By Andy Ostmeyer
Joplin resident Dana Snodgrass has found himself thrust into a political experiment of sorts.
And it has made him a star.
“I’m like a celebrity ... I feel like Joe the Plumber,” Snodgrass said with a chuckle.
As part of the Local Voices for Obama project, three professional film teams spread out to key swing states: Nevada, Ohio and Missouri.
The latter team started in Joplin on Oct. 5 and filmed several short documentary-style political advertisements with area residents talking about why they support Barack Obama for president. Through a series of connections, they wound up with Snodgrass.
“I thought it would be a local deal but come to find out these guys are big-time players,” said Snodgrass, who is 51. “I thought it was a Podunk thing ... He’s the real deal.”
“He” is Lee Hirsch, an Emmy-winning director who also has taken a couple of awards at the Sundance Film Festival, and who led the Missouri film crew.
The advertising campaign is unlike others that have been tried in past elections, according to Hirsch and Eugene Hedlund. He founded truthandhope.org in 2004 to air independent television and radio spots for Howard Dean’s presidential bid, and he is supporting Obama’s bid this time.
Hedlund, a former mortgage banker and advertising executive, said the purpose is different than the political ads made by Hollywood and Madison Avenue types, which he likened to “messages from on high.”
“Why are we not talking to the people? They’re there,” Hedlund said. “Let’s have voices from the community.
“It is new,” he said of the concept of using local residents to influence others in a community through the ads, which are designed to appear on television, radio and online.
“We’re shooting in Ohio for Ohio, we’re shooting in Nevada for Nevada,” Hedlund said.
The goal was to create “neighbor-to-neighbor” campaigns using local people but professional directors and crews, Hirsch said.
“The vision was for it to be small town,” Hedlund said, adding that Joplin “hit perfectly with the vision we were looking for.”
Hirsch and the film crew spent time with Snodgrass at his farm and business, Snodgrass Collision Center, letting him talk unscripted about his own values and views and why he supports Obama.
“I don’t do the politics real well,” said Snodgrass. “I am a student of politics, I just don’t get involved with it.”
He admits that making an ad supporting a Democrat in a Republican stronghold could bring on some heat, and he’s taking a ribbing — some of it serious — from people who feel differently. But so far it hasn’t been too bad.
Three other area residents also were chosen, including Kyle Snodgrass, Dana’s adult son; Fred Dalton, an Obama campaign volunteer from Joplin; and Peggy Richardson, a Webb City businesswoman who recently bought the Bradbury-Bishop Deli in Webb City.
Richardson, 46, noted she also has a stepson slated to go to Iraq soon.
Although she was chosen, she added: “I’m still undecided. I can’t say I’m voting for Obama and I can’t say I’m voting for McCain.”
“We haven’t cut Peggy’s,” added Hirsch, who explained that she was chosen because she was signing papers to close on the business the day they were filming.
“This is like the American Dream coming true,” Hirsch said of Richardson buying her own business.
Asked if the Republicans have similar plans with less than two weeks to go before the election, Tina Hervey, communication director for the Missouri Republican Party, said that’s not possible locally.
“We don’t have the money or capacity to do what he’s doing. We just don’t have the money to hire an Emmy-award winning or non-Emmy Award winning director to film videos for YouTube.”
Obama raised a record $150 million in September, and Hervey notes that his fund-raising was the result of a broken pledge to abide by federal campaign spending limits.
“He raised in one month what we spend in four,” Hervey said.
“What you are seeing is there is very little the Barack Obama campaign can’t do,” said Evan Tracey, president of Campaign Media Analysis Group, a nonpartisan media research company.
That means more spots, longer spots on traditional media and new media outlets.
“What Obama has been able to do is to have multilevel conversations,” Tracey said.
He speculated that as little as 6 percent of the voting public may know about Obama’s broken pledge, but only a handful of those will use that information when making the decision Nov. 4.
“At the end of the day this is because Obama broke a pledge,” he said, “but there was no real strategic loss for them.”
And the reality was that John McCain had to accept the federal campaign deal in order to survive the primary.
“Both candidates did what they had to do,” Tracey said.
But Hirsch and Hedlund said they aren’t receiving any campaign funds to film and air their ads. They are raising the money for that themselves.
“I was busy directing a series for the Discovery Channel,” Hirsch explained, noting he wasn’t too active in politics, but around the time of the Republican National Convention he decided he wanted to step up.
“I started to feel like I wanted to get involved. For me, it was how can I leverage my skills as a filmmaker,” he said.
He contacted the campaign, but it runs ads through focus groups, and Hirsch wanted an unscripted take on why people were supporting Obama.
“I wanted to go out and talk to people unfiltered,” Hirsch said.
He and Hedlund connected and raised a few thousand dollars for plane tickets, with most of the support coming from small donations to Hedlund’s Web site. Many members of his crew and the other two film crews paid their own way and donated their time as volunteers.
“I am not working for the campaign,” Hirsch said, adding there is no reason Republican supporters could not do what he and the other teams have done.
“This has nothing to do with money,” he said. “It has to do with passion and conviction.”
Attempts to reach Wendy Reimann, spokeswoman for McCain’s campaign in Missouri, were unsuccessful.
So far, the ads have been a big hit, at least online.
Hedlund said his Web site draws 11,000 visitors each day to watch Snodgrass and the others who are up, and the YouTube versions — one is about one minute long and the other is about four minutes long — also have drawn thousands of hits.
But for Snodgrass, the ad was an opportunity to outline his values and speak to his neighbors about his support for Obama.
“I really want people to understand that from my point of view it’s not about politics. It’s not a Democrat or Republican thing. It’s about what’s best for the country,” he said.
Lee Hirsch's debut feature film, “Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony,” is about the South African anti-apartheid struggle and won the Audience and Freedom of Expression awards at the Sundance Film Festival and one of the five Emmy awards for which it was nominated.
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