'Community organizer' slams attract support for Obama

ByABC News
September 4, 2008, 11:54 PM

ST. PAUL -- Some of the loudest roars at the Republican convention this week came when vice presidential pick Sarah Palin and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani made fun of Democrat Barack Obama's experience as a community organizer. Hours later, the Obama campaign started raising money off the jokes.

"They insulted the very idea that ordinary people have a role to play in our political process," campaign manager David Plouffe wrote Thursday in an early-morning fundraising e-mail. "Let's clarify something for them right now. Community organizing is how ordinary people respond to out-of-touch politicians and their failed policies."

Obama moved to Chicago after college and did church-based organizing to help people who lost their jobs when steel mills closed.

"I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer, except that you have actual responsibilities," Palin said to an eruption of cheers. She was mayor of Wasilla, Alaska (population: 9,780) from 1996 to 2002. Giuliani was interrupted with boos and laughter as soon as he uttered the phrase. "OK, OK, maybe this is the first problem on the resume," he said, laughing.

Jerry Kellman is the man who hired Obama as an organizer for the Developing Communities Project in 1985 at a salary of $10,000 a year. Obama's job: find out what people needed, be it job training programs, asbestos removal or potholes filled, and help them work together to get action from their elected officials.

The South Side Chicago area was devastated by factory closings and pollution, Kellman says, and people were discouraged by poverty and discrimination. "They had to be motivated to come out and try again and work with people they didn't necessarily see eye to eye with and maybe didn't even like," he says. He says Obama interviewed them, helped them strategize and "brought out their gifts."

The experience taught Obama to listen well and get along with all kinds of people, Kellman says. Obama says it gave him the grass-roots model for his highly successful presidential campaign.