Caution and cooperation. Outreach and organization. Training and tenacity. John and Michelle Presta brought all of these to grassroots campaigning. (More)

Mr. and Mrs. Grassroots

This week Morning Feature reviews Mr. and Mrs. Grassroots, John Presta’s first-person account of his and his wife Michelle’s political activism. Today we look at their early campaigns: community policing and Barack Obama’s 2000 House race. Tomorrow we’ll see how they built a movement for Obama’s 2004 Senate race. Saturday we’ll see how that movement became a machine for local and state races as well as for Obama’s 2008 campaign.

A Murder in Their Neighborhood

Beverly Hills/Morgan Park is “about as far South and West as you can go and still be in Chicago.” It’s an upscale neighborhood that grew after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Commuter trains enabled wealthy residents to leave the congested city for lavish homes on the hill, yet still work and shop downtown … suburbia before the term reached the U.S.

In 1991 it was an ethnically diverse neighborhood and the home of 81-year-old Chicago Tribune food critic and author Ruth Ellen Church. On August 13, she was found strangled in her home, the victim of an apparent burglar. There had been several local break-ins, including businesses on Walden Avenue where John and Michelle Presta owned a tiny bookstore. The murder catalyzed the community, and the Prestas began working with the Beverly Area Planning Association.

Presta wasn’t “Mr. Grassroots” then. He was “Mr. Crime.” The Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy program wasn’t working, in part because too few people knew about it. CAPS meetings in their area had more police representatives than residents. The Prestas took over the publicity. They asked homeowners’ groups for the names of active members. They asked Alderman Ginger Rugai for the names of people who applied for block party permits. They set up 40 block captains who delivered flyers door-to-door. They mailed announcements, and talked up the program with customers at their bookstore.

Within a year they had 50-100 residents attending the monthly CAPS meetings. The Prestas formed a neighborhood watch, and spent many evening and weekend hours driving around with a police scanner and a cell phone. “You’re not to get involved,” John told his volunteers. “You don’t get out of your car and intervene, regardless. We’re the eyes and ears of the police, not the hands and feet.” The watch reported vandalism, abandoned cars, and suspected drug deals. They made the CAPS program work on their beat and set an example for other neighborhoods to follow.

Their motto was Together We Can. It was a phrase they would hear again.

“Barack Obama’s an author, you know.”

John and Michelle Presta didn’t campaign for Congressman Bobby Rush, but they voted for him. They liked him well enough. He voted their way on the issues, and they saw no reason to back any of the challengers in 2000. Rep. Rush faced several opponents in the Democratic primary for Illinois’ 1st District, mostly because he had challenged Richard M. Daley in the 1999 mayoral election and lost. Among those who sensed weakness was a young member of the Illinois State Senate: Barack Obama.

Presta had never met Obama, though they had both worked on some projects through the Beverly Area Planning Authority. John Presta had served on BAPA’s Board of Directors, along with a local political activist named Greg Richmond. Richmond worked on the staff of the Illinois State Senate, where he met Barack Obama. Richmond told Obama’s campaign manager, Dan Shomon, to go see the Prestas about organizing volunteers.

When Shomon came to their bookstore, the Prestas gave him a “cool reception.” So Shomon came back. Again and again. The Prestas did not agree to support Obama, but they did grow to admire Shomon’s persistence and professionalism. Finally Shomon hit on the key to their interest: “Barack Obama’s an author, you know.” Shomon asked if the campaign could order 20 copies of Dreams of My Father, to give away as introductory pieces. The Prestas ordered the 20 copies, and more after that as the campaign continued giving them away. But they still didn’t support Obama’s campaign.

The Empty Chair

Dan Shomon finally convinced John Presta to do one thing: organize a candidate forum through the Beverly Area Planning Authority. Presta contacted the local chapter of the League of Women Voters, whose experience would both make it easier to run the forum and give it added credibility. Not surprisingly, Shomon assured Presta that Obama would be there. Lacking money and with city political machine connections, Barack Obama needed a face-to-face debate with Rep. Rush to gain media attention. Knowing that, Rep. Rush had declined every debate challenge.

Presta signed up every other candidate in the race. He contacted Rep. Rush again and again, and each time Rep. Rush said no. Finally, Presta suggested to the other organizers that they put a chair on the podium for each candidate they had invited. If Rep. Rush did not attend, his chair would be empty. The organizers agreed, and media stories announcing the forum focused on the question: would Rep. Bobby Rush be “The Empty Chair?”

It was a bait Rep. Rush could not ignore. On the day of the forum, his campaign called Presta to say they would attend. But Rep. Rush asked them to delay the start by 30 minutes, because he would be traveling from another campaign stop. Presta refused. The moderators, audience, media, and other candidates would be there on time. If Rep. Rush wasn’t, the forum would begin and his chair would remain empty until he arrived.

Congressman Rush did arrive, a half-hour late. By then, Barack Obama had already won over the audience. He had also mobilized John and Michelle Presta. They agreed to support his campaign.

Obama lost that campaign, but as we’ll see tomorrow, the Prestas began to build a movement.

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Happy Thursday!