Common Ground in the Heartland and Echoes of Obama

04/18/2008 02:40 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

If Barack Obama had continued on a career path as a community organizer, he might have been in Milwaukee last Sunday savoring the successful kickoff of one of the most ambitious, potentially significant, large-scale community organizations in recent years. In fact, before Obama left the South Side streets of Chicago and went off to Harvard Law School, he was a highly regarded community organizing prospect by Saul Alinsky's Industrial Areas Foundation, the same organization behind the new Milwaukee-area campaign.

As Saul Alinsky's biographer, I can say with some confidence that even Saul, a man who was notoriously stingy about dispensing accolades, would have been impressed with Sunday's grand unveiling.

The most impressive part was not only the big turnout of 2,300 citizen-leaders, representing many more thousands from nearly 50 churches and some civic and educational organizations, who filled a convention hall at the Midwest Airlines Center. After more than two years of meticulous, out-of-public-view organizing, what was most impressive -- indeed, politically eye-popping -- was the extraordinary diversity of the new, multi-issue organization, Common Ground.

Unlike most traditional community organizing that has focused on city neighborhoods, Common Ground spans a heavily populated, four-county area in southeast Wisconsin that includes not only some of the poorest and most affluent jurisdictions, but also some of the most Democratic and Republican territory in Wisconsin, a presidential battleground state. In 2004, for example, when Senator Russ Feingold was overwhelmingly re-elected, he won Democratic Milwaukee County with more than 60 percent of the vote and even carried 27 counties that George Bush also won. But Feingold was swamped in nearby Republican strongholds Waukesha, Washington and Ozaukee, the suburban and exurban counties, where along with Milwaukee, Common Ground is building a new nonpartisan, broad-based power organization.

Collectively, the Common Ground leaders who had featured speaking roles at Sunday's founding convention personify the Obama-like possibilities of a new politics that transcend blue-red divisions, media caricatures and partisan gridlock. On the stage, literally sharing common ground, were passionate evangelicals; priests from Republican-leaning parishes; inner city Baptist pastors; liberals, moderates and conservatives; old-time Wisconsinites and new arrivals from other countries.

The convention keynoter was 39-year-old Brian Sonderman, an evangelical who left the largest church in the state to start a new one, Metrobrook, on Milwaukee's East Side. In just three years, he has created a young, growing congregation of 250, already larger than many of the long-established mainline churches in the area whose rolls have shriveled since the 1960s. In talking with Sonderman weeks before the convention, he told me that he represents a different kind of evangelical leader than those typically quoted by political journalists. "It's vital for evangelicals to be engaged in social justice issues," he said, adding that while evangelicals tend to vote Republican, his younger parishioners are not so easy to pigeonhole.

Sonderman serves on Common Ground's strategy team, where he has developed new relationships with leaders of other faith traditions, among them Baptist pastor Bobby Sinclair, whose church, Mt. Hermon, is on Milwaukee's North Side, and Father Jeff Haines, whose parish, St. Francis Cabrini, is many miles away in Washington County. When they started talking two years ago, Sinclair told me, he was amazed that people in the affluent counties had many of the same problems and concerns that his inner city parishioners have. "I was surprised to find people in Ozaukee County with the same health-care problems," he says. "And they have drug problems in these counties, too. They know it, but they don't like to talk about it."

The role of lead organizer for Common Ground that Barack Obama might have played is being performed by the IAF's 37-year-old Mark Fraley. Like Obama, Fraley was inspired by the civil rights movement and one of its legendary organizers, Bob Moses. Since arriving in Wisconsin two years ago, Fraley and citizen-leaders he trained have conducted more than 1,500 one-on-one conversations with people across the four counties. And those conversations were followed by scores of small group meetings where new relationships were forged and issues discussed--health care, education, crime, jobs, affordable housing. People learned about other IAF community organizations in Boston, New York and Baltimore that won important victories on similar issues after building a power base that politicians could not ignore. Later this spring, Common Ground's citizen leaders will announce the organization's first issues campaign that, in part, will reflect the self-interest of the membership.

But bread-and-butter self-interest is not the only force that has drawn thousands of heartland residents from their living rooms and into public life. Fraley has discovered a hunger among ordinary people who not only want to do something about the stale, ineffectual politics of our time, but who are also exited about joining hands across the old divides of race, class and party affiliation. In this political season, Obama at his best has both tapped into these sentiments and inspired people to believe that their voices will be heard when the time comes, for example, to discuss, debate and negotiate health care reform in Washington.

To be sure, Inside the Beltway cynics of both political parties, the Karl Roves and Mark Penns, will think this is just pie-in the-sky. But on Sunday in Milwaukee, it sure looked like something new and important was beginning to brighten the political landscape. Will it grow and spread? Could be. As that hardheaded idealist Saul Alinsky one said, "We'll see it when we believe it."