Monday, July 21, 2008

More Voices for Obama

From March 23rd, 2008


After Barack Obama graduated from Harvard Law School he could have easily gotten a high paying job as a corporate lawyer or clerk for a federal judge. Instead he returned to Chicago to run the Illinois branch of Project Vote!, a national non-profit group dedicated to increasing voter engagement and participation in low-income and minority communities. Obama proceeded to add over 150,000 low-income and minority voters to the voting rolls.

In this essay I want to focus on a article that appeared in the Chicago Magazine in 1993 entitled "Vote of Confidence" and the need for brining more voices into the process so we can help not only elect Barack Obama but fundamentally alter the electoral landscape.

In the final, climactic buildup to November's general election, with George Bush gaining ground on Bill Clinton in Illinois and the once-unstoppable campaign of senatorial candidate Carol Moseley Braun embroiled in allegations about her mother's Medicare liability, one of the most important local stories managed to go virtually unreported: The number of new voter registrations before the election hit an all-time high. And the majority of those new voters were black. More than 150,000 new African-American voters were added to the city's rolls. In fact, for the first time in Chicago's history-including the heyday of Harold Washington-voter registrations in the 19 predominantly black wards outnumbered those in the city's 19 predominantly white ethnic wards, 676,000 to 526,000.

The election, to some degree, turned on these totals: Braun and Clinton had almost unanimous support among blacks.

Think about that. Obama's first political experience was essentially winning two key campaigns for the Democrats, at once. That is not a easy job, especially in only six months. I think the DNC could learn a lesson or two from them in how to best use resources.

None of this, of course, was accidental. The most effective minority voter registration drive in memory was the result of careful handiwork by Project Vote!, the local chapter of a not-for-profit national organization. "It was the most efficient campaign I have seen in my 20 years in politics," says Sam Burrell, alderman of the West Side's 29th Ward and a veteran of many registration drives

And who was behind that drive. The same guy that is running for president now. Barack Obama

At the head of this effort was a little-known 31-year-old African-American lawyer, community organizer, and writer: Barack Obama. The son of a black Kenyan political activist and a white American anthropologist, Obama was born in Hawaii, received a degree in political science and English literature from Columbia University, and, in 1990, became the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review. In 1984, after Columbia but before Harvard, Obama moved to Chicago. "I came because of Harold Washington," he says. "I wanted to do community organizing, and I couldn't think of a better city than one as energized and hopeful as Chicago was then." He went to work for a South Side church-affiliated development group and "was heartened by the enthusiasm." But barely three years later, Washington died, and Obama, convinced he needed additional skills, enrolled at Harvard Law School. The African-American community he left, rent by political divisions and without a clear leader, went into a steep decline. By 1991, when Obama, law degree in hand, returned to Chicago to work on a book about race relations-having turned his back on the Supreme Court clerkship that is almost a given for the law review's top editor-black voter registration and turnout in the city were at their lowest points since record keeping began.

Six months after he took the helm of Chicago's Project Vote!, those conditions had been reversed.

To do that he changed the way that voter registration drives were run. Before it was a money game. This time it was about empowerment.

To understand the full implications of Obama's effort, you first need to understand how voter registration often has worked in Chicago. The Regular Democratic Party spearheaded most drives, doing so using one primary motivator: money. The party would offer bounties to registrars for every new voter they signed up (typically a dollar per registration). The campaigns did produce new voters. "But bounty systems don't really promote participation," says David Orr, the Cook County clerk, whose office is responsible for voter registration efforts in the Cook County suburbs. "When the money dries up, the voters drop out." Nor did the Democratic Party always vigorously push registration among minorities, Orr says. "It's not that they discouraged it. They just never worked hard to ensure it would happen."

Once Obama was on the job he got to work like he allways does. By putting all of his energy into the long term goal and working around the clock to get there.

Within a few months, Obama, a tall, affable workaholic, had recruited staff and volunteers from black churches, community groups, and politicians. He helped train 700 deputy registrars, out of a total of 11,000 citywide. And he began a saturation media campaign with the help of black-owned Brainstorm Communications. (The company's president, Terri Gardner, is the sister of Gary Gardner, president of Soft Sheen Products, Inc., which donated thousands of dollars to Project Voters efforts.) The group's slogan-"It's a Power Thing"-was ubiquitous in African-American neighborhoods. Posters were put up. Black-oriented radio stations aired the group's ads and announced where people could go to register. Minority owners of McDonald's restaurants allowed registrars on site and donated paid radio time to Project Vote! Labor unions provided funding, as, in late fall, did the Clin¬ton/Gore campaign, whose national voter-registration drive was being directed by Chicago alderman Bobby Rush.

"It was overwhelming," says Joseph Gardner, a commissioner of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District and the director of the steering committee for Project Vote! "The black community in this city had not been so energized and so single-minded since Harold died."

Burrell agrees. "We were registering hundreds a day, and we weren't having to search them out. They came looking for us. African Americans were just so eager to have a say again, to feel they counted."

"I think it's fair to say we reinvigorated a slumbering constituency," says Obama. "We got people to take notice."

And did people take note of that tall skinny kid? You bet they did!

Nor can Obama himself be ignored. The success of the voter-registration drive has marked him as the political star the Mayor should perhaps be watching for. "The sky's the limit for Barack," says Burrell.

Some of Daley's closest advisers are similarly impressed. "In its technical demands, a voter-registration drive is not unlike a mini-political campaign," says John Schmidt, chairman of the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority and a fundraiser for Project Vote! "Barack ran this superbly. I have no doubt he could run an equally good political campaign if that's what he decided to do next."

Obama shrugs off the possibility of running for office. "Who knows?" he says. "But probably not immediately." He smiles. "Was that a sufficiently politic 'maybe'? My sincere answer is, I'll run if I feel I can accomplish more that way than agitating from the outside. I don't know if that's true right now. Let's wait and see what happens in 1993. If the politicians in place now at city and state levels respond to African-American voters' needs, we'll gladly work with and support them. If they don't, we'll work to replace them. That's the message I want Project Vote! to have sent."

Let's read part of that again.

"The sky's the limit for Barack"

Indeed it is. Maybe no one thought that meant the presidency at that time but even back then people saw something in Obama. A commitment. A drive for social change. Obama has gotten were he is now because he knows the only way to affect real change is to organize people from the bottom up. That is what he has been doing his whole life. As a community organizer, as director of Project Vote, as a lawyer working with organizers, as a state senator, as a United States Senator and now in this presidential campaign. In all of those jobs he has been effective because he has empowered people. That is at the core of his philosophy and that is how he will bring change to this country.

But we have to be a part of that too. We have to be empowered. And we have been. But we have to bring more voices into the political process just like Barack did at Project Vote. We need to be Obama's fellow registrars. We need to be his fellow activists.

Tomorrow is the deadline for PA. That means we have ONE more day to get people registered as Democrats so they can vote for Barack. Here is what you can do:

If your living in Pennsylvania here is what you can do:


And if you are from out of state here is how you can help:

After that there are a lot of other states to work on. Indiana, North Carolina, Kentucky, West Virgina, Oregon, Guam, Puerto Rico , Montana and South Dakota. You can find out how to help in those states at a handy page Obama's campaign has set up here. But for tomorow focus on Pennsylvania.

Once we are done with the primaries there will be even more work to do though. We will have a real opportunity to register millions of new voters who will be empowered and then we will have a chance for a fundamental realignment and a new age of civic engagement. But only if we take action. It is to late at night to make calls so for tonight donate to the Obamathon and watch this great video about Barack's time at Project Vote.

"The future will not belong to those who stand on the sidelines." - Senator Paul Wellstone


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