County Grassroots Speaks to TeamObama


Photo: Bernice Mason (left), Tina and Randy Shannon of PDA, and Peter Lesser of Organizing for America.

Obama’s New Project
Hears County Activists on
Tough Battles Ahead

By Carl Davidson
Beaver County Blue

About 25 people gathered at the Center Township Volunteer Fire Dept in Beaver County on the evening of July 16, sat down in a circle of folding chairs, and got involved in a new initiative from the Obama administration, a ‘listening tour’ to hear out local activists on current political battles.

The event was pulled together by the new nationwide project of the Democratic National Committee, Organizing for America (OFA), and local Democratic Party leaders. Peter Lesser, OFA Field Organizer for Western PA, and former Obama campaign organizer in Chester, PA, led the session. He was introduced by Rocco Giammaria from the Center Township Democratic Committee, and leader of the Obama campaign in Pennsylvania. Dr. Mike Sisk, Beaver County Democratic Chairman, and Tony Amadio, Chairman of the Beaver County Commissioners also participated in the meeting.

If the meeting’s aim was to get a cross section of the hopes and frustrations of local Obama campaign activists, the organizers got what they wanted, and then some.

People sounded off as they explained who they were. “What are we going to do about these lies from the insurance companies on TV, and a Congress giving into to them?” asked a health care activist. “I’m worried,” added a peace activist. “If Obama doesn’t turn around on these wars, they will destroy anything positive he wants to do. He could end up like Lyndon Johnson.”

Even before the round of introductions was finished, the key concerns were evident and on the table-ending the wars, affordable health care for all, and turning the economy toward job creation.

By the time most people finished, it was also clear that a good cross-section of the forces that put Obama in office were in the room. In addition to the Democratic officials, there were four staff members from several labor unions-United Steelworkers, SEIU, and AFSCME.
There were also active members of IBEW, PSEA, and SEIU, who had knocked on the doors of nearly every union family in the county.

African American women from churches and community groups in Beaver Falls, Ambridge, and Aliquippa were there, representing a huge effort in their communities. The younger volunteers drawn into the Obama campaign apparatus were present, as well as some not so young, who had worked the offices and phone banks.

There were about a half-dozen activists from the 4th CD Chapter of Progressive Democrats of America, who worked on every level of grassroots activity. Several people also identified themselves as part of Beaver County Peace Links and Democracy for America. Finally, a few more came from the Single-Payer Health Care movements in Butler and Allegheny Counties. These represented the Obama campaign’s connections with ongoing social movements beyond its own ranks.

“We worked hard for Obama” was the common refrain, as each person spoke their mind, described the variety of what they had done, and pointed out what they still wanted to see.

Peter Lesser steered with a description and an appeal. OFA was set up to do two things; first, to help the President achieve his agenda, and second, to build the local grassroots alliances that would assemble the popular power needed to do so. It occupied a unique political space, he explained. It was a political arm, of sorts, of both the White House and the Democratic National Committee. At the same time, its job wasn’t to campaign for any local slates or candidates. Rather, it was to campaign directly for a legislative agenda using many of the grassroots organizing techniques used in the presidential race. If some local incumbents or challengers were wary, this was to set them at ease.

But the devil was in the details. Several people pointed out that our local 4th CD Congressman, Jason Altmire, stood to the right of Obama on health care and the war. What to do about him?

“It’s fine to say we’re to phonebank around a script for a ‘public option’ in the Health Care package,’ said a woman from Ambridge. “But I have people who want detailed answers, and I have to explain to them how this is going to work. Besides, I’m for HR 676, and I’m not sure it will.”

This was a tension throughout the meeting. Everyone in the room was for health care reform, and the vast majority was for HR 676 Single Payer, Medicare for All. But they were being asked to get behind something else, something yet to be defined except behind closed doors in DC.

“I could go for some version of a ‘public option,’ said Tina Shannon, PDA president. “But if this turns out to be a fiasco like the Massachusetts plan and I ask my people to support it, I’ll lose all credibility.”

That opened the floodgates. “The insurance companies!” declared Bernice Mason from Aliquippa. “Let me tell you about the insurance companies!” She and several others launched into some consciousness-raising from bitter experience.

Peter Lesser and a few others countered this argument with another, that contained a strong point. A large number of people already had insurance, and were either passive to the fate of the battle in Congress, or leaning against any reform that might cost them more or cut what they had. The task of the OFA campaign was to raise their consciousness, to explain to them how even what they had was at risk from the insurance lobby and the right. If the anti-public-option forces won this round, there wasn’t anything positive going to come out of this in the way of health care for all. We had to start organizing with what we had and improve it as we went along. If we waited too long, we’d be in a far worse position.

While not disagreeing with the need for education, PDA is also supporting Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), who has just added an amendment to a bill in Congress to allow single-payer to be implemented state-by-state, regardless of what passed nationally.

Randy Shannon of PDA put things in a wider picture: “We have to look at the economy as a whole. Health care is only one piece of this. Unemployment is still growing and this crisis is getting deeper. Obama’s stimulus and the recovery legislation are a good step, but not enough. They’re giving the bulk of it to Wall St–we’re only getting a nickel out of every dollar in all those trillions, one nickel out of a dollar that goes for job creation. We need a new stimulus to supplement state and county budget shortfalls immediately.”

County Commissioner Amadio, a former history teacher, shared his insight: “LBJ was known as “Landslide Lyndon” and was one of the most popular Presidents when he was elected. I agree with the point made earlier about how LBJ. His Great Society program was undercut by the war. If we don’t learn the lessons from history here, we’ll be repeating them.”

As the session neared its end, talk turned back to what we could do. Nina Persi from Chippewa township was nominated for a ‘community organizer’ position, the local Organizing For America coordinator. One person suggested that everyone collaborate on a county-wide teach-in on Health Care to build pressure on Congress. Leanne Spearman, the Beaver Falls Obama campaign leader, emphasized the importance of holding a large public event. PDA people found a few more people for its car pool to DC on July 30 for a Single Payer rally and lobby day. Some labor people huddled to figure out what to do to move Congressman Altmire away from his new position in the “Blue Dog” Caucus.

Whatever their particular interest, everyone knew this loose coalition of progressives and Democrats would have to make a stronger local alliance against common adversaries. As they headed to the parking lot, they were in high spirits, energized to do so, even if every problem was far from resolved.

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