Did the GOP Attack on Community Organizing Backfire?

In a column on September 14, titled “Community Organizing Changed Fishery,” John Corrigan, the fishing writer for the Concord Monitor, explained that “anybody who has caught a fish at Sewalls […]

In a column on September 14, titled “Community Organizing Changed Fishery,” John Corrigan, the fishing writer for the Concord Monitor, explained that “anybody who has caught a fish at Sewalls Falls over the last two decades has witnessed the value of community organizing. Without the efforts of members of Trout Unlimited (TU), the New Hampshire Wildlife Federation and other grassroots recreational and conservation organizations, one of Concord’s most prized assets would be a flatwater reservoir backed up behind a hydroelectric dam.”

Fisher’s essay made for just a small sampling of the tidal wave of columns, articles, blog comments, editorials, letters to the editor and other reactions to the Republican Party’s attack on community organizing at their St. Paul convention.

As outlined in Alice Chasan’s recent Rooflines post, the Republicans had expected that their orchestrated attack on Barack Obama’s community organizing efforts in Chicago would link the Democratic candidate in Americans’ minds with inner cities, the poor, racial minorities, troublemakers and radicals.

But, unwittingly, the Republican attacks have helped to introduce Americans to the relatively invisible work of the organizers who get paid to help millions of people improve their families and communities through grassroots activism.

Their nasty remarks at their convention in St. Paul two weeks ago — by former New York Gov. George Pataki, former NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and VP nominee Sarah Palin — triggered a blizzard of newspaper articles and editorials, radio talk show discussions, emails and blogosphere commentary. Since then, stories about and columns by community organizers have multiplied — describing, explaining, defending and criticizing what organizers do and the role of community organizing in American life. Various community organizing networks, including the Center for Community Change, DART, Gamaliel, and ACORN, issued statements explaining the importance of community organizing, reminding Giuliani that he was often the target of organizing groups, and chastising Palin, a former PTA volunteer, for denigrating the millions of community volunteers in urban, rural and suburban areas of the country.

So, thanks Republicans! For the first time in memory, America is having a national conversation about community organizing

Among the many reactions was an op-ed column by Deepak Bhargava, head of the Center for Community Change, that appeared in Sunday in The New York Times under the headline “Organizing Principles.” Bhargava focused on the work of Hugh Espey, an organizer with Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement. Bhargava wrote: “On a typical day, he might help low-income residents of Des Moines organize to keep a neighborhood grocery store open or work with family farmers to persuade a state agency to deny a permit for a proposed factory farm, or meet with Mexican families in Marshalltown about ways to advance immigration reform. He brings various constituencies together to find common ground, build relationships and support each other’s causes.”

Other organizers and their supporters have recently contributed op-ed columns in papers across the country. These included Boston organizer Lew Finfer (“Community Organizers are a Staple of Democracy”) in Newsday, Seattle Urban League CEO James Kelly and organizer Tony Lee (“No call to belittle community work”) in The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Syracuse organizer Andres Dae Keun Kwon (“Community Organizing Defines U.S.”) in the Syracuse Post-Standard, Little Rock organizer Bill Kopsky (“Community Organizing’s Long History”) in the Arkansas Times, University of Minnesota professor and activist Harry Boyte (“The Peculiar Attack on Community Organizing,”) in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and Michael Rosenfeld, who works with a faith-based coalition (“Don’t bash community organizers; they epitomize our democracy” in the Desert Sun in Palm Springs, California.

Regular newspaper columnists weighed in, too, among them Jill Lawrence (“Community Organizer Slams Attract Support for Obama”) in USA Today, Dareen Garnick from The Boston Herald, Rex Huppke in the Chicago Tribune, Stan Simpson in the Hartford Courant, Ann Fisher from Ohio’s Columbus Dispatch, Cathy McKitrick from the Salt Lake Tribune and Bill Vogrin from the Colorado Springs Gazette.

The Republican remarks so offended Time magazine columnist Joe Klein, author of several books on American politics, that he penned “What a Community Organizer Does” on Sept. 4, which generated hundreds of reader comments.

In response to the GOP attacks, Newsweek published an interview with Jerry Kellman, who recruited Obama to his organizing job in Chicago in the earlyl 1980s. The piece, called “Service Changes People’s Character,” ran on September 5. The Boston Globe reporter Irene Sege interviewed local organizers for her Sept. 6 article, “Community Organizers Fault Comments at GOP Gathering”). New York Times reporter David Gonazales interviewed organizers for an article (“Bronx Organizers React to G.O.P. Punch Lines”) on September 4.His Times colleague Tobin Harshaw wrote a piece (“Parsing ‘Community Organizer’”) on Sept. 5 examining the Republicans’ political motives for their orchestrated put-downs of grassroots activism. New York Daily News reporter Michael Saul’s Sept. 5 article, “Community groups hammer Rudy Giuliani & Slam Sarah Palin,” included quotes from several organizers as well as one from Marvin Olasky, a former adviser to President Bush and provost at Christian-oriented King’s College, located in the Empire State Building, who said that community organizing is “somewhat of a euphemism for leftist change.”

Several newspapers published editorials chastising the Republicans for their mocking attacks on community organizing. Among them were the Boston Globe (“Urban organizer, Ha Ha Ha!,” September 7); the Selma Times-Herald (“Organizing is Honorable Work”, September 5); and the Las Vegas Sun (“Heart of a Country,” September 12), which reminds readers that “community organizers give of themselves every day to improve people’s lives.”

Conservative political pundit Michael Barone joined the GOP chorus with a column. “Why Should Palin and Voters Be Reverent Toward Obama’s Community Organizing?” for the Sept. 8 issue of U.S. News & World Report.

Blogger Geoffrey Dickens wrote an interesting piece, “Matthews: Is ‘Community Organizer’ The New ‘Welfare Queen?’”, on the Web site on Sept. 9.

These and other columns, articles and editorials — as well as many radio and TV stories — sparked thousands of letters to the editor and blog comments.

These are just a small sample of the reactions to the GOP attacks on Obama’s community organizing experience, which included Pataki’s sneering comment toward Obama’s profession 20 years ago (“What in God’s name is a community organizer? I don’t even know if that’s a job.”) Giuliani’s mock (“He worked as a community organizer. What? Maybe this is the first problem on the résumé.”) and Palin’s put-down (“I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer, except that you have actual responsibilities.”).

Within hours, Obama released a statement and a fund-raising appeal, challenging the Republicans who “mocked, dismissed, and actually laughed out loud at Americans who engage in community service and organizing.” His campaign manager David Plouffe sent another fundraising e-mail, saying, “Let’s clarify something for them right now. Community organizing is how ordinary people respond to out-of-touch politicians and their failed policies.”

The Obama campaign raised more money in the few days after the GOP convention than they had during the entire campaign season!

The storm of articles, columns and protest forced John McCain to backtrack. “Of course I respect community organizers,” McCain, said at a forum at Columbia University on September 11, in response to a question about whether he agreed with the attacks on organizers at the convention. “Of course I respect people who serve their communities. Senator Obama’s service in that area is outstanding.”

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