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Grassroots Organizing Powered 2012 Campaigns

Whether it was a quarter million people in San Jose, Calif. voting for a minimum wage increase, or less than a thousand voters in tiny Gould, Ark., considering a slate of city council candidates, or a record number of new voters registering in Phoenix, Ariz., grassroots organizing powered the 2012 elections.

Knocking on doors, educating, and building support paid off  – in many cases, proving that people power could overcome million-dollar spending campaigns.

Leading some of the most successful organizing efforts were some of the newest voters: Latinos and young people. They faced tough opposition and stood strong against intimidation, misinformation and deep-pocket efforts to suppress voters’ rights.

Despite the challenges, energized organizers helped give a voice to many who are often unheard or ignored, giving them a chance to change laws and elect decision makers who share their values.

“The impact of organizing is the power it gives people,” said Daria Ovide, with the Campaign for Arizona’s Future. “It is the best antidote for the kind of fear some of the prevailing powers have instituted in our policies and politics.”

Campaign for Arizona’s Future, a political action committee set up to unseat anti-immigrant Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Maricopa County, Arizona’s largest county, resulted in the registration of 40,000 new voters.

“Now we can put that power into a political movement and move things forward,” said Ovide. “All that power we have gathered can fight the fear, and it can bring change.”

Nationwide, the Latino and youth votes helped President Barack Obama win re-election.

Analysis by the Pew Hispanic Center showed 71 percent of Latinos voting for President Obama compared to 27 percent for his challenger, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Young voters – 60 percent – turned out for Obama as well, especially in Arizona and Florida, according to a New York Times survey.

In Miami, a coalition of organizers, including Florida New Majority, knocked on more than 300,000 doors in a get-out-the-vote effort. Similar efforts occurred throughout the country.

Beyond the presidential election, intense organizing changed many state and local laws and unseated entrenched politicians, with the potential to bring economic and social equity to families in those communities.

In California, organizers helped push through Proposition 30, a $6-billion-a year-package, which includes income tax hikes on the wealthy and a quarter-cent increase in the state’s sales tax, to help fund public education. In tourist-dependent Long Beach, voters approved a $13-per-hour minimum wage for hotel workers; and San Jose approved a $10 minimum wage, a $2-per-hour increase.

San Jose State University students, volunteers and organizers in California successfully campaigned for a $2 per hour minimum wage increase. They were joined by supporter John Carlos, the SJSU student activist known for raising his fist in Mexico City in during the 1968 Olympics. Photo courtesy of Scott Myers-Lipton
San Jose State University students, volunteers and organizers in California successfully campaigned for a $2 per hour minimum wage increase. They were joined by supporter John Carlos, the SJSU student activist known for raising his fist in Mexico City in during the 1968 Olympics. Photo courtesy of Scott Myers-Lipton

Young organizers in San Jose trained and mobilized an army of volunteers and successfully beat back a $1.5 million campaign by the Chamber of Commerce, which hoped to stop the minimum wage measure.

“Grassroots organizing was essential, and it was the difference, because we were heavily outspent,” said Jody Meacham, communications coordinator for Working Partnerships USA in San Jose.

“Calling people, walking precincts, communicating with friends and finding out where the support was, all had to be done with little or no budget, and, as it turned out, we were far more successful than the opponents, who ran an all-media campaign. And that’s saying a lot in California, where media is considered all-important,” said Meacham.

The secret ingredient was human capital, according to Scott Myers-Lipton, a sociology professor at San Jose State University, where students conceived the campaign to raise the minimum wage.

“We formed an incredible coalition of people,” he said. “We didn’t have access to the power elite, so we organized in our communities. When you are a grassroots organizer, you work where you have power: in your local community.”

In Albuquerque, N.M., community organizers were credited for rallying voters, against Chamber of Commerce opposition, to support a $1-per-hour increase in the minimum wage.

“The Chamber said it was going to hurt the economy and take away jobs,” said Rebecca Glenn, communications manager at Organizers in the Land of Enchantment (OLE). “We got out the message that minimum wage workers aren’t all teenagers. Many are older, trying to support families. Educating voters was key.

“People were astonished to learn that minimum wage is only $7.50 an hour,” said Glenn. “This isn’t a Republican or Democrat issue; it is just the right thing to do.”

The harsh opposition organizers faced in some communities tested, and invigorated, their determination to bring change.

In the small town of Gould, Ark., a city council that angered much of the community by banning citizen groups from meeting was replaced with new council members on Election Day. But change in the deeply divided community came at the expense of threats, a burned house and false arrests.

“Organizers did an amazing job of running the campaign in the face of heavy intimidation,” said Bill Kopsky, executive director of the Arkansas Public Policy Panel. “It took a team of great community leaders, great candidates, great organizers, great funders, great supporters, great lawyers and great friends. Everyone had a hand in breathing democracy back to life in south Arkansas.”

On the other side of the country, in Maricopa County, Ariz., young volunteers who registered the most new voters in 40 years, saw how fragile democracy can be, as well as the importance of holding officials accountable.

Their voter registration efforts were threatened just weeks before the election by a series of blunders by the Maricopa County Elections Office, including voter information materials printed with the wrong Election Day (two days too late) – but only on the Spanish versions.

Organizers stepped up demanding that the damage be repaired and voters given the correct information.

“We were angry, we were upset,” said Pedro Lopez, who spent two summers registering voters with Promise Arizona in Action. “We knew it would be a tough election, we knew they would use every trick. But we knew our hard work would pay off in the end.”

The effort paid off for Lopez, who was knocking on doors this fall as a candidate for Cartwright School District Board in Phoenix and won his election.

Not all the campaigns turned out as some had hoped. In Maricopa County, for example, Sheriff Arpaio was re-elected to a sixth term.

Many were disappointed, but the thousands of new voters are also relishing the power of having a voice.

“We want to help people see themselves as part of the political process, not outside of it or subject to it,” said Daria Ovide, with the Campaign for Arizona’s Future. “Now we will focus on flexing our muscles and celebrating how strong we have become.” 

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