Friday, April 09, 2004

My column in the Third Coast Press on the amazing Obama victory

I'd refer you to the website, but editor Rik Adamski (who has done a great job leading the team that is creating this monthly paper) is holding off on an electronic version.

Here's the column:

State Senator Barack Obama’s unexpected landslide victory in the Democratic primary election is a political earthquake. It is the most exciting progressive victory in a statewide primary in 20 years and it opens up incredible opportunities for the progressive wing of the Illinois Democratic Party. The majority coalition of the party – blacks, progressive whites and independent Latinos – is in a better position to work against the pernicious effects of the patronage machines that exclude new people, tolerate corruption and thus sap away enthusiasm and identification with the Democratic Party.

First, the amazing numbers. Senator Obama earned more than 52% of the vote – more than 650,000 votes total. More people voted for Obama than all the other Democratic candidate combined – and just about as many votes as all the Republican candidates combined. To reiterate the point, the 1.3 million Illinois voters were split about evenly into three groups: Republicans, non-Obama Democrats and Obama supporters.

In Chicago, Obama earned just below 300,000 votes -- two out of every three votes cast by Democrats -- while most of the party establishment supported Dan Hynes’ campaign. His numbers were similar in suburban Cook County, almost two out of every three votes, with huge margins in white, affluent suburbs. When was the last time an unabashedly progressive black candidate earned the enthusiastic support of whites, blacks, high-income, low-income, Latinos and even some Downstate counties (Obama won Sangamon, Champaign, Jackson, McDonough, Kankakee and Iroqouis Counties)? The answer is: never. This is the first time something like that has happened in Illinois, and it is one of our proudest moments.

Obama represents what is best about the Democratic Party: multi-racial, principled, idealistic and rooted in using government to raise our living standard. His stunning victory is an opportunity for progressives to invest in the Democratic Party with a leader who inspires.

The primary illuminated a disconnect between some of the Democratic Party establishment and Democratic Party voters. The Chair of the Illinois Democratic Party (and Speaker of the House) Michael Madigan, Cook County Board President John Stroger, Congressman Bill Lipinski, Cook County Finance Committee Chair (and Mayoral Brother) John Daley, the older labor unions that dominate the AFL-CIO – they all endorsed Dan Hynes’ campaign.

It’s easy to see the disconnect by looking at vote totals by ward. The city is divided into 50 wards of equal population (about 60,000 people). Each ward elects an alderman who serves in the City Council, but just as importantly, each ward elects a Democratic Party ward committeeman, a non-paid position, but the leader of the Democratic organization in the ward. These ward committeemen are far more important than they appear, because they help to determine the character of the Democratic Party – they are either inclusive and policy-driven, or they are exclusive and patronage-driven. Patronage organizations are the worst aspect of the Chicago Democratic Party as they compel people with government jobs to ‘volunteer’ for a political candidate – and this is a huge turn-off to voters.

Most of the ward organizations that supported Dan Hynes ended up losing – big – to Barack Obama. In the South Side 8th ward, Cook County Board President John Stroger is the ward committeeman. He backed Dan Hynes, but the 8th ward voters did not, casting 15,684 votes for Obama and 649 for Hynes. On the lakefront, from the Loop all the way up to around Foster Avenue, the organizations for the 42nd, 43rd, 44th and 46th wards all endorsed Dan Hynes – and most of the elected officials followed suit. Obama swept the entire lakefront with 70%+ of the vote. (The 48th and 49th ward organizations endorsed Obama). On the Northwest Side, where ever-more progressives are moving in and the long-time residents are flexing more independent muscle, only the 35th ward organization led by Alderman Rey Colon endorsed Obama – all the rest went another way, and Obama still won them all (except for the 31st ward, where the non-endorsed Gery Chico won!).

What this means is that the internal structure of the Democratic Party is changing. Old machine-style politics where ward organizations could “deliver” votes to the annoited candidates is dwindling. An attractive, qualified, progressive candidate that can get his or her message to voters will trump an organization – even when an organization is actively working for another campaign. The overnight forest of Dan Hynes signs is a testament to the sticking power of the patronage organizations – but signs don’t vote.
This is an important lesson, because the perception of invincibility is one of the most powerful tools at the organization’s disposal. If we think that we can’t beat the patronage organizations, then we won’t try. If we think that the only way to participate in politics is through the organizations, then we’ll never get involved. Until the poll closed on Election Day and I saw the results in the 35th precinct of the 43rd ward where Obama earned 122 votes to Dan Hynes’ 18, I believed that the machine could still pull out a victory. I was still intimidated by the organization and would have been happy with a second-place finish for Obama. After all, I surmised, if all the elected officials and the ward organization is behind Dan Hynes, what chance do we have? The machine always wins, so I thought. And that thinking is now obsolete!

The Obama victory is an engraved invitation to every progressive to engage with the Democratic Party. We’ve learned that if voters get enough information about a candidate’s qualifications and positions to make up their own mind, they will usually support the best candidate. Our job as progressives is to get that information about good candidates to voters. And the most methodical way to do that is to take the tools of the ward organizations – become a precinct organizer. There are between 300 and 700 votes in every precinct. You can find out which ward and precinct you are in on your voter registration card. You can get a map of your precinct and a poll sheet listing every registered voter in your precinct for free from the Chicago Board of Elections at their City Hall office on the first floor. And you can start knocking on the doors of your neighbors and asking them to vote for the best candidates.

There is no better way to win elections – and by electing progressive crusaders like Barack Obama, lifting the living standards of millions of people – than by methodically talking to neighbors, giving them information about the candidates and the voting process, and then asking them to vote for the good guys.

In this time of great potential change and progressive reform in the Illinois Democratic Party, we need more precinct organizers who will persistently work on building our majority, one voter at a time.

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