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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Farinella led Obama's uphill N.C. win

Rob Christensen, Staff Writer
At an election night boiler room at Cary's upscale Umstead Hotel, dozens of operatives of Barack Obama's presidential campaign watched as North Carolina went blue for the first time in nearly a third of a century.

Watching with special satisfaction was Marc Farinella, 50, who cut his teeth on Chicago politics. Farinella was the chief architect of Obama's victory in the state.

The North Carolina race was so close that the networks refused to call the state for Obama. But Farinella had a network of up to 400 paid staffers across the state, and he knew which precincts had not yet reported.

So shortly after midnight, Farinella called Obama's headquarters in Chicago and told them they had won North Carolina. He then headed to downtown Raleigh to celebrate with other Obama supporters.

Farinella says the Obama victory, which relied on grass-roots campaigning, early voting and use of the Internet, will have an impact beyond Election Day.

"It will change politics in the way we campaign for the foreseeable future," he said.

Few would have bet on an Obama victory in North Carolina when Farinella arrived in Raleigh in July.

North Carolina had voted Republican in nine of the last 10 presidential contests. In 2004, the state gave President Bush a 12-point victory, even with former Tar Heel Sen. John Edwards on the Democratic ticket as the vice presidential candidate.

But the Obama campaign was banking on several things: a sputtering economy, 600,000 new voters who had registered since the 2004 election, and Obama's commitment of huge resources to the state during the Democratic primary in May.

A master of detail

In hiring Farinella, the Obama campaign put one of its most seasoned Democratic veterans -- and someone who once got a dead man elected to the U.S. Senate -- in charge in North Carolina.

Farinella grew up in New York and Chicago, the son of a social worker and an interior decorator. When he entered Chicago politics, he had a reputation as something of an egghead, in part because he held two master's degrees.

Eventually Farinella became campaign manager, then chief of staff, to Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan. In one of the stranger stories of American politics, Farinella helped Carnahan defeat Republican U.S. Sen. John Ashcroft in 2000, although Carnahan had died in a plane crash a few weeks before the election. Carnahan's widow was appointed to the Senate seat.

"He is an interesting character," said Saul Shorr, a Philadelphia-based campaign consultant who helped elect Gov. Mike Easley and Gov.-elect Beverly Perdue. "He really stands on both sides of politics -- practical campaign management and public policy background.

"He is incredibly disciplined. He is fastidious about detail. He is also endearing and inspires loyalty."

Farinella started the 2008 presidential election cycle working for Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, but Bayh ultimately decided not to get in the race. In June, the Obama campaign called and asked Farinella if he was ready to saddle up again.

Overwhelming McCain

Farinella was already tied into the state's Democratic organization. He had worked as a strategist for Erskine Bowles' unsuccessful U.S. Senate campaign in 2002 and Perdue's re-election campaign for lieutenant governor in 2004.

His first day on the job, Farinella had to fill in for Obama at a Charlotte middle school when Obama's plane developed mechanical troubles and had to be diverted.

After that, things went more smoothly.

He moved into the Raleigh home of an Obama supporter, and he didn't have a day off for the next four months. He typically started work at 8:15 a.m. and worked until 11 p.m. at Obama's state headquarters near Crabtree Valley Mall.

"He is intense," said Democratic pollster Fred Yang. "He never does anything halfway."

Former four-term Gov. Jim Hunt said Farinella had a good feel for North Carolina because his major political experience was in Missouri, another conservative-leaning swing state. Hunt, who was heavily involved in helping Obama, said he often talked to Farinella twice a day.

"He is very cool and calm," Hunt said. "He is watching everything. He's on his toes about everything. He is tough in the clinches."

Hunt was so impressed he has been trying to persuade Farinella to move to North Carolina. Farinella was considering it because his wife has family here.

The Obama campaign worked on getting voters to the polls early and registering blacks, young voters of all colors, and transplants from other states. It focused on the major metropolitan areas.

The Obama organization had about 50 offices and 23,000 volunteers in North Carolina. The campaign overwhelmed Republican John McCain with TV and radio advertising, direct mail pieces and automated calls.

Obama got a majority of his votes during early voting, winning 54 percent of the votes cast before Election Day.

When he saw the long lines of early Obama voters, Farinella said he thought the election was won. In fact, he said, he expected Obama to carry the state by a wider margin.

'Every minute matters'

"North Carolina was just about the toughest state on the battleground map," he said. "There were some people high up in the campaign who had personal connections who took an interest. They felt to be able to bring along a state in the South as conservative as North Carolina had been at the presidential level, it really meant something to the state and the country."

When The Associated Press called North Carolina for Obama two days after the election, the Obama campaign was already dismantling its offices here. Some staffers let out a mock cheer.

Last weekend, Farinella returned to his home in Melbourne, Fla. -- where he can watch space shots from his yard. Farinella said he missed his family, but he does not regret his four months in North Carolina.

"Campaigns are zero-sum games," Farinella said. "You are either going to win or lose, and there is nothing in between. Every day matters. Every minute matters. Campaigns have a way of consuming all of your time and all of your energy.

"There is no such thing as a silver medal."

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