The inside story on how President Obama’s campaign visit to the Lowry Campus two days before the Nov. 6 election went from conceptual idea to completion in the span of 96 harried hours
By Lee Rasizer
Public Relations Coordinator
At about 11:30 p.m., on the night of Wednesday, Oct. 31, the cell phone of Tami Morrissey, Community College of Aurora’s Assistant to the President, buzzed her out of a deep sleep.
Regina Edmondson, the college’s Associate Director of Development, related that someone of significance had been trying to reach CCA president Alton D. Scales but had initially been unsuccessful.
“You’re going to be getting a call in the next few minutes from Obama campaign people,” the message to Morrissey read.
Once the cobwebs began to melt away, Morrissey began wrapping her mind around what was about to potentially unfold. “I thought, ‘Here we go …”
Fifteen minutes later, the phone rang and on the other line was Jen Polenzani, regional event organizer for President Barack Obama’s campaign, asking if CCA could host a rally at Lowry on Sunday evening.
It was mentioned that Obama’s on-the-ground team already had scouted the location clandestinely Wednesday and believed the site was perfect.
“They were looking for a venue in Aurora, because they really didn’t think that they’d hit Aurora,” Morrissey said of her half-hour phone conversation.
The Obama campaign also wanted a locale that could accommodate 6,000-8,000 people and assured Morrissey that their plans included an outdoor venue, which put Lowry in play.
Morrissey responded that she would help organize the officials necessary for a meeting the next morning that would include Scales and Nancy McCallin, President of the Colorado Community College System. Both executives had the power to either rubber stamp or reject the idea.
Morrissey, who’s worked at CCA for 19 years, had a somewhat unusual thought pop into her head as she hung up the phone. “They finally found us,” she noted.
Several years ago, President George W. Bush had his motorcade stop at a restaurant a stone’s throw from the CentreTech campus. It was then that Morrissey and then-school president Linda S. Bowman hypothesized that one day the nation’s chief executive would visit the college.
“Because we’re great, first of all,” Morrissey explained. “And they talk a lot about community colleges and we are an easy stop with our location near Buckley (AFB). They’ve been out a few times over the last few years. I’ve talked to White House advance people about holding events here, but our inside event footprint isn’t large enough for anything that they do.”
In fact, just days before the Obama camp hit Lowry, representatives of former President Bill Clinton reached out in an attempt to find a suitable rally spot. CCA had to decline since it didn’t have an indoor facility that could hold several thousand people. So Clinton’s campaign tour instead came to Adams City High School on Oct. 30.
Thursday, Nov. 1
Scales and Morrissey connected at 6:40 a.m. The latter wasted no time getting right to the point: “I don’t know if you’ve seen your e-mail yet but the advance team wants to use our campus for a rally for the President.”
Scales paused. “Obama?” laughing heartily as he thought back to the conversation.
His mind then immediately jumped to the conversation with the Clinton representatives only hours before. “I thought, ‘Man, where do I live? Where did I land?” said Scales, who took over his current role in July. “This is too cool.”
But that initial buzz turned to the reality and scope of his position as head of the college. Never mind that Scales was scheduled to attend an Aurora Economic Development Council retreat beginning that afternoon and running through Saturday morning. There also would be professional considerations that had to be carefully explored.
There was initial trepidation that it would be perceived that the college had a political stake, which was unacceptable. Part of Scales’ role is to help maintain and shape the image of CCA and it was paramount the institution wasn’t seen as taking a partisan role.
Such judgments would be made at a 9:30 a.m. meeting at the Todd Bergren Room at Lowry. Morrissey, Scales, Rhonda Bentz, CCCS’ Director of Public Information and Legislative Coordinator, and two Obama staffers, including Polenzani, attended the initial briefing.
Scales quickly decided that the campaign would use the college’s facility much like any other organization and that “there would be no markers suggesting we were sponsoring them.” Bentz agreed. CCA’s regular events contract also would be used to “create the paper trail to demonstrate that,” he added.
A second, 11 a.m. meeting was scheduled to begin the planning stage. The Bergren Room had a cancellation, so Morrissey approached Traci Fielden, administrative assistant at Lowry, about booking it.
“I asked her what I should call the meeting,” Fielden recalled. “She said, ‘Umm, communications …” So that’s what I went with. I didn’t know what was going on until the ‘suits’ arrived and said, ‘Good morning, ma’am.’ I just knew they were Feds.”
Still, nothing was remotely official, even as more people would be let into the loop.
The second meeting was more logistical and featured about 30 people, including the original group along with Secret Service, additional campaign personnel, CCA’s Lowry facilities manager Mike Davis, Director of CCA Communications Liz VanLandingham and CCCS VP of Finance and Administration Mark Superka and others.
“I was very surprised, to say the least,” Davis said when he first heard the name Obama linked with a CCA visit at that meeting. “Here at Lowry? … I thought, ‘Vice President maybe, not Commander in Chief.”
Yet the Presidential event was a go, for now. “I said yes,” Scales said. “They said yes tentatively.”
But until Obama campaign central headquarters in Chicago signed off, nothing was set in stone. Lawyers began working a contract and negotiating a fee, while the rest of the operation went into the Lowry quad, split into groups and began scouting buildings to see how long it would take to secure the location.
Scales briefed Annie Trujillo, principal of the New America School, once it became apparent that its building would be a key instrument in getting the President in and out safely.
Cody Neuhold, property manager of CCCS, and Lowry security officer Daniel Baniszewski were among those answering questions for the Secret Service.
But this was just the beginning of tying up what would be a kindergarten class sized group of loose ends at this early juncture.
“Poor Tami,” Fielden said. “She needed help and couldn’t tell anybody. She couldn’t even give me a hint. I felt bad for her. It was quite an interesting time.”
Morrissey began to make inquiries to Sandra Tompkins, CCA’s Director of Information Technology, but was simultaneously specific and vague. Was the quad covered by wireless? Could an Ethernet cable be strung in the middle of the grass?”
Said Morrissey: “She’s thinking, ‘You crazy woman …’
“I didn’t think she was crazy,” Tomkins responded. “Instead I thought, ‘That’s interesting. There must be some sort of event over there but I don’t know what it is.’”
And as the day progressed, Tompkins related, there was more “various and sundry questions and apologizing” from Morrissey. CCCS IT was also receiving Morrissey’s flurry of cryptic inquiries: all day, all evening.
“Every time she called I was thinking about something else, so I didn’t put a whole lot of thought into it,” Tompkins said. “But it was odd and as the day went on, I started thinking, ‘I better find out more information because this seems a little bit bigger than just curiosity,’”
Late Thursday night, Morrissey received a note that the contract was officially signed and the event was official. Obama’s campaign asked that no information be released until a press statement was distributed, so only a handful of CCA officials and staffers knew it was a ‘go.’
Morrissey had been planning a vacation at the end of the following week and now knew her weekend of leisurely packing for the trip was a goner.
“That’s when I started thinking, ‘I’m just going to buy new clothes instead of finishing the laundry because I’m never going to get this done.”
Friday, Nov. 2
The story hit the Denver Post’s online edition on Friday morning, so the public finally knew what only a select group had for nearly a day and a half.
But up in Vail, where Scales had opted to travel for the second day of the economic development council meetings, everyone still was in the dark about the weight of events that had kept Scales away in the first place.
Morrissey texted Scales at an early-morning meeting to alert him the contract was signed and word was beginning to filter out publicly that Obama was coming on Sunday. Lisa Luciano, from Raytheon, announced the President’s visit to the Aurora business leaders after Scales told her what had been occurring behind the scenes.
Meanwhile, activity would begin to percolate around Lowry, even with Scales miles away – and not sweating his absence a bit.
“Here’s what I learned,” Scales explained. “You know my very first day was July 20 (the day after the Century 16 shootings in Aurora) and in that moment I learned the fiber of the people we work with and what they’re made of. And since then, I’ve had the opportunity to observe individuals in their day-to-day walk, and I knew with Tami on point, it was going to be OK. So I trusted in that moment then, as well as now, in the competence of the people around me.”
One of those people intimately involved at Lowry would be Tom Wolf, director of security of CCCS. His office is a stone’s throw from the Lowry quad, and he was informed Thursday – his day off -- of the possibility of a Presidential visit but really sprung into action once official word hit right around the time Scales was informed.
Wolf’’s initial thought: “Of all the schools, of all the places he could go in the metropolitan area and he picked our school. It didn’t seem real. It felt like somebody was playing a joke on me at work and I was going to get a call later saying, ‘We just wanted to see how you would react.’”
Reality immediately sank in, though, once he began receiving calls from Secret Service and was briefed on their needs and their requirements from Wolf’s staff.
Manpower needs were an initial fear Wolf had working with a small security staff at Lowry, but the campaign made do with what was provided.
It didn’t hurt that the Secret Service already had coordinated with Aurora Police Chief Daniel Oates for some 250 police officers that would eventually flank both Lowry and the Obama motorcade at Buckley for the trek to CCA.
It was that afternoon Wolf learned that the stage would abut the back of the New America School and communications people would be setting up in Building 905. That Ethernet connection Morrissey had earlier requested was to be used for a direct link to the White House the night of the event. Media would have a designated area to file stories and risers for camera equipment to the west and south of the as yet erected stage.
“I hung back, watched and observed,” Wolf said. “And it was very impressive.”
Tompkins and the numerous computer department staffers also met at Lowry quad in the afternoon and began working off of the specific guidelines given by the Obama campaign regarding wireless download speeds, access points and hard line phones -- not voice over internet for security purposes -- which CCA lacked.
“Essentially we had to start from scratch,” Tompkins said. “We went over to Lowry to meet this (campaign) guy. We showed him the (server) closets and he had Century Link out there within an hour. I have never before in my life seen Century Link respond that fast. They were right there.”
Six hours of testing connectivity to the quad followed.
But the real work was just getting started.
Saturday, Nov. 3
The bulk of the materials to set up the quad were delivered in the early morning hours. And over the course of the day, Wolf described the transition of the quad from empty grass into a ceremonial space as the equivalent of a time-lapse photography shoot.
Morrissey worked most of the day ensuring meeting space for whoever needed it. Tompkins and her team ran cables to guarantee enough wireless access points.
“When we showed up at 9 a.m. there was barely anything there. By the time we left at 2:30 or 3 in the afternoon, there was so much set up,” Tompkins said. “There were bathrooms everywhere and platforms for the press.”
To accommodate the computer needs, about 10 devices were moved from adjoining buildings to cover the quad.
Morrissey also was working behind the scenes to guarantee that the 50 VIP tickets allotted to CCA were properly allotted to board members, CCCS staff, the college advisory council, Foundation committee and school vice presidents.
By Saturday night, flags were raised, lights were on, stages constructed, barriers placed. Speakers had been set up and busses parked in a line to provide a secure perimeter.
Security and Secret Service closed off several lots and roads, as tents were erected in the middle of Seventh and Boston, which would later be used for searching incoming guests.
“It was becoming more real,” Morrissey said.
For Scales, who would drive back to Denver early that morning, that reality now meant a pre-planned meeting with Obama on Sunday night.
He was informed by the lead of the campaign’s advance team that the introduction would take place. The gravity of the situation hit him, despite his having gotten to meet George H.W. Bush and Democratic nominee John Kerry at previous college stops.
Back then, Scales said, he was sort of an “understudy” in the whole production. But the stakes professionally and personally he knew would be different this time.
“There will never be another first African-American president. So that was a piece of history I would get to take. The other thing, as I was processing it all, I was thinking about my son and my daughters and what I believe is important pieces to continuously feeding them about our responsibility in voting.
“It was an opportunity to capture an image and make it very real to them.”
Sunday, Nov. 4
There was enough window dressing by Sunday morning that made it blatantly obvious a major event was taking place. But, for Wolf, that moment became abundantly clear about noon when a group of black cars arrived en masse in front of Lowry.
Out stepped Secret Service, donning black suits and earpieces.
“I’m like, ‘That’s the crew. We’re in good hands now. The campus is going to be as safe as it’s ever been, no doubt.’”
Some concerns had arisen over projected crowd numbers of 20,000-25,000 and what that meant for the parking situation. More lots were cleared for dignitaries.
The Obama campaign was responsible for invitations meted out to assorted senators and congressmen along with Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.
Meanwhile, all media had been advised to have their TV trucks parked in the lot north of the quad by 3 p.m.
A security sweep would leave the majority of the quad area off limits until about 6 while bomb-sniffing dogs went through buildings 901, 903, 905 and everything from news vans to fire trucks to ambulances.
Davis tagged along as the meticulous search unfolded. Every drawer in every office; engine and side compartments of the busses; custodial closets – nothing was glossed over.
Davis even changed the access codes to lock off building access, save for a few select doors. Card keys for employees no longer would work. But the presence of Davis in his office when sharpshooters arrived with Aurora SWAT was one unplanned surprise, quickly rectified. Davis led them to roof access at 901 and 903, an experience he’ll always remember.
“Three of them had massive backpacks on,” he said, adding with a laugh. “I assumed those weren’t pool cues in the bag.”
A few people trickled by the site around noon. Crowds began gathering around 4 p.m. and kept growing until 7:15 p.m., when the gates would be declared open.
Morrissey actually stood in line for 21/2 hours with the rest of the crowd, which snaked all the way from Boston through various side streets, ending near the Lowry Gymnasium.
“I was surrounded by people from Aurora,” she recalled. “Some people still lived here, some did not, but they grew up in this area seeing the Air Force base. Some of them had attended CCA, and just to hear their stories and how much it meant to them, it was kind of cool.”
The line was held up in small part by a lengthy sound check by the event’s musical guest, Dave Matthews, frontman of the Dave Matthews Band. He was having trouble, the singer related later, with an echoing issue in his earpiece.
Davis and some of the computer personnel from CCA and CCCS had made it into the quad for last-minute checks, too, but others were held outside by security. It was then that Eduardo Peralta and Tomkins, CCA co-workers, walked into 903, past some police and Secret Service after explaining their role setting up wireless access.
Their search for Daniel Bapple, another IT employee at CCA, instead led to a chance encounter in the Bergren Room.
Tompkins at first didn’t recognize Matthews, but Peralta did and pounced at the opportunity to take a picture with the musician, who graciously obliged.
“I was like, ‘Wow, that’s Dave Matthews,’” Tompkins recalled. “So I took a picture of the two of them. Then, I said, ‘Gosh, it would be cool if I had a picture, too. I’d really like one.’ So Dave Matthews came over and just threw his arm around me and was just giving me a hug. … It melted away any tiredness I’d had.”
The process went smoothly once the lines of people were allowed to enter the quad. It took about an hour and 15 minutes to let anywhere from 15,000-20,000 people into the quad, depending on whose crowd estimate was used. People even placed their trash next to garbage cans instead of strewing it about Lowry campus.
As Scales navigated first from his car, then on ground, making his way to his seat, he also listened to the buzz from those walking on CCA’s campus, some for the first time.
“I was thinking we’re going to be on national news for something positive,” Scales maintained. “This is going to aid in telling our story because people now have an anchor, a reference point about the college, I’m thinking that really part of what we should be doing is what I said to the staff all along is looking at ways at bringing individuals through our doors, down our hallways, who would normally just drive past us.
“So we had a group of people on our campus that had never been here. Some didn’t even know where it was until that event. So what it did is we got a lot of capital out of that.”
Wolf, as one of the main security officials, got to see another side to the nation’s Capitol and its inner workings. He was asked to shadow the top Secret Service agent assigned to the event. So he knew how the technical aspects were going to unfold long before Obama’s plane was close to landing.
At the front of the New America School, a white tent was set up that affixed to the front entrance of the building. Curtains would then close off the President’s vehicle from behind once it pulled in through the exit of a one-way street.
Room 112, the Art Room at Building 905, was the Secret Service command center, where Aurora Police, Aurora Fire, the lead agent and a communications officer to monitor the radio were situated.
Kids’ pictures on the wall intermingled with high-tech equipment all over the floor. Grown men tried to wedge themselves into school chairs.
“It really kind of felt odd being in that room doing what we were doing,” Wolf admitted.
The only place there were TV monitors was the main hallway, where Obama would eventually enter, walk straight back, leave the back exit and traipse across onto a lengthy ramp leading to the dais to massive cheers.
But first things first: the convocation; the Pledge of Allegiance given by longtime Denver school teacher Maria Greenwood, 99; opening speeches by Senators Michael Bennet and Mark Udall and Hickenlooper; a grass-roots campaign organizer putting in her two cents.
Then, Mathews emerged for his chilly, one-man set that lasted about a half-hour.
Right before the musical performance, Scales, McCallin and Trujillo were whisked behind one of two curtains covering the archways that flank New America School.
A roar of a circling helicopter and Secret Service agents talking into their wrists and jackets was a giveaway things were getting close.
Scales and Co. were placed against a hallway wall by a Secret Service agent so that Obama would need to pass them by on the way to the stage.
And at around 10:40 p.m., the President emerged, through the curtain, through the door, and toward the educational leadership housed at Lowry. The original alignment was with Scales situated in the middle, but he moved to the end so he could observe the moment in its entirety.
“I’ve heard all these things about him from people about how when you’re talking to him, it’s like he’s not listening to anybody else but you. So I watched him,” Scales remembered. “I wanted to see what he was doing to convey that.”
The entire handshaking pit stop lasted about three minutes. The last half-minute or so by Obama was devoted to Scales.
“I said, ‘Hello, my name is Alton Scales and I’m the President of Community College of Aurora.’ His response was, ‘Thank you for hosting us, and I want you to know that community colleges are extremely important to us and we will do everything we can to support what you do.’ ”
The words were fitting for the moment and audience. But what struck Scales was how tired the President had looked as Obama hit his fourth state that day.
But, as Scales remarked, the moment Obama exited the back of New America School and set foot on the catwalk into the open air, it was his posture immediately was inflated, as if through a tire pump.
Neighborhood team leader for Obama’s grassroots campaign, Mike Davis, got the crowd jazzed just before the President took his first outdoor steps onto the stage. Obama went right past Morrissey, who was pressed against the fence at the rear of the stage. Scales would go back to his VIP seating, off stage left. Peralta and Tompkins watched from the riser next to the West Quad building.
Wolf stood near the back of the stage wearing a security pin bestowed upon him by the Secret Service. (The look of the pin, understandably, changes every event.) Davis took a position behind the assembled crowd.
“It was the smoothest event I’ve worked and I’ve been doing it for 15 years,” Wolf remarked.
Scales got one more brief audience with Obama as he made his way around the first row of the fenced-in crowd, surrounding the stage, after the speech.
And on the way back, Morrrissey, who thought for years an American President would come to CCA, shook Obama’s hand.
“Support him. Don’t support him. It’s the office. He’s the President of the United States, regardless of who was standing up there. That’s the piece, to me, that was most amazing,” Morrissey said.
She expressed confidence that the hard work and the long hours put in by countless people resulted in an event for which CCA could be proud.
But, there was another twinge of happiness that the event had ended, too as Obama was whisked away and the crowd quickly dispersed.
“Oh yeah,” Morrissey said emphatically. “I could go do my laundry now.”
From top: (1) President Barack Obama speaks in the Lowry quad during his Nov. 4 rally at Lowry. Official estimates were that 20,000 arrived; Secret Service had the number at around 17,00-18,000. (2) A group of youths implore the audience to get out to the polls. (3) CCA IT Director Sandra Tompkins got to meet Dave Matthews backstage in the Todd Bergren Room in the West Quad building prior to the singer’s on-stage performance to warm up for the President. (4) CCCS head of security Tom Wolf shows a certificate given to him by Secret Service while wearing a small pin that also was given to him by Obama’s security detail. (5) Members of the community fill the quad in the hours before the President's arrival; (6) Actress Angela Bassett poses with CCA’s Associate Director of Development, Regina Edmondson. (7) CCA President Alton D. Scales shares a brief moment with Obama as the crowd begins to file out of the Lowry quad just before midnight.