Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Texas Dispatch: Obama Did in Houston (and for Ohio and Indiana and New Mexico) What Gore and Kerry Failed to Do

Houston's often ignored Fifth Ward gives us a peek into how the gears in the Obama machine mesh. It's a remarkable revelation, but no surprise to community organizers:
If Obama wins, it will be largely because he is a community organizer. No one understands that background better than the African-American community in Houston’s Fifth Ward, the historic black neighborhood roughly north of the Ship Channel and east of State Highway 59. Obama is the first presidential candidate to set up a campaign office in the Fifth Ward.

The Fifth Ward has been organized for a long time, says Bob Lee, a long-time community organizer. In 1944, Lonnie Smith, a Fifth Ward dentist, filed a lawsuit to vote in the Democratic primaries that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Barbara Jordan and Mickey Leland went to Congress on the shoulders of Fifth Ward civic leaders, educators and organizers.

Bob Lee’s younger brother, El Franco Lee, has been Harris County Commissioner for Precinct 1 for twenty years. Franco Lee seldom faces a serious opponent. (He’s running against a Libertarian this year.) In large part this is because Lee provides so many services to the community. His brother Bob has worked ceaselessly with the poor, scrounging up clothes and food and furniture and jobs for those in need. Community organizers work all the time, not just at election time.

During the primaries, Obama came to Houston to meet with El Franco Lee. Al Gore never made it. John Kerry made a phone call but never followed through.

On Sunday, I spent a couple of hours watching the organization in action. Volunteers spent the morning phoning voters in battleground Ohio. By the afternoon they were through with Ohio and moving on to Indiana. It was impossible to tell how many were working, because many were making the calls from home. A busload of volunteers had left for swing-state New Mexico. Another carried 74 people to Ohio.

The field organizer for the Fifth Ward headquarters is Deidre Rasheed, a calm, low-key woman who worked for Kerry’s campaign in 2004. Rasheed said the Kerry campaign gave her handwritten lists of voters to work with. This year, when you make phone calls for Obama, you get a computer printout with the names and phone numbers, and each voter entry has a bar-code label.Obama personally trained the field organizers at the top levels of the campaign, Rasheed says. “The whole model was organized by Obama himself.”

The top organizers in turn trained the next layers of organizers. Everyone gets the same training. This is a fundamental principle of community organizing and will, thanks to the success of this campaign, be fundamental to political organizing for a long time to come. It carried Obama through the Iowa caucuses and will likely carry him to the White House.

Did Kerry have a trainer to train her? I asked Rasheed.

“No,” she said, rolling her eyes in disbelief. “Kerry wasn’t organized. Obama has a machine.”
Wow. Paying attention to the previously ignored can have significant implications; or to put it simply: from small things, mama, big things one day come.

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