Saturday, April 19, 2008

More on Taking the War to the Election

Photo: Brownsville, Fayette County, PA, on 'the Mon.'

Making Connections
in Fayette County, PA

By Carl Davidson

If you're going to work against the war in this election and beyond, you have to get outside your comfort zones and meet new people.

That's the idea we had in mind as we put a stack of Peace Voter Guides in our car and headed 70 miles south to Fayette County, PA, along the Monongahela River, past the rolling hills of farms, small factories and old coal mining country.

We were off to see Sister James Ann Germuska, a Franciscan nun who runs a social service agency for the elderly in the little town of Brownsville, PA, not too far from the California University of Pennsylvania.

Before we got 500 feet down Route 18, though, we saw one of our neighbors outside. He'd just put up 'Vote Out All Incumbents' signs in his front yard, and was busily adding 'Obama 2008' signs along with them. So we did a quick U-Turn, and introduced ourselves. There was a young man from the local campaign office with him. Turned out the neighbor knows my brother from the Volunteer Fire Department, so we became fast allies, and left him a bunch of voter guides. This inspired my partner on the trip to keep a running tally of yard signs all along the route to Brownsville and back.

We had found Sister James Ann online at with a search for people interested in Obama, but outside the campaign. When I plunked in my zip code, up popped Sister James Ann with a message that she would really like to do something, but she's in charge of a 501C3, and has restrictions. I blocked her name and trusty Google returned the name and phone number of her agency. I called to tell her I have just what's needed for 501C3s to work the election.

Brownsville would make a lovely picture postcard in any weather, and it was a gorgeous day. The town runs along 'The Mon', as it's called around here, and the streets run up the sides of steep hills. Sister James Ann's place--a substantial operation-- is near the top.

Inside we were greeted by Louise Hicks, the administrative assistant, who was a little puzzled as we explained who we are, and talked about voter guides. Then I mentioned my talk with the sister on the phone, and at the word, 'Obama,' everything lights up, 'Oh! Stay right here, I'll find her. She definitely wants to talk to you!'

We talked for an hour, covering a lot of ground. I explained that the voter guides are fairly straightforward in that they just rate the three candidates on the war. 'That's all right,' says Sister, 'we know just what to do with them. We can use more for the NAACP here, too. She sent me to the car for more for Hicks, who's also active in the African American community.

Stopping the war is at the top of these women's priorities, but Obama's wider program fires them up. 'I can't stand Clinton, and forget about McCain--and everyone knows where I stand,” says Sister James Ann, clearly a strong woman who speaks her mind. They told us how they drove for hours to Penn State in the central mountains to attend the rally of 22,000.

“We got up front, within a few feet of him,” said Hicks. “He was wonderful,” added Sister. “We desperately need new leadership. With the downturn in the economy and the cutbacks, we're suffering here. . . We need change in a big way.” I noted that Obama is certainly charismatic, and she knows the definition of that term: touched by grace. “Yes! Exactly, and a lot of it!” she laughed in reply, adding that many local students are enthusiastic for the campaign, mainly around stopping the war. “See if you can get him here, and if not him, then Michelle, and if not her, then YOU come back.” I laughed that I'm hardly in the same league, but we'll see what happens.

We left Brownsville with the approaching evening, and took a short detour to a smaller place called Fredericktown, also along 'The Mon.' One of my partner's Grandfathers back in the late 1700s ran a ferry there. As we come off the hill and down into the little river town, there's the ferry, still running, just pulling out, and we snapped a picture of it. How cool is that?

She kept counting yard signs on that way back-first Hillary up by one, then Obama, very few McCain signs, for some reason, since he still has support here. Then just as we neared home, we saw two new ones for Obama, and he squeaked over the top for the day. Hopefully, it's a sign of things to come.

At the end of the day, we got out 1000 voters guides, we have new connections in the neighborhood, and we have more allies in the religious, peace and African American communities. Working an election isn't just about votes, if you go about it in the right way. And it's not rocket science, just get outside your comfort zone, keep your eyes on the prize, and see what happens.


betterthannader said...

i'm a little confused--how exactly is obama supposed to be an 'anti-war' candidate? he won't commit to withdrawing all the troops by 2012, he'll only withdraw 'combat troops' but a Dem think tank says that will mean leaving tens of thousands of troops there, he won't withdraw any of the mercenaries (i heard over a hundred thousand, i think it was closer to 200,000), he's voted for the major Repub requests for more war funding (i heard over 30 billion dollars), he wants to increase the already bloated/wasteful military budget. Exactly how is that anti-war?

Carl Davidson said...

It's Obama's whole package that can be confusing, not us.

If you'll read our initial call, as well as some of the critiques we've put out of Obama's positions on the war, you'll see we aren't satisfied with them, and may share some of your views.

Still, of the three, we say Obama's the 'best option,' for ending the war and other things, even if he doesn't take a clear-cut 'Out Now' position. There's many differences that make a difference between him and McCain, and if you can't see that, then we simply disagree in our assessment, and we're not on the same page regarding our options in this election.

Unlike either McCain or Hillary, Obama, in every recent speech across PA, asserts that he'll end the war in 2009, and gets standing ovations from working-class and youth audiences when he does. He's setting conditions for tremendous expectations of him to do so, and McCain is doing the opposite. No matter who is in the White House in 2009, we will have to mobilize from below to keep the heat on around 'Out Now.' We'd rather be doing it with Obama in the Oval Office than McCain. It's not rocket science.

We are independent of the campaign, even as we want to see Obama win. That means we don't have to defend every up and down of his positions, some of which I think are irrelevancies written up for Beltway wonks and pundits, and we don't. We let him know every way we can that the clearer line he takes on 'Out Now,' the more support he will get. That doesn't apply to every foreign policy issue, but it does to the Iraq war.

betterthannader said...

Dear Mr. Davidson:

Thank you for taking the time to respond to my comment. I agree that there are differences between Senator Obama and Senator McCain, their stated positions on the war in Iraq being one. However, that is not my concern. My concern is the great differences (not just in rhetoric but in deeds) between McCain, Clinton and Obama on the one hand, and anything remotely resembling the interests of the country & world on the other. What is important is what Obama does in office, not what people expect him to do or what they applaud him for talking about.

I also agree that regardless of who wins we need to press our elected representatives (of all political affiliations) to start standing up for us and end the war, but I do not see how backing down on this or other important issues now, when voters have the greatest potential to influence politicians and give them mandates, achieves anything but allowing them to continue representing corporate interests over Americans' interests.

I would very much like to understand how it is that you "let [Obama] know every way [you] can that the clearer line he takes on 'Out Now,' the more support he will get"--especially, at the same time as telling people to give him more support regardless. It is very true that Obama will get more support if he takes a clear stance on this (and some other) issues, but the only people I see who are letting him know that in a language politicians understand are the people who refuse to vote for him as long as he refuses to take on and fight for those stances. There is a great limit to the effectiveness of "urging" if it is only backed up with empty threats.

Finally, I hope I misunderstood your statement, but I am a little disturbed by the implication that if I do not agree on what our "options" are (the three corporate candidates?) then we'll just have to disagree--as if you are not interested in debate or hearing viewpoints you disagree with. It's bad enough that the 'major' candidates avoid substantive debate, we don't need that among voters as well. Again, I hope I misunderstood that statement.

Thanks again for your time and response.

Carl Davidson said...

We're not 'backing down' on opposing the war one bit, now or after November. We will keep the heat on all candidates, including Obama, and elected officials, including the next resident of the White House, to stop the war immediately.

Besides protests in the streets, politicians usually pay attention to two things--organized money and organized voters. We don't have much money, but we can organize voters, inside and outside the parties and the campaigns, into antiwar blocs. 'Progressives for Obama' is one example of that, but not the only way to do it.

Early in a campaign you may get some clout if you have an organized bloc and hold back, but after a point, that turns completely around. I'd say now, no candidate has much interest in you if you are neither a 'persuadable' nor a 'deliverable',and certainly not just as a lone individual holding positions that will cost the candidate more votes than he or she can expect to gain. By pulling together an influential bloc that is both persuadable and deliverable, and outside any campaign discipline, we have some ability, however large or small, to be adapted to.

I assume you're talking about Nader or McKinney on your last point, or one of the socialist parties. I have no objection to people running on these tickets or people voting for them, to register a protest or party-build for the future. Those are understandable aims, but they are not mine in this election. My aim is to defeat McCain, and that will only be done this year by a Democrat. I was a Green in Chicago, where we had open primaries, but here in my part of PA, there are no Greens, and the primary is closed, so I work with PDA, which is hardly part of the Dem machine.

If you want, there is a way to work for Nader and still help defeat McCain. You simply don't vote alone, but bring large numbers of new antiwar voters to the polls, whether they agree with you or not. That way, with every vote for your candidate, you also add several votes for Obama and against McCain. It's the best we can do until we get IRV or preferential balloting. But if you don't care whether you help McCain and hurt Obama, then we part company, at least for this campaign.

As for 'substantive debate', I actually think Obama would prefer it, but so long as the infotainment business is in charge, focused on shock value to boost ratings and increase ad revenues, there's little serious debate possible even if all candidates were to appear, including the minor parties. It merely turns a three-ring circus into an eight-ring circus. More serious discussion take place in the blogosphere and policy journals, or in local meetings of the people themselves.

I don't know if this helps or not, but I'm being as straightforward as I can.

kathy said...

You write:
"We don't have much money, but we can organize voters, inside and outside the parties and the campaigns, into antiwar blocs. 'Progressives for Obama' is one example of that, but not the only way to do it."
Can you please give some concrete examples of strategies you are using to organize voters into "anti-war blocs"? Besides a blog- which I'm not sure i understand how you are using this as an organizing tool?
what do you mean by an anti-war bloc anyway? How will such a "bloc" concretely apply pressure on the candidate? Give me an example of tactics? anything outside of people showing up at Obama rallies who are also anti-war??? if so, I don't see how this constitutes an "organizing of voters" to apply pressure??? educate me?

Carl Davidson said...

I can give several examples, but Chicago, where I lived and worked for many years, until recently, provides the clearest.

In 2004, we decided to build our own 'antiwar bloc' called Peace and Justice Voters.

We started by training and deputized 1000 new voter registrars, who in turn went out and registered 20,000 new voters.

We did this on our own, with no connection to the Dems. We keep copies of all the new voter lists, and put them in our own databases.

When we lobbied local officials on the war, we let them know of our base in their districts. We used this to get a second resolution vs the war through the City Council. We also used our lists and PJVoter volunteers to get the 'Out Now' resolution on the ballot in 2006. From that we got a vote of 800,000, or 81 to 19 percent in the city.

Now we could alse break that down by Congressional district, and use the 'bloc' of those numbers, and we did so.

One group grew out of this work, in part, Near West Side Citizens for Peace and Justice. they took these 'antiwar bloc' numbers--actual precinct tallies, not an opinion poll--to Rep Lipinsky, to put some heat of him. He budged a little, but not enough.

So in the recent primary, NWCPJ put a resolution to cut war funding on the ballot. It also won by 70 percent, and now they are using this 'antiwar bloc' to bring more pressure.

Voters acting in this 'bloc' way belongs to NWCPJ, not the Dems, even if they voted for Dem candidates. NWCPJ educated and organized them, they put the issue on the ballot, and they won the outcome.

In this case, PJVOTERS, we were nonpartisan, in that we didn't endorse Kerry, but worked for the defeat of Bush. We had Dems, Greens and Reds all working together, and to endorse Kerry would have split us. so we just called for Bush's defeat, and got people to the polls. Most voted for Kerry, but some voted for Greens.

This is what you have to do to engage in ANY KIND of politics that relates to voters and voting. The right wing has been doing it for decades, inside and outside the GOP. It's how they grew in strength.

If progressives, Greens, socialists, whatever, want to develop as a political force to contend for power, rather than just remain an oppositional single-issue, or cluster of issues, pressure group, it's high time we got out of the sandbox and learned to play with the big kids and grownups, too.

As for the P4O blog here, it's a public face and a clearinghouse to report on local grassroots efforts, hopefully similar to PJVoters, and, in doing so, inspire more to come into being, and to link them for cross-fertilization. It also links a number of PDA chapters and committees, and other groups as well. At present, we're rather modest, but we'll see what comes of it, since we're growing.

betterthannader said...

Dear Mr. Davidson:

I applaud your efforts for the anti-war movement on the local level. That said, your description of these activities only appear to have been particularly effective at the level of local government. I still don't understand how you are concretely putting pressure on Mr. Obama.

If you have the time, I would very much recommend reading the letter from Peter Camejo to Medea Benjamin about what progressives actually often achieve when supporting the Democrat corporate candidate. It's posted here.

Carl Davidson said...

We worked on all levels--city, county, state, congress, and the 2004 presidential campaign. Local is a good focus, especially if you're a local group, Chicago in this case, Beaver County PA in my current work, or part of it. Even so, national matters ARE local matters. That's why we put the war on local ballots, support local antiwar candidates, etc.

I know Peter Camejo, and understand his position fairly well. Basically, he's saying that to defeat the two-party system, you have to first defeat the Democrats, and to defeat the Democrats, you have to stress defeating the best of them, and to defeat the best of them, you have to defeat their defenders in the left and progressive mass movements.

That's why he goes after Medea, and others, in the way he does. If Peter makes a distinction between those of us who will vote for a Democrat from time to time to defeat a greater evil, and someone who 'supports the Democratic party as the way forward' or a 'the solution to our problems', then I'm unaware of it.

I would argue that Peter's way is neither the best way to build a third party nor the best way to break up the Democrats as the type of coalition they have become, and have been in the past.

I share both of those strategic goals, and believe I'm moving forward on them as least as successfully, if not more so, than him.

This debate has been going on for at least 50 years. I'm much more interested in looking at it in a new way, the 'high road' nonpartisan electoral grassroots alliance, rather than rehashing the old yawners once again.

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