THE BLOG
10/15/2007 07:33 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Neighborly Politics in the Midwest

The following piece was produced by the Huffington Post's OffTheBus project.

With less than 100 days until the Iowa caucuses, groups of Obama and Edwards supporters in Illinois and Wisconsin are taking advantage of proximity to muster Iowa support face to face and seek out new caucus goers for their candidates in this highly sought after state in the primaries.

Though Iowa is said to be one of the most important states for John Edwards to win, Chicago area supporters have not formally organized any trips there so far. John Novick, captain of the Chicago One Corps group, with 125 members, of the volunteer and service organization created by John Edwards, said supporters in the city face limited time, but are "generous financially."

I spoke with him on the night of the Dartmouth, New Hampshire debate at an Edwards debate watching party at The Black Duck Tavern in the city's Lincoln Park neighborhood. About 17 members from the Chicago chapter attended the event held at a small corner tavern on the quiet Wednesday night.

Novick, a dark-haired man of medium build who appeared to be in his mid 30's, is a principal at a private elementary school in Evanston. He spoke in a deliberate and thoughtful manner to Edwards supporters in attendance as he explained key issues in the John Edwards campaign from the front of the bar.

"Senator Obama and Senator Clinton have poured so much money into Iowa, and yet Senator Edwards is on top." Novick told me as he explained his personal support for Edwards.

Days later, on September 30, I met Jocelyn Woodwards, Director of Camp Obama at the Chicago Volunteer Headquarters for Obama. That morning, there was no doubt that Iowa was the current central talking point. Iowa state precinct maps and countdown posters were spread throughout the downtown office.

Woodwards, a tall black woman with a commanding but warm voice, spoke to a group of about 35 volunteers for the two-day Camp Obama training. Most of the volunteers looked to be under age 35, but appeared to be ethnically very diverse.

She spent several minutes discussing the campaign's plans for volunteers to target Iowa, beginning by quizzing volunteers on their current knowledge of the importance of the state in the democratic nomination process.

"This thing is a moving target," Woodwards told the group about the continually changing date of the January caucuses. "Organizing is absolutely critical in a state like Iowa."

According to Bridget Gray, Chicago Field Director for the Obama campaign, Obama headquarters have helped organized trips to the state every other week since mid June. Each of these trips has been tied into a press release on a major campaign issue. She said they are planning to return to Iowa every weekend now until Thanksgiving. They'll return on December 1st with a group that will stay through to the caucuses in January.

Just this past week, I spoke with Peter Rickman, captain of the Madison, WI One Corps group for Edwards by phone. I asked him about his 98 member group and their current work in Iowa. He said winning Iowa is critical to sending the public a message about John Edwards.

"Iowa is important for the Edwards campaign because winning there breaks the narrative of Hillary Clinton as the inevitability candidate," he explained.

Rickman led a canvassing effort in Dubuque this past Saturday with 15 other Edwards volunteers. On October 20th, he and other supporters will travel to Dubuque again and in November and December, they plan to return at least four times each month. Days before each trip, trainings are held to brief volunteers on what to expect and what to say while talking to voters.

The impact of grassroots activism plays a major role in the minds of Wisconsin supporters, according to Rickman, because voters in Wisconsin won't be able to cast a vote for a democratic nominee until mid-February. He said the Madison group has been organizing Iowa trips without direction from the official Edwards campaign.

"Although we've linked up with them, specifically the Dubuque office," he said. "So that we could plug in to the fine organization that they have set up right now."

"Wisconsin is a working class state, and especially its Democrats." Rickman elaborated on why Edwards is well favored in Wisconsin. "And people in Wisconsin liked John Edwards in 2004. He's been here a number of times since then, and this is a place in which he'll always have tremendous support."

This past Saturday in Dubuque, I made the 3 hour trip myself from Chicago to see the volunteer efforts in the state up close. Navigating the hilly terrain of this city on the Mississippi River was still new to me, having been a flat prairie resident my entire life. And although I missed Rickman and his group out on the street, I stopped in at the Obama headquarters and introduced myself to Brent Welder, Regional Field Director, who led me by car to meet some volunteers for Obama as they carried out the national campaign's Canvass for Change event that day.

Charice Shiamma, from Itasca, IL and Gayle Linscott from Schaumburg, IL, agreed to allow me to shadow them as they made their rounds, after a brief introduction from Welder. The women, both from suburban Chicago, appeared energetic and upbeat along the way, though they met with several unanswered doors and a few large and barking dogs.

Traversing the steep side streets of the working class neighborhood, Shiamma said she and Linscott had been out since 11 that morning with Obama literature and talking to residents. It was already past 3 p.m. when I met with them. They traveled to Dubuque on Saturday in a rented van with two student volunteers from De Paul University.

Shiamma, a tall white woman with dark brown hair in her 30's, wore a dark t-shirt with the words "Got Hope?" on it and carried a plastic bag full of brochures that highlighted Obama's vote against the Iraq War. She cheerfully explained to me how she tries to educate voters on how the caucuses are run, how long it takes to participate, why they are important to supporting Obama and makes a note to herself to follow up with any who are interested to give them the actual dates of the caucuses.

Linscott, a poised and soft-spoken woman with short, blond hair appeared to be a few years older and wore a comfortable red jacket with a Barack Obama button. She let Shiamma do most of the talking about their canvassing efforts, but alternated with her at each house to speak with residents. Both said they have only this year gotten involved in actively campaigning politically for a candidate.

Holding maps of the neighborhood and a list of democrat voters to visit, Shaimma said she tries to give people a minute to answer the door, since you never know how old they might be. As she tucked brochures in between the screen doors of several of the houses she visited, she said she plans to return to the area for each of the next three weekends to continue canvassing.

Read more OffTheBus coverage here.