11/27/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Philadelphia Dems and Union Leaders Won't Let Up In Getting Out The Vote

PHILADELPHIA -- Brandon Lucas, 54, of Philadelphia has been a member of the Iron Workers Union for twenty years. His father, a Democratic committee man in the City of Brotherly Love, has been a member of the same union for more than thirty years. Father and son are unusual in this respect because they are African Americans in a union whose membership is ninety-five percent white. This year has been especially meaningful for the Lucas family because they have witnessed their fellow union members working hard to help elect Barack Obama President.

"The Union membership understands that this is not about a vote for black or white," Lucas said, "it's about our livelihood."

Union members campaigning for Obama have had to confront resistance from some of their membership who are reluctant to vote for an African American, but they've made strides. John McCain's increasingly divisive campaign is relying on the wedge issue of race -- unspoken -- to peel blue-collar Pennsylvanians, including union members, away from Obama. Although there are some individuals -- blue collar and white collar -- whose racism is so deep they cannot bring themselves to vote for a black man, the last eight years of economic hardship have made many Americans more concerned about their economic situation than they are about Obama's race.

gen/43709/original.jpgI spoke with Lucas at the Democratic Party's Annual Dinner at the Sheet Metal Workers Union in Philadelphia last week. Unions have a long history in Pennsylvania, a state where the coal and steel industries once flourished, and have represented millions of working people; and the Democratic Party traditionally has been the party of the American worker. In a setting reminiscent of a scene from Gore Vidal's political drama, "The Best Man," Philadelphia's Democratic Party and Union leaders gathered at the Sheet Metal Workers Union ballroom to marshal the troops to get out the vote on Election Day. The ballroom was like the proverbial smoke-filled room -- without the smoke -- as politicians addressed and worked the crowd. The mixture of Party leaders, candidates, ward leaders, and committee people, and union leaders and members evoked an atmosphere quite different from public political rallies. While public rallies energize the general electorate, this event was designed to energize union and party faithful to get their constituents to the polls on November 4.

"The only way we lose is complacency" Governor Ed Rendell told the packed ballroom. "In the primary, we had fifty-three percent [of Democrats voting in Philadelphia], but fifty-three percent won't cut it. We should get sixty-five to seventy percent on Election Day." Rendell jokingly added, "If we get sixty-five percent, Bob Brady [Democratic Party Chair] will buy everyone dinner at the Capitol Grille."

"Pennsylvania for Change," the Obama campaign's official organization, has already launched its ubiquitous and thorough ground game in Philadelphia. The Democrats and union members gathered at the dinner, familiar faces in city politics, are making sure that their people are on the ground getting out the vote, too.

"Everything you care about, everyone you care about is on the ballot," Brady said. "On Election Day we're going to show them that enough is enough. We will win Philadelphia by at least 450,000 votes."

To put the importance of Philadelphia's voter turnout into perspective, one need only remember that of all the cities in the battleground states, Philadelphia has the largest concentration of Democrats. Heavy voter turnout in the city and surrounding suburbs can defeat votes from the less-populated, rural counties in central and western Pennsylvania where John McCain is making a quixotic last stand.

"We're seeing strong support for Obama," US Representative Allison Schwartz told me, "but we're not going to let up. We're going to keep working. Look at the economy! Obama's presidency will have a positive effect on the whole region. He'll turn the economy around by changing the tax policy and he'll give us a health care policy that provides care for all Americans."

A champion of working people since his days as an organizer in Chicago, Obama has the working people of the unions supporting his campaign. Members of the AFL/CIO have knocked on 60,000 union doors and have made 25,000 phone calls each week on the Democrat's behalf. Brandon Lucas described a conversation about Obama between two of his fellow union members who are white. Member Number One asked Member Number Two whether he was voting for Obama.

Number Two replied, "I don't know enough about him."

Number One responded incredulously. "How can you say you don't know enough about him when the guy has been running for office for two years? You must be a racist. Think about it, how are you doing? This is about your pocketbook, not Obama's color."

At this point in the conversation, Lucas tried to persuade Member Number Two. "Vote for your kids 'cause they're going to pay for it if the Republicans get back in and mess things up even more than they've already messed them up. There's no point in being a maverick if you're not a maverick about things that need to be done."

With polls indicating that Obama has a thirteen-point lead in Pennsylvania, spirits were high at the Democrats' dinner, but politicians were taking no chances and repeated the urgency of everyone getting their constituents to the polls.

"Barack Obama is depending on you to deliver, not only Philadelphia, but the state of Pennsylvania," said US Representative Chaka Fattah. "You did it for Clinton, Gore and Kerry, and Philadelphia did it for a young man in 1960, John Kennedy. You can do it again this year."

As Governor Rendell was leaving, I asked him for a quote, he stopped, considered for a second and said with a smile, "Senator Obama has run a great campaign and we're going to win Philadelphia."