News & Views from 465 California Street

Return of the Organizers

Clint Reilly

The lost art of political organizing is making a comeback.

Fifty years of redundant television spots, cookie cutter mailings and computer-dialed, pre-recorded phone messages have anesthetized voters. Paid political media is now a commodity, which consumers view with a skeptical eye.

Still, traditional political consultants – the image makers – continue to craft poll-tested homilies that echo voter concerns but sidestep unpopular solutions. The result is vanilla rhetoric and “me too-ism.” But voters are revolting against manufactured, wholesale campaigns. These new stakeholders demand a conversation, not a sermon. They resent being treated as passive bystanders. They seek personal involvement.

In this new political climate, many old-fashioned media consultants have found themselves marginalized, supplanted by the rising stars of politics: the organizers.

Bay Area native Averill “Ace” Smith is the prototype of the 21st-century political organizer. Before engineering two impressive Hillary Clinton victories in California and Texas, Smith was the architect of Jerry Brown’s winning Attorney General campaign and Antonio Villaraigosa’s successful run for mayor of Los Angeles.

By focusing on retail politics where voter-to-voter contact can make the difference between victory and defeat, Smith finds friendly votes that might never have been cast. He mounted a massive vote-by-mail effort to turn back a tough challenge from Barack Obama in California. A short time later, he put Bill Clinton on the back of a pickup truck with a bale of hay as a podium to crisscross rural Texas signing up early voters by the tens of thousands – literally on the tailgate.

Obama’s citizen army – not superior television commercials – has given him the lead in the presidential sweepstakes. His campaign’s emphasis on intense organizing in caucus states has provided decisive victories over a media-driven Clinton strategy. Obama’s online organizing is just as strong, highlighted by an Internet fundraising juggernaut that has yielded almost unlimited resources and far outpaced his rivals.

Community and labor organizers have been the keepers of the flame even as mass-media strategies began to dominate the American political scene. Ironically, both Clinton and Obama have connections to the most respected community organizer of the modern era, Saul Alinsky.

As a senior at Wellesley in 1969, Clinton wrote her senior thesis on Alinsky. Obama was himself a Chicago community organizer where Alinsky worked extensively and had some of his greatest triumphs.

In his book Rules for Radicals, Alinsky taught techniques for mobilizing citizens to demand and create social change. He wrote, “The Prince was written by Machiavelli for the ‘Haves’ on how to hold power. Rules for Radicals is written for the ‘Have Nots’ on how to take it away.”

To this end, Alinsky founded the Industrial Areas Foundation, which helped local communities and groups across America organize themselves to improve living conditions and promote equality.

One of his organizers was Fred Ross Sr., who helped create the Community Service Organization. CSO helped Los Angeles Latinos mount a registration drive that elected California’s first Latino Congressman since 1879, Edward Roybal.

Ross Sr. also discovered and trained a young Mexican-American farm worker – Cesar Chavez – who started the United Farmworkers Union. Ross and Chavez inspired a new generation of organizers who later disbursed to every corner of the American labor movement. Today, his son – Fred Ross Jr. – is leading the drive to unionize health workers at California’s last Catholic hospital chain without union employees.

As political media grows increasingly stale and homogenized, committed organizers are returning to campaigns and mobilizing real voters to walk precincts, phone their neighbors, contribute money and turn out the vote.

Democracy comes full circle.

Comments (3)

  • Irnoically, this organizing expertise is on behalf of an inexperienced, untested candidate whose thin resume and condescending atittudes insure he cannot win in a general election. What the Democrats must learn is the horse goes before the cart. First a candidate who can win, not a Kerry or Dukakis. This means broad appeal, not just to the latte sippers in S.F., Manhattan and Hollywood. Then comes the organizing.

    Posted by: Jerry Carroll | April 15th, 2008 at 1:45 pm

  • Clint, I was always under the impression that Fred Ross Sr. was trained by Alinsky. I was corrected by Dolores Huerta. She says Ross had no formal relationship to Alinsky but was self-trained.

    Father Boyle

    Posted by: Father Gene Boyle | April 15th, 2008 at 3:24 pm

  • From what I’ve seen in the last 2 presidential elections inexperienced, untested and condescending seem to do quite well . On the other hand black, intelligent, thoughtful and well spoken might not.

    Posted by: Bob Snider | April 15th, 2008 at 10:10 pm

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