A recent piece by Thomas B. Edsal, "Obama-McCain Match-up: Blowout or Trench Warfare," cites an electoral map drawn up by pollster.com categorizing Texas as a "lean" Republican state despite being in the "strong" category in past elections. A recent meeting in Houston led by a Texas delegate and attended by a small group of local activists and concerned citizens convinced me that a major reason for that change lies with grassroots organizing.
In response to Obama's launch of the "Listening to America" Campaign, Tarsha Hardy, who was elected a Texas National Delegate last June, decided to organize a platform meeting in Houston. Unlike some delegates who are focused mainly on fundraising for their expensive Denver trip, Hardy is on a different mission. "I'm trying to put in as much time as I can to making sure people in our community have a voice," Hardy stated. "As a representative, it would make no sense for me to go to the Democratic National Convention without having heard from the people. This platform meeting is a real opportunity to get residents involved."
At 26 years old, Hardy is one of the "youth voters" the media often highlights as a key group captivated by Obama's vision. But, unlike Hardy, not all young people transfer that excitement into political action. Upon learning about Obama's call to action, she quickly emailed all of the delegates in her district, reserved a space at the local public library, and started making phone calls. She examined the 2004 Democratic Platform to help her put together an agenda.
Even though she had a modest goal of five attendees, 10 enthusiastic citizens showed up on Saturday morning. There was a good mix of young and old, men and women. The majority of the attendees were people of color.
Using the platform meeting guidelines provided by the Obama campaign as a model, Hardy started off the meeting by listing various topics on a dry erase board, and having the attendees identify which ones they'd like to discuss. The group then launched into a discussion on 8 issues, devoting enough time to each one until they could get a consensus.
Everyone fervently participated, at times expressing anger at the political system. With Houston being the city where many Katrina victims sought shelter, the tragedy in New Orleans and the federal government's inability to act came up as a serious topic. "FEMA needs to be held more accountable," stated Lloyd Gauthier. The group agreed that the Democratic Party will need to demonstrate they are more proactive in responding to these types of crises.
They also discussed topics like education, voting rights, the economy, and transportation infrastructure. All of these topics ended in consensus with little debate. Two however some controversy: immigration and race.
When the topic of immigration came up, one of the participants reasoned that illegal immigrants take away resources from the rest of us without giving back. "We need to send them back," he concluded. That statement elicited strong reactions from several participants. "You can't just send millions of people back to their countries and they do pay taxes," Plechette Bampoe argued. She also cited the racism involved within our country's immigration policy. "You can't say to the Cubans, 'it's okay for you to come,' and not to the Haitians."
Just as things were heating up, the two hours reserved for the conference room passed. Despite the fact that people had expected to be there only until noon, the group found a table in the main library area and sat down for another hour to finish the meeting. Though they had to lean closer together and whisper at times, the intensity did not dissipate.
The topic that led to even more impassioned responses came under the topic of "civil rights," which quickly led to a discussion around race and agency within the black community. "We need to stop being the victim," urged Bampoe, the only African American in management in her company. "Black people need to stop blaming something or someone for their situation and be more proactive. They have a choice."
Others commented on the apathy of black youth towards politics and their perceived obsession with rap music and BET. Monique Johnson added though that for a lot of black youth who may have grown up in a rougher life with fewer opportunities, their choices are more limited. "There are still institutional mechanisms in society that can hold you back," Johnson stated.
The discussion of race and agency echoed some of the themes of Obama's speeches on the role of black fathers, as well as his "A more perfect union" speech on race. The group did agree on the need to keep and expand affirmative action programs.
"The discussion we had proves that everyday Americans can have an open and objective discussion on race," Hardy observed.
Hardy took copious notes during the meeting and put together a draft platform which she emailed out to the participants for approval and feedback. "I'm just glad people came in and rolled up their sleeves," Hardy said. "Everyone knew that we were there for a purpose and it's clear they want to get even more involved."
The active participation in that meeting served as huge contrast to the Democratic state convention earlier this summer in Austin. For example, on opening night, the party had nearly every single Democratic state representative come onto the stage and each speak for a minute to the audience, causing people to leave or sit back in complete boredom. There was debate during the district meetings where we had to vote on delegates, but for the most part we were passive participants who merely raised our hands in approval of measures and state party positions we knew little about. It would be great to see these small group meetings take place at the next state convention.
Overall, the Obama campaign's inclusive approach to the platform is a step in the right direction for the Democratic Party.