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.
Ron Walters, a top aide in Jesse Jackson's 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns, said Jackson's experience as a community organizer and civil rights worker "was systematically pooh-poohed as not important. Here we have the same thing. Barack Obama offers it as one aspect of his experience, and again it is systematically devalued."
Walters says he doesn't understand why — since organizing provides the same close connection with people that Palin claims from being a small-town mayor. Top Obama strategist David Axelrod was also puzzled. "They can demean service in the community," he said on Obama's plane Thursday, "but I think most people appreciate it."
Community service groups reacted strongly Thursday. Maude Hurd, president of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), said her group helps people learn leadership skills so they can work for better schools, wages and treatment from financial institutions. She said the "condescending attacks" were disappointing. A coalition of faith-based groups said political leaders should be thanking community organizers, not insulting them.
Republican John McCain's campaign made a terrible strategic mistake, says David Beckwith, executive director of the Needmor Fund, which funds community organizing across the country, and a board member of the Neighborhood Funders Group. He said the speeches made fun of "the people who are organized, not just the people who are doing the organizing. These are people who are deeply engaged in public life, and there are millions of them."
McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds said Palin's remarks were "a direct response to critics who had belittled her executive experience, in particular her experience as mayor. Certainly community organizers serve a valued function in civic affairs."
Several Republicans attending the convention said Thursday that they have nothing against community organizers. Former New Jersey governor Tom Kean said he worked with many of them when he ran a camp for underprivileged children years ago in New Hampshire. "Community organizing is a very valuable thing," he said.
He and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty said Palin and Giuliani were trying to underscore what they contend are Obama's slight qualifications for the presidency. "It goes to the issue of what has he run, what has he done. He's run nothing. He's accomplished not much," Pawlenty said.
Kellman says he left the organizing project a year after hiring Obama — and left Obama in charge. "He was director of the project for two years," Kellman says, and met the big challenge of stabilizing and expanding its church and foundation funding.
"He took something that was really flimsy and built it into something strong," Kellman says. "He made sure that when he left, there was something that would survive his leaving."