Organizing For America — December 17, 2010 at 10:05 am

The view from the OFA grassroots sidelines


You’ve probably read Sam Graham-Felsen’s Washington Post op-ed, a friendly fire-filled piece suggesting that Organizing for America (OFA) volunteers have been put on the sidelines by the Obama administration for the past year.

I am a Community Organizer (CO) for OFA. Mine is a volunteer position that is the equivalent of the Field Directors during the 2008 Campaign for Change. COs are responsible for organizing Neighborhood Teams (NTs), led by Neighborhood Team Leaders (NTLs) in their area. None of us are paid. Most of us put significant time, energy and our own personal resources into our organizing efforts.

And we have been anything but “on the sidelines” for the past couple of years.

Immediately after the inauguration, OFA volunteers across the country began phonebanking and canvassing to help get the Recovery Act passed. And it passed.

We held Strategy Meetings and trainings across the country, bringing in both veterans from the 2008 campaign and new volunteers eager to help do what they could to help President Obama pass his ambitious agenda.

After the Recovery Act, we continued to build our volunteer organization, working to shift from the campaign-based Obama for America to a legislative and issues-based focus. Not only were we not “on the sidelines”, we were holding House Meetings and trainings, preparing and organizing for future legislative battles.

During the last couple of weeks of Martha Coakley’s campaign against Scott Brown in Massachusetts, we were asked to help. Although we were not ultimately successful, we did help to take a 13+% deficit down to less than half of that on Election Day. Had Coakley’s campaign run smarter and asked for help earlier, we may well have help save that seat for Democrats. On the sidelines? Hardly.

As Graham-Felsen himself admits, our efforts to help pass comprehensive health insurance reform very likely made the difference between its passage and its failure. It wasn’t the strong bill many of us wanted but it was still a BFD in many, many ways and I believe history will look favorably upon it as a major step forward in social change. OFA grassroots volunteers were in the thick of it from the beginning, working hard, organizing and putting in the effort that would have looked considerably different without us.

The summer of 2010 saw us on the sidewalks and on the phones again, this time getting folks to sign a pledge to vote for Democrats. We worked diligently through November on an all-out GOTV effort. Again, although we were not ultimately successful, describing us as “on the sidelines” is not only not accurate, it’s disrespectful of the thousands and thousands of volunteers across the country that worked hard to help the effort to elect and re-elect Democrats across the country.

Still smarting from the midterm election, it would have been easy for OFA volunteers to hunker down until next year. The prospects of getting major legislation passed in the face of total and complete opposition and obstructionism from Senate Republicans was very intimidating to be sure. But, not content to be on the sidelines, we have spent the past month working the phones for the passage of the DREAM Act and the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. In my area, we have actually seen NEW volunteers coming out to help with this legislative effort.

Like most of you, many OFA volunteers are dismayed by the hostage-taking of Congressional Republicans. But what most of us realize, a point missed by so many it seems, and clearly missed by Graham-Felsen, is that Democrats simply do not have the votes to pass legislation exactly as we would like it due to the “broken Senate” as Rachel Maddow calls it. No amount of wishful thinking would allow us to see DADT repealed, unemployment benefits extended, passage of the DREAM Act, or the ratification of the START treaty without making deals.

That’s not what we want. That is the reality.

So the Obama administration did what it felt was right and necessary to ensure that the taxes of middle class Americans do not rise and that most people about to lose their unemployment benefits were not tossed out into the cold.

And Graham-Felsen wants us to work against that? He wants the Democratic Party’s grassroots network to work against their own administration? It doesn’t even make sense on its face. Make no mistake: OFA volunteers think this deal reeks to high heaven just like all of you. But we also know that, in today’s political climate, we simply cannot wish our way into getting liberal initiatives passed through the Senate as it stands today. The much-lauded 50-state strategy brought larger numbers of Democrats to Congress than we would have had otherwise but the price we paid is that many of them, from conservative districts, don’t always toe the Democratic Party line. Many of them vote with the Republicans from time to time because they simply aren’t as progressive as other Democrats.

That, too, is the reality we have to deal with. Wishing that these districts will elect liberal members to represent them in Congress doesn’t make that happen. A Blue Dog Democrat is still better than having a Republican in his or her place. But it makes things more difficult that a simply tally of who is a Democrat and who is a Republican would suggest. That, combined with the historic abuse of the filibuster by Republicans changes everything.

I don’t know what Sam Graham-Felsen’s intent was with his op-ed. If he is somehow hoping to motivate OFA volunteers, put a mark in the “Fail” column on that. What motivates OFA volunteers is success in what we are doing. If DADT repeal and/or the passage of the DREAM Act pass this weekend, THAT will motivate us. Knowing that millions of unemployed Americans aren’t being tossed out into the cold because our President cared enough for them to take a political hit on their behalf — THAT motivates us .

But being told we’re “on the sidelines” when we’ve spent the past two years fighting fights we believe in, putting in long hours for no pay, in order to help this President achieve as much as he could in the political reality of today? That is not only NOT motivating, it’s insulting. If Graham-Felsen wants to help, maybe he could grab a mop.

I’m just sayin’…

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