‘Debate Watching Party,’ Beaver County-Style

Photo: Obama Rally in Beaver County

The Debate Highlights
A Hard Battle Here,
But Tough Fighters, Too

By Carl Davidson
Progressives for Obama

An Obama-McCain ‘Debate Watching’ party in Beaver County last night, Sept. 26, 2008, promised to be a fun evening, but it also offered as good an occasion as any to measure the progress, tasks, and difficulties of the Obama campaign here in Western Pennsylvania.

The polls here are currently giving Obama a slight edge, but there are too many wild cards to put anyone at ease.

I got my invitation to one of these events about two hours before the party began, and changed plans quickly to attend. It was pulled together by the young volunteers of the county’s Obama campaign in partnership with Local 712 of the IBEW, SEIU activists, and some organizers with the 4th CD Progressive Democrats of America.

The union hall is on Sassafras Lane near a strip of small businesses and nonprofit agencies in Vanport, PA a working class suburb next to Beaver, the county seat. Beaver is relatively stable with government offices and a large medical center, but just a few miles in any direction are the distressed mill towns of Midland, Beaver Falls, Monaca, New Brighton, Rochester, Baden, Aliquippa, and Ambridge. The old village of Shippingport, is home to a big energy complex and the country’s first nuke plant.

All the industry here in the post-WW2 years meant plenty of work then for the IBEW and many other workers. But everyone feels the tough conditions of globalized de-industrialization now, and it was a natural to see stacks of ‘Workers for Obama-Biden’ posters at the door.

‘Is this where we watch the fights tonight?’, I asked a bunch of young apprentices gathered for a smoke outside the door. They laughed and said I was at the right place, followed with some friendly sports banter about whether McCain was ‘the Great White Hope’ or the ‘Great White Dope.”

Inside a young Obama worker, Chris, is hooking up a laptop and projector to stream the video of the debate onto a giant screen. Together, we figure out how to get the blue tones right. Three young African American women, Obama volunteers from New Brighton, just across the river, are discussing how some people they’ve canvassed haven’t a clue about the difficulties bringing up kids compared with what Sarah Palin’s daughter faces. An older white union worker starts talking with them about attending a dinner and rally to bring more manufacturing back to the Ohio River Valley.

But a quick look at the room shows this place is used by people who take elections seriously, warts and all. The walls are hung with county maps of the 4th CD, with critical townships highlighted. On a long row of tables are neatly stacked piles of folders, labeled by township and precincts, with lists of registered union voters inside, each one tagged with the number of workers needed on the canvass team. This is where the Saturday morning ‘Labors Walks’ of doorknockers are pulled together, and it’s clear that a quality of the working class, as well as the Obama volunteers, is knowing more than a little about organization. The walks will take place every weekend up to the big mobilization on Election Day.

More people arrive and start filling the room, laying out a spread of snacks next to the coffee pot, beer, and wine. There are 30 or so altogether. About half are older white electrical workers, letter carriers, and younger service employees, with a few PDA people; the other half is a rainbow of young Obama volunteers.

An Obama staffer, Kyra Ricci, comes up to greet me, thanking me for helping them earlier with some media work. Like all of them, she’s wired and tired, working 16 hour days every day. ‘But it’s less than 40 days to go, we’ll make it’, she says. Both she and Chris query me about other campaigns were like in Chicago, going back to Obama’s first run. I explain that I started before that, with Jesse Jackson’s runs, and Harold Washington’s victories. I give them my five-minute short course on running independent campaigns against tough old machines.

I ask about the canvassing. ‘We’re getting down to the wire,’ one union guy tells me. ‘Some people tell me they’re still making up their minds. I tell them, look, if you want me to stop bugging you, just declare one way or the other, if you really know but aren’t saying. That way we won’t waste each other’s time, we can argue later, and I can get to more people in the next 39 days.’

A cheer goes up when the debate finally starts and the room darkens. People listen intently and excitedly to Obama, but started groaning at McCain. The first ‘boos’ start when he’s defending taxes cuts for the rich: ‘Why? So they’ll invest it in cheap labor abroad?,’ yells one older worker. Of course this room is self-selected and pro-Obama-there’s no unbiased cross-section of voters here. But the response is interesting nonetheless.

The older workers shout out challenges to McCain on every economic point, especially health care. I’m sitting next to Randy Shannon of PDA and Charlie Hamilton of the postal workers, and they’re comparing notes about the banking system’s undue influences throughout. Charlie tells me he’s retired. ‘I am too,’ I reply, ‘but I’ve never been busier!’ He laughs out loud. ‘That’s right, me too, and you know what? If you don’t stay busy, you die early!’

The entire room, however, cheers Obama when he nails McCain on the war’s being a fundamental mistake in the first place, that should never have been fought. The older workers laugh when McCain comes back that Obama doesn’t understand ‘strategy and tactics.’ ‘We’ll teach him a thing or two about strategy and tactics,’ say one worker.

I was a little surprised at the enthusiasm of some for Obama’s war talk on Afghanistan, where I think he needs a different and wiser approach. I bring it up my critical point on the matter later talking to two union officials and a few other workers.

But the most interesting reaction was at the very end, when McCain pulled out his POW experience. The older workers groan, ‘Here we go again, you were a prisoner, give it a rest!’ Now this is from a group that has considerable respect for this part of McCain’s story–but ‘that was then and this is now’ is clearly the mood. They wanted more serious answers to serious current questions, and McCain had none, as least for them.

Everyone cheers when it’s over. But Kyra, always on the ball, takes the center of the room before anyone can leave, and lays out the work plan: ‘Don’t forget, we can still register new voters right up to Oct. 6. We’re driving them nuts down at the courthouse, bringing in batches of hundreds. But they thank us, sort of, for the overtime!”

Charlie tells me getting them registered is only the first step; getting them to the polls is even more important. ‘Too many of these youngsters register, then forget to vote,’ he says. ‘We’ll get them, we’ve got the lists, we’ll knock on their doors, give them a ride,’ Kyra answers. ‘No slackers allowed,’ I laugh, and then tell a funny story about a ward election in Chicago, where the machine was trying to beat us. I knocked on a door of some ‘plus’ voters, only to discover them in a little dalliance on the couch. ‘Get dressed and get your butts to the polls, we need you,’ I said. Sure enough, two minutes before we closed, the young couple came running in, breathless. It made my day, since my candidate won by only 150 votes.

Up front, Kyra continues getting everyone committed, but there’s one important point that needs to be made here. This was a good gathering of union workers, housewives, young students, African Americans, PDA activists, and Obama workers. The AFL-CIO is campaigning for the Democratic ticket from top to bottom. Alongside the ‘Workers for Obama-Biden’ poster are a half-dozen stacks of posters and yard-signs for other local Democratic candidates. But none of them or their reps are here tonight.

It’s called the ‘Top of the Ticket’ problem. When our Congressman Jason Altmire is out campaigning, he doesn’t urge folks to vote for Obama. He will only say he expects Obama to win. This problem exists in many places where local Democratic incumbents or the old party machine never supported Obama or are now dragging their feet. There is fear that coming out solidly for Obama will cost them the votes of Democrats who are leaning towards McCain. They work their own campaigns, leaving ‘the top of the ticket’ to the Obama youth working their hearts out. The situation demands leadership from them, turning Hillary voters into Obama voters. Part of the problem is that racism infects the old boy network and it takes courage to buck it. Some are subtle, or try to be, but it’s noticeable enough to spotlight it for progressive activists on the local level everywhere.

Bob Schmetzer, an official with the IBEW, is standing near the door chatting with some folks preparing to leave. Bob tells us he’s investigated where McCain stands on veterans issues: ‘I was surprised; his stands really suck.’ He’s making up a special flyer comparing Obama and McCain on the issue, with Obama coming out on top, to have his members take around to the many veterans organizations in Beaver County. ‘Maybe it will open some eyes,’ he says.

Finally, as I head toward the door, a white-haired woman, a union veteran, brings me to a dead stop, and looks me straight in the eye. ‘We’re going to win this,’ she says. I hope so, I say, it’s very tight, and everything counts. ‘No,’ she says with a steely look in her eyes and a resolute tone in her voice, ‘We’re going to win this. We have no choice.’ Women like her are Obama’s ace-in-the-hole, so let’s do all we can to bring out and engage a million of them by Election Day.

[Carl Davidson is webmaster for ‘Progressives for Obama’ ( http://progressivesforobama.blogspot.com) and a field organizer for the US Solidarity Economy Network (http://ussen.org ). Together with Jerry Harris, he is the author of CyberRadicalism: A New Left for a Global Age. Along with Jenna Allard a Julie Matthaei, he also edited the newly published ‘Solidarity Economy: Building alternatives for People and Planet.’ Both are available at http://lulu.com/stores/changemaker. He was founder and director of Peace and Justice Voters 2004 in Chicago, a past member of the steering committee of United for Peace and Justice, and a member of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism ( http://cc-ds.org ). See http://carldavidson.blogspot.com for more information.]

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