December 6, 2008
Obama volunteers look to channel election energy to local issues
Local Democrats still glowing from Barack Obama's victory in November gathered in Downtown Racine Saturday in hopes of channeling momentum from the presidential election to local causes.
About 70 people turned out for the initial organizing event for Yes We Can Racine, the new organization that's forming around the volunteer-base Obama's campaign left behind. The event drew dozens of campaign volunteers and was even held at Blueberries in the old Century Market Building - former home to the Obama's local campaign.
The initial meeting laid out a map for where the organization was headed. A national organizing meeting at O'Hare Airport in Chicago ran concurrent to the local meeting. Both groups - national and local organizers - are trying to figure out how to build off of Obama's victory.
In Racine County, Obama flipped Bush's victory margin from 2004. Bush won Racine County 51.6 to 47.5 in 2004. Obama won the county 53-46.
Locally, Kelly Gallaher and Tony Loyd have emerged as leaders of the new organization. While Loyd attended the national meeting in Chicago, Gallaher led the Racine meeting. She was joined by local volunteers and Democratic elected officials in laying out plans for the group.
After Gallaher welcomed the crowd, local organizer Diana Kovacs recapped the successful presidential election and Renee Lee talked about the joy Obama's victory brought to her life.
Rep. Cory Mason, D-Racine, dug into obscure U.S. history in talking about Frances Perkins, a progressive member of President Franklin Roosevelt's cabinet. Perkins, Secretary of Labor, wanted to make a number of important changes to enhance worker rights. Roosevelt supported her, but said she needed to rally the public to make it politically possible. "Organize people and make me do it," Roosevelt told Perkins about the changes.
She followed through by bringing the Labor movement into the New Deal and ended playing an important role in passing a minimum wage law and creating the Social Security system.
Mason related to the story to the present by saying Obama is in a similar situation. He supports progressive change, but the change has to come from the people.
The challenge for Yes We Can Racine is retaining the volunteers who worked for Obama, and then focusing them on local issues. Gallaher admitted during the meeting it's unclear how the group is going to do that. They handed out a survey to people in attendance to gauge support for a variety of issues, and suggested they would retain the "team" concept used by Obama's campaign.
But from the meeting it's clear the organization is an unformed lump of batter at the moment. What form it takes, and what gets it cooking, is still up for debate.
The hope comes from the people who attended. Several elected officials and candidates attended the meeting including: Mason, Sen. John Lehman, Dennis Wiser, Julie McKenna, Keith Heck, Paulette Garin and John Dickert (apologies to anyone I missed). The organization has the attention of influential people in the community, and that could sustain it beyond Obama's inauguration.
One concern is the minimal presence of the minority communities at the meeting. Part of the success of the Obama campaign on a local level was it brought people of different backgrounds together around a common cause. Yes We Can Racine needs to do that same.
If you've seen the Insider News in recent months, you may have read a series of columns by former JT Editor Randolph Brandt titled, "10 Steps to Save A City." Each column focused on the racial divide in Racine, and a step we could take to heal that divide. It's powerful stuff and a clear map for an organization searching for a way to make a lasting difference in our city.
In numbers and excitement alone, Saturday was a promising start for Yes We Can Racine. It's the most ambitious community organizing plan I've seen in the city in the last 10 years. Let's see how they build on a solid beginning.