Five weeks ago, I walked into Wisconsin's Organizing for America office and offered to go on sabbatical from the League of Young Voters to volunteer full-time for the campaign. I knew that I could help develop strategies to get "Obama voters" involved in the process this fall.
This was an extremely tough thing for me to do. Despite the fact that I have almost always voted for Democrats since I turned 18, I don't consider myself a Democrat. I know many of my progressive friends will be mad at me for saying this publicly, but I simply have not seen a commitment from local Democrats to youth and communities of color. While there are many strong progressive elects and organizers hailing from the cheese state, the local party as a whole has yet to advance any bold ideas to conquer the intense economic issues impacting my friends, neighbors and loved ones.
To make matters worse, months before he hit the campaign trail, gubernatorial candidate Tom Barrett proposed a controversial state take-over of the Milwaukee Public Schools. I knew that in helping the Democrats, I would be putting my own social and political capital on the line. Not only had Barrett angered labor and community groups with his ill-timed takeover scheme, but in 2004, he defeated a well respected African American candidate in a racially tinged mayoral race. It would be an understatement to say that going into the election, there was a high level of skepticism in the traditional Democratic base.
So I thought it was an offer they couldn't refuse. Not only have I personally canvassed nearly 100% of all the youth and low income African American precincts on Milwaukee's impoverished north side, but I am also a nationally recognized progressive leader who has spent the last six years helping build a national youth movement through the creative use of technology, art and social media.
Still, heading into the office, I knew it was a long shot. The two young men I was meeting were 2008 campaign veterans; one had even given up his position in the White House to come back to his home state to "help the President." But I was almost certain that I could win them over with a strong pitch. After all, despite the economic crisis, I had convinced a number of very strategic progressive donors to invest in my organization's GOTV efforts this cycle.
After my pitch, OFA's leadership was matter of fact, while also being sympathetic to my concerns. "These are great ideas, but they will probably cost a lot. This isn't 2008. We don't have the money to run programs like this. And we truly think that people will be inspired to help the President during these next couple of weeks," said one of the senior staffers. I was perplexed. I wasn't proposing to spend any extra money, just rearrange and remix what they had already planned to do. Even though it would be difficult, I knew that in four weeks I could use my cultural and social capital to help the Democrats' "swag" problems.
"Look," I said, trying to hide my emotions, "I am not trying to sell you anything here. I just think if you incorporate more art and social media into your efforts, we will all be better off. I will even hold the camera and get my friends to use their creative skills for free. And I know I can get you 20 seasoned canvassers who will be highly effective on the doors."
"Sorry man, we have to go to our bosses to approve something like that. We will get back to you." At that moment, I knew that the Democrats would lose.
Of course, the community did not go down without a fight. Over the next four weeks, local community leaders stepped up and engaged their networks to get out the vote in levels I have not seen since American Coming Together swooped into town in 2004. Through social media and peer-to-peer organizing, thousands of young people and community members engaged their neighbors to vote, without having a local candidate or cause to inspire them. In fact, local community groups did such a good job of mobilizing their folks to the polls that nearly 62% of voters in the city of Milwaukee turned out, overwhelmingly for the Democratic Party. And even though local party leadership will point to this as proof that they did enough to turn out the base, they are wrong. The community organized despite their efforts.
However, it is my wholehearted belief that Democrats could have picked up another 5 to 7 percent if they had made a strategic investment in young people and communities of color. While local party leadership has never made a deep investment in the base outside of GOTV, I truly believe that a bold, visionary campaign could have engaged more "Obama voters" while also bringing new blood into a party that has been stagnate for years.
So don't blame young voters, Democrats, blame yourselves. We are doing our jobs, it's time that you guys get bold and start investing in the future.
Biko Baker is the Executive Director of the League of Young Voters, a former political correspondent for The Source, a board member of the New Organizing Institute, a PhD candidate at UCLA and works closely with the Black Youth Project.
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