelation. "
Rene Spellman, campaign manager for Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin's successful reelection bid, is a grounded organizer who appreciates how Alabamians changed America.
Campaigns typically canvas utilizing lists of homes in a neighborhood. They then dispatch a battalion of volunteers and compensated workers to knock on door after door after door after….
Before doing so workers were organized—that word again—into groups and charged to create profiles of their assigned district. Compile demographics. Who were the top employers? Where were the barbershops and beauty salons? What were the residents’ issues during the previous campaign? What they learned from the process allowed them to approach each door as more than an address.
“It was an exercise for them to get to know their community,” Spellman says. “All of the information I absorbed, but I also knew some of them would have different blind spots and gaps depending on their background. To be clear—I did not do the research, then pass it down. They did it, pulled together their special sauce, then distributed it.
“That’s what grassroots is like. It has to come from the people closest to the ground. Everybody else learns from that and builds a strategy. It wasn’t me coming in and saying this is what you do, this is your plan. They met together and created their own plan and came to me with it.”
Spellman met Woodfin years ago when he was still a member of the Birmingham City Schools’ Board of Education. They crossed paths regularly over the next few years, as Spellman evolved as a key cog for national and state campaigns and as Woodfin chased higher ground. Despite a slight age difference, (Woodfin turned 40 in May), they share mutual friends. Moreover, she was a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., he a member of its brother fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, Inc..
They crossed paths and they conversed. “Those conversations,” she says, “were all about strategy. all about numbers. We learned that we had a bit of a mind-meld on staying focused on a strategy, and also making sure it was responsive to the voters or reflective of that they actually cared about.”
Spellman acknowledges her biggest gap was having never worked a campaign here. Not knowing Birmingham.
“I knew I would have blind spots, too,” she says. “I don’t know the internal politics of the city. I don’t know what landmines I might be stepping on. I don’t even know the drivers in the communities. So, my goal was to surround myself with those who could cover the blind spots.
“All of our field organizers were organizing where they grew up or had a connection, so they were already part of the fabric. I couldn’t train them on those things.”
Many leaders on the campaign’s org chart worked on Woodfin’s 2017 campaign when he surprisingly toppled incumbent Mayor William Bell.
“My field deputy campaign manager (E.J. Turner) was on his previous campaign,’ Spellman says. “My GOTV (Get Out the Vote) director (Austin Noble) was on his previous campaign, my other deputy campaign manager for digital and communications (Daniel Deriso) was on the previous campaign. So, they’ve gone through an entire cycle, it’s almost like a school-year relationship. You have to go through a fall, winter, spring, summer, and see how things operate. They’d done that with him, I hadn’t, so I needed everyone around me to coach me on how to manage, up and down, and also strategically across all of them.”
The campaign was also an amenable mix of locals and outsiders, people who cut their political teeth, like Spellman, in national or statewide races elsewhere. Some were a bit of both.
Birmingham native Kevin Harris is vice president of Mosaic Communications, the women-led strategic marketing firm utilized by the campaign to produce its video and social media communications. Before joining the firm, Harris served as deputy mayor in Baltimore, executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus, spokesperson for former Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gilliam, and he advised over 50 national, state, and local campaigns.
“My sole job was to make sure that nearly all political contacts and relationships were held by people that are from here,” Spellman says. “That doesn’t mean outside people didn’t come in to help. But our job was more to train, empower project-manage, and obviously execute on our strategy.
“Less top-down, more ground up.”
From the seeds planted and nurtured by Bonds grew Spellman’s thirst for organizing, initially not confined to politics. “I knew regardless of what industry I did it would always be about bringing like-minded people together to achieve goals,” she says.
Spellman earned a fellowship with People for the American Way, a progressive advocacy organization founded in 1981 by iconic television producer Norman Lear, the late legendary Texas Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, and others. There, Spellman learned the five methods of social change: direct service, community organizing, advocacy, governance, and idea creation. “All work together to create change,” she says. (She now serves on the group’s board of directors.)
Spellman participated in discussions last fall that resulted in Woodfin endorsing former vice president Biden during the 2020 presidential race. The president, in a rare White House move, returned the favor by endorsing Woodfin. Whether Biden’s blessing swayed a single vote is debatable. Its value, Spellman says, was more about the future.
“President Biden and the staff got to know Mayor Woodfin on the campaign trail, and campaigns are again about relationships,” she says. “It’s about organizing, it’s a network. The value is that there is a strong relationship with the administration, which wasn’t the case with the Trump administration. Now you actually have a mayor and a president and their administrations that know each other, that communicate easily, and work together.
“The endorsement says. ‘I want to continue working with this person, so we can best solve the biggest and most pressing challenges in your cities and state.’”
“There’s a whole new school of young mayors,” Spellman says, “and Mayor Woodfin was one of the first ones elected in 2017. Now, he’s almost like the elder.
“Mayors and governors are incredibly important right now to President Biden because they control their budgets and the distribution of funds, but especially in red states, where relationships aren’t always as productive as they could be. Those mayors are more aligned with those challenges than state legislatures may be.”
Now don’t be fooled. The cakewalk outcome was not a piece of cake. This was, after all, a Birmingham mayoral race with all of the expected darts aimed mostly at the incumbent, but laced, too, with pettiness, thanks to social media, some of which made you squirm. Especially during the last days.
As opponents massaged, election-night wounds, Woodfin danced
The surprising – and unabashedly bold – idea was born by a local dance studio entrepreneur who believes dance "unites us in a way we can all breathe".
The campaign’s strategy: Ignore it.
“That Facebook post, that comment made out in the field, that call you got, don’t worry about it,” Spellman said. “We had a plan. At halftime yeah maybe you have to make some adjustments. But what mostly happens at halftime? You tell your team: Stick to the plan.”
And wonder less about the outcome.
More columns by Roy S. Johnson
In Montgomery change is spelled with a small ‘c’
Y’all boo’d your idol (Trump) when all he did was ask you to take vaccine
Thankfully, state leaders are filling void left by Invisible Gov.
Death is laughing at us because it’s winning; it always does
Want normal? take the dang shot
Roy S. Johnson is a 2021 Pulitzer Prize finalist for commentary and winner of 2021 Edward R. Morrow prize for podcasts: “Unjustifiable”, co-hosted with John Archibald. His column appears in The Birmingham News and AL.com, as well as the Huntsville Times, the Mobile Press-Register. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow him at twitter.com/roysj, or on Instagram @roysj.
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