By Carl Davidson
Progressives for Obama
Tractor pulls, tilt-a-whirls and dirt track motorcycle races aren’t the usual setting for a literature table featuring the Obama campaign. But the several thousand local residents who attend the annual Raccoon Township Fair here in Western Pennsylvania every June made it seem like a natural to us, especially after all the local turmoil over “white workers” in the recent Democratic Primary.
We set up our wares alongside others that featured local crafts by township women. The site was the Volunteer Fire Department Hall, next to the bingo games in the garage and the food concession in the kitchen, usually the site of the regular “Fish Fry” community fundraisers.
To the extent the township has a “village square,” the VFD buildings and grounds are it. Wedding, graduations and family reunions take place here, too.
We put up a big “4th CD Progressive Democrats of America” sign, together with plenty of Obama posters and literature, and “Healthcare not Warfare” petitions for the “Single Payer” health care plan in Rep. John Conyer’s (D-MI) HR676 Bill. The petitions are aimed at our local Member of Congress, Jason Altmire, to get on board. Last but not least, we set out everything we need to register new voters.
Raccoon Township is a semi-rural part of Beaver County, near the West Virginia and Ohio borders. It sits in rolling hills and hollows above the Ohio River among mill towns and historic strip mining areas. If you walk in the woods, you’ll really find raccoons and beavers. As for the deer, you don’t even have to go into the woods. They show up on the back roads and even in your back yard.
If “white workers” had a homeland, this township would be part of it. About 3600 people live in Raccoon, and larger numbers in the other townships and mill towns nearby. Some 99 percent are “white” and over 90 percent working class, with construction workers a large block, and a good number of retired workers from shut-down mills. But there are some new younger high-tech workers, too, from two local colleges and the Pittsburgh Airport “Tech Corridor.” The first here were the Scots-Irish and the Germans in the late 1700s, but now there’s plenty of Italians, Serbs and Croats, too. Democrats out-register Republicans two-to-one and out-vote them by a larger margin, and the Dems went 30 percent for Obama to Clinton’s 70 percent in the primary.
“That’s 30 percent we can build on,” said one older worker who stopped at the table five minutes after we were open. “This is terrific; I’m glad you’re here.” He had Obama signs in his yard along with one of his own, “Vote Out All Incumbents!” “It’ll be tight,” I reply, “but I think we can take it in November.”
Almost everyone was friendly, even if they didn’t agree with us. There were a few exceptions; one elderly woman told me I should “be ashamed’ for urging votes for a Black man. “No, I’m proud,” I replied, “he’s a decent man, and times are changing, we’re all God’s children, aren’t we?” She wasn’t convinced. “One of our Republicans,” a women who had been within earshot tells me, rolling her eyes.
By far our easiest sell was the “Single Payer” petition. People hardly needed an explanation before picking up a pen. Most were also against the war.
A good number of people came up, with some worried amazement in their voices, saying, “He’s going to win, isn’t he?” I’d come back with something like, “It’s going to be fine. He’s not perfect, but he’s our best option. But it’s going to be very close here in PA. Everything counts, and we need your vote and support.”
One construction worker was clearly upset with the prospect, and wasn’t happy when I said this. His wife, however, had other ideas, as she snatched up all the literature. “Best option? No way. He’s our ONLY option. We’ve got to turn that current crew out!”
Quite a few told me they voted for Hillary. They listened, but wouldn’t commit to Obama. “Nope, I’m going for McCain,” said one.’ McCain and Hillary take rather different stands, I explained, especially regarding women. “Doesn’t matter,” she replied. “I’m crossing over and going for McCain.’
This led me to come up with a new flyer for the following days. I simply took the text of Hillary’s speech, the section where she endorsed Obama, put it on a sheet with her picture and a banner headline: “Hillary calls for Unity Behind Obama’ and put a stack on the table. It turned out to be one of our more popular pieces.
Once the word got out that we were there registering voters, a young worker for our 4th CD Congressman, Altmire, showed up, offering assistance. “We’re doing OK,” I said, but you’re welcome to hang out. If you really want to help, tell the Congressman to sign on to “Single Payer,” and the degree to which he opposes this war, that’s the degree to which he’ll get some support from us.’ So far, Altmire is to the right of Obama on the war, and won’t back single payer. His worker was impressed, though, with how easy we got “Single Payer” signatures, and said he’ll deliver the message.
What about the Obama campaign? A young volunteer, who had been raised in Hawaii, also contacted us. We took him to a retired steelworkers meeting first, getting him used to a different world. At the fair, he was fired up to register voters, grabbed a clipboard and went outside, to work the crowds of young people. He did well. We talked at length about the history of class struggle in the Ohio valley, and Honolulu’s working-class.
The young people are most enthusiastic. Four young women came up, a little over 18, since they’re registered to vote. “We LOVE Barack Obama!” they said loudly. They wanted bumper stickers. I didn’t have too many left. “You promise to put it on your car?” I say. “Car? No, put it on my BACK!” So, after I got e-mail addresses, two wandered the crowds with “Obama 2008′ on their backs and two wore “Healthcare Not Warfare!” Thank goodness for a little youthful audacity.
One thing kept popping up every day-the right wing’s nasty and deceitful email campaign-“Obama’s a secret Muslim, Obama won’t say the pledge, won’t put his hand on his heart, won’t wear a flag pin, hates white people, wants to kill white babies while funding Black babies,” and so on. My favorite big lie: “Obama secretly takes billions from the Saudis and passes it out in $50 bills to the millions of the urban poor so they’ll go online and give it back to him in small amounts.”
These ideas came to our table in two ways. A small number of people simply asserted them in a hostile tone and walked off in a huff. A larger number came up puzzled, and asked, with genuine concern, if we know whether the rumors are true or not. I calmly took the lies apart, explaining why the right is using racism and religious bigotry to divide. I also told folks how they can check for themselves. Most seem relieved, and grateful for the information. Keep in mind, all many people here know is Fox, Limbaugh and Hannity, and very few have gone beyond high school, or know about The Nation, DailyKOS or Huffington Post.
But there were some surprises. One young couple in their twenties, with a little girl, came up. She registered to vote, while the husband asks me about the email litany. “That’s what I thought’, he said as I explained one or two. “I got his book, and read it.’ Which one, I asked? “Dreams of My Father,” he replied. “Once I got to know him there, I could understand him as a pretty cool guy, very honest. I’ll vote for him.” Both worked service jobs, and had a little college, but a rough time affording more.
Another young landscape worker comes up, and ran the email litany, and seemed satisfied with my answer. Then, he asked, “Which one went AWOL?” It wasn’t Obama, I said, since he wasn’t in the military, and Bill Clinton only did a little fancy footwork with the draft. “The only one who comes close is the one we got now, George Bush,” I conclude. He says: “Well, then, no wonder we’re in such a mess.”
I only got into one really drawn-out debate, with a construction worker, a real up-by-your-own-bootstraps but frustrated libertarian who would go for Paul or Barr, if only they would support the war. He started by asserting public health care of any sort is “unconstitutional” and we took off from there on government and the market for about half an hour, at considerable volume. I finally stump him on the Brodhead Road, the first vital overland route through our part of the county, and still very significant for the markets here, built by the troops of General Brodhead and General George Washington in the 1700s. I say: “How’s that for state intervention where the market can’t do the job; in fact, it creates the market? Why is using our taxes to prime the pump of getting these mills up and running with green jobs making wind turbines any different in principle?” That one he had to ponder a bit.
But the debate had some impact. The next day the ladies at the craft tables couldn’t get over it, and offered me some support. “We’re all in this together, no one really does everything all on their own,” one said.
So a good time was had by all-or almost all, anyway. The Raccoon Fair survived, and even enjoyed, our small group of independent progressive registered Democrats supporting a serious African-American candidate for president. New voters were registered, new contacts made, the Obama campaign learned a few things they wouldn’t have otherwise, the Congressman got a little heat, we did some educating, especially against the right, and most of all, we were educated, too, getting a crash course in the politics and values of our neighbors that would be hard to obtain better in any other way.
[Carl Davidson is a long-time peace and justice organizer and writer. He works with Beaver County Peace Links, the 4th CD Progressive Democrats of America and its new website, BeaverCountyBlue.org, and serves as webmaster for the national project, ‘Progressives for Obama’ at http://progressivesforobama.blogspot.com. His own blog, “Keep On Keepin’ On” is http://carldavidson.blogspot.com ]