As I was walking to the Drexel Campus from work at a North Philadelphia non-profit on the last day of voter registration here, I ran into volunteers from the Obama campaign who I knew from Progressive Philadelphia. They were sparse and uninspired.
There is a lot of talk on the blogs about super delegates and other obvious factors in the close of primary season. However, no matter how much Joe Trippi and the Obama campaign has done to bring elections to the internet, I would argue that elections are still won on the ground. One important factor in getting out the vote that has not been talked about on Mydd much or any other blog are local non-profits. Seeing a lack of influence in this sector is largely because blogs are filled with people who were not politically engaged before the rise of the internet. Furthermore, these people have just gotten in the trenches.
Let me explain from the point of view of the 2004 election and how that worked in Kerry winning Wisconsin. I was in Madison at the time, spending most of my time with a woman whose father, like mine, had been a local activist and whose family had been involved with the Democratic Party since the 1960's. Here father was famous for throwing water in Tommy Thompson's face when he was asked to sit on a state education board. She worked for the University of Wisconsin System and slipped me lots of information about UW Madison faking the reporting of it's efforts for minority recruitment and retention.
She and I both met with Barack Obama in 2005 about the problem of rising costs in education and minority graduation rates falling because of rising costs. We also talked about the middle class getting squeezed by tuition costs as well.
In 2004, those of us who had been local activists and had worked on reform campaigns 'back home' were getting pretty irate with the Dean worshipers. We basically felt that the Deaniacs represented a certain liberal stereotype that turned people away from liberalism and the Democratic Party. We also resented the fact that many of these people had not been engaged before, in the trenches as it were, and were now telling those of us who had that we were some sort of establishment wall of shill. These people began to trickle into Kerry's campaign office to volunteer. Then, the head of Students for Kerry, Mike Pfhol (sp) began to directly exploit that sentiment to recruit latent Democrats -- those of us who were involved outside of Madison -- to the Kerry effort.
One of the reasons resentment began to curdle among the so-called old guard, (if you can call people under 30 as such), was because many Deaniacs began to take on a certain nasty tenor in their anti-war stance. We began to see things like ROTC enlistees on campus getting yelled at, signs denouncing the troops and finally, a jar of urine was thrown at a group of Young Republicans. We were so sick of these types representing 'us liberals' in the public eye, that many of us jumped to volunteer for Kerry's campaign to squash Dean. There were so many of us that came on board that when the convention for College Democrats came in Ripon, the Madison contingent filled up an entire two floor hotel.
Non-profits will play a similar role in Pennsylvania, especially Philadelphia. Hillary Clinton has a long-standing relationship with many of these non-profits which receive federal funding. While non-profits cannot explicitly endorse a candidate, their employees most certainly work on Get out the Vote Efforts. Many of the management level workers whose programing will rely on Federal funding and policy agendas wait it out before they throw their outside of work efforts behind a candidate. This is because we need to get a theater with the person who is most likely to win.
In the 1st District PA Senate race, John Doughrty has used this tactic against Anne Dicker. The type of presence Doughrty has established gives the impression that one has to back him or we will be shut out when it comes time to get the ear of our elected officials.
Many of the established non-profits have already lined up behind Hillary because of relationships but also because she has spelled out her agenda more clearly and to non-profits, (which make up 7% of the total U.S. economy, to understand the scale of this weight), the subtext of the Hillary agenda says 'funding.'
One of the reasons, the Obama campaign has not courted these traditional circles is many of his backers in Chicago have been successful in building non-traditional non-profit structures which are -- and not to back a candidate -- better models. Quite frankly, these are models I plan to replicate. The other reason is some non-profits are repositories for the political class within the Democratic Party and the Obama campaign has set out to break these particular cogs in the machine.
The truth of the matter is a president must form policy as he or she goes along, as the climate dictates. Obama seems to know this and he seems to want to avoid creating an agenda that will amount to lies. A particular agenda in May of 2008 might not be the best or most realistic agenda in May of 2009 to bring before the House and the Senate. At the same time, those people who know the finer points of policy would be more inclined to vote for Obama if he had a better Blueprint.
When the Obama campaign came to Philadelphia, they focused their attention on students who had been working for the campaign in different capacities. They needed to bring in more on the ground people from the neighborhoods. Large numbers of Philadelphia residents who have been shut out from the political process by bad machine politics would have jumped on the Obama bandwagon. Meanwhile, the Obama campaign never seemed to realize that they had seasoned organizers -- Saul Alinsky foundation trained organizers like myself -- in the midst of their upstarts. Meanwhile, the last two weeks of voter registration coincided with spring break at the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel. UPenn was where Obama had the largest number of student organizers.
The groudswell of students Obama brought into the process is wonderful. I plan to eventually tap into this group and find someone who can run as a college student voice on Philadelphia City Council for the West Philly and Temple areas. We tend to forget how many students are self-funded, like myself, and therefore poor. I think a student voice representing as a councilperson-at-large would also be another voice for Philadelphia's poor. (No, this is not a pitch to run myself.) However, the campaign failed to ignite longtime activists whose history in the City that Loves You Back predated Progressive Philly. In that, Obama's campaign left a lot of free radicals and lost registration organizers in the crucial last weeks.
People in charge of programs at non-profits tend to be very passionate about their area of expertise. This is a passion which breeds necessity when it comes to quiet political alignments. Getting in front of a candidate before they are in office can make a world of difference for those particular non-profit programs. In an ideal world, (which too many Deaniacs and Obamabots believe they live in because they come from upper class backgrounds and have never been in survival mode), non-profit programming and policy wonks would not have such tunnel vision. We would be tying global warming to solutions for giving inner city residents jobs. Unfortunately, fighting for that type of broad vision means tilting wind mails; when one works with the poor, there is no time for that. (I believe Republicans understand that so they do things to put those of us in the trenches on the defense instead of the offense.)
These are the sort of on the ground factors that tilt the race for more established politicians.
One of the big failures of Barack Obama himself is that he has not advertised the great successes that have happened in the areas he worked as an organizer, among his core group of supporters. I know because I went to a high school which benefited from the direct result of Barack Obama's organizing in the area.
Thornwood High School in South Holland, where I attended as an out of district student (coming in illegally from the City of Chicago) has the following statistics: 75% African-American, 38% of students below the poverty line and a 96% graduation rate tracking students from freshman entry to senior graduation. One of the goals of the school now is to reach 50% student matriculation into 4 year colleges. Every year, they get closer to that goal. What majority African-American school can boast those statistics? Obama did a great deal of organizing in South Holland when it was going through white flight to keep a racial balance and keep support of the school district strong as the town underwent demographic changes.
There are many stories like this on the South Side that the Obama campaign has failed to tell and have a direct relation to policy. I believe he would be just as good as Hillary in this area. However, when others read the subtext of funding in the Hillary agenda, they can't afford to think so openly. I wonder if can either, sometimes.
It makes me happy that I can't do work on campaigns anymore.