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Ohio Mobilizes: Working America & College Democrats

College Democrats

I’ve been in Columbus, Ohio since Saturday morning as part of the AFL-CIO’s Labor 2006 program that’s sending bloggers to cover key races and the voter mobilizations that are taking place to achieve victory on November 7th. Adam Conner and Nancy Scola are blogging the Midwest and Pennsylvania, respectively, as part of the same program and their fantastic work can be found on MyDD.

The Working America office in Columbus sits across the street from Ohio State University and shares space in a small shopping mall with a National Guard recruiting station and a skateboard shop. Working America is a community affiliate of the AFL-CIO that organizes with non-union community members in support of “good jobs, affordable health care, world-class education, secure retirements, and real homeland security.” They’re a citizen lobbying group and they build their membership through personal outreach and community organizing. They have been working on the ground in Columbus continuously since early 2004, building their network for this election off of the groundwork of the presidential race.

I didn’t know much about them before arriving in their office, but I learned that Working America reaches out through canvasses, phone calls, and direct mailing year-round rather than waiting until a few weeks before the election. This constant contact pays dividends with voters – they have become one of the most trusted sources of information for the citizens of Ohio. Voters here frequently tell W.A. canvassers that they’re excited to get facts about candidates’ issue positions from them, as opposed to the near-constant barrage of negative ads that fail to give them information about a politician’s priorities.

When I arrived on Saturday morning a large canvass was already underway trying to reach a jaw-dropping 4,000 voters in OH-15. Saturday was the first day of Working America’s “Final Four” — a bring it home-style push that’s added 500 organizers on the ground in six key congressional districts. This last cadre of organizers is able to slot into existing operations in these districts and hit the ground running.

Saturday’s canvass was primarily in support of Mary Jo Kilroy, Franklin County Commissioner, and State Issue 2 (The Ohio Fair Minimum Wage Amendment) to raise Ohio’s minimum wage to $6.85. This is a very personal get out the vote operation. Beyond the organizational relationship W.A. has built with with voters here, almost all Working America canvassers are Ohioans. As I sit and begin to note my first observations of this intense mobilization, there is a false lull in the office. While the canvassers are out talking to voters, six staffers are here throwing their weight into cutting new turf, calling more volunteers to schedule their upcoming walks, and (Lieberman campaign take note!) filing all proper paperwork for their paid workers.

Working America tries its best to avoid bringing union members into their contact rolls. This is to save time contacting voters who are already receiving information about candidates and issues from their union, thus maximizing the scope of labor-friendly voter outreach. That said, their members and target voters are working families; their message centers around the needs of working Americans and has broad appeal to non-union members. Many of the canvasses outside of election season aim to grow their membership. About two-thirds of people contacted face to face end up joining their mailing list to receive updates. Even if they don’t start out as full-blown voters on workers’ issues, the table is set for them to get the information they need to vote for Democratic candidates who will stand up for working families at all levels of government.

“It’s crazy to look at these walk lists and realize how many of these streets I’ve walked myself. You’d think after all of this I’d be in better shape,” said Scott Sneddon, a Virginia expat and OSU student who’s lived in Ohio since 2004. Scott’s familiarity with the district is common in this office – most everyone here has left the better part of the soles of their shoes on the streets of Columbus. Their efforts in support of Democratic reformers are part of a state-wide voter mobilization reaching millions of voters, but what I saw on Saturday was a clear reminder that whatever gains we make must be credited to the women and men who’ve dedicated themselves to turning out the Democratic vote.

I spent Saturday evening in the Ohio Democratic Party headquarters, a beehive of activity coordinating canvasses, data management, communications, and campaigns from the senate all the way down to state legislature (I haven’t confirmed it, but I suspect that someone has a desk downstairs for their campaign for OSU Homecoming King). The center of the GOTV storm here in the Columbus ODP office today was an infusion of youth in the form of over 100 College Democrats from around the country.

“The Turn Around Ohio Invasion” brought College Democrats from ten states to Columbus to canvass and phone bank for the full ticket of Democratic candidates. They spent six hours Saturday hitting precincts throughout Franklin County, which is split between the 15th (Mary Jo Kilroy) and 12th (Bob Shamansky) congressional districts. As the walk teams made it back to the Democratic Party headquarters, they picked up call sheets and started making phone calls for Sherrod Brown and the Democratic ticket.

The hard effort for victory prize has to go out to twenty-four students from Mississippi who traveled almost fifteen hours by bus just for for the canvass on Saturday and will head back home Sunday morning (Some of the Mississippi University for Women Democrats have set up a blog for their chapter – go give them some love.). “One of the goals of the “Turn Around Ohio Invasion” was to get students involved in a highly competitive election who wouldn’t have that opportunity in their home states,” said Lauren Wolfe, College Democrats of America National President. “Students in Mississippi came here to see how these races are run. We would have even more students here today, but there are so many competitive races around the country.”

Wolfe says the College Democrats have their own version of the Fifty State Plan – they are the youth outreach arm of the DNC after all. There are currently College Democrats chapters on about 1,500 campuses nationwide; Wolfe aims to have a chapter on every single college campus in America by the 2008 election. The students who are in Ohio today will return to their campuses better prepared to organize for a more Democratic America over the next few years.

I have to admit, I’m jealous of these kids. They’re here, they’re young (eighteen to twenty-two) and they’re in the center of an election that has the potential to bring the Democrats a majority in both houses of Congress. They’re networking with their peers and building relationships that may last for decades in the leadership of the Democratic Party (think Rove and Abramoff, only, you know, not evil). What could be a more powerful lesson than helping deliver two House districts, a Senate seat, and a governorship to victory in a weekend away from school?

In my day job I’m a full-time activist for Tibetan independence. One of my coworkers often ends trainings with students or community leaders by explaining that we are the leaders we’ve been waiting for. Looking at the students in the room with me, I can’t but think how much this applies to this group of young leaders. They are leaders now for getting involved to work for change in America today and in so doing are preparing themselves to be the leaders that make America the great country that we dream it can be once again.

Of course, this assessment isn’t limited to the youth who’ve come here to turn Ohio around. The same can be said of the union members canvassing their neighborhoods or the blog readers who’ve been manning phone banks every weekend for the last few months. Activism takes many forms on the campaign trail and we must foster an ethic that recognizes the value in the work we do as engaged citizens working intentionally for political change. In so doing, we can honor all of our contribution to the process of making America Blue.

Visit my Flickr feed to see pictures from my Ohio Mobilizes trip. 

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Matt Browner Hamlin

Matt Browner Hamlin