Poll watchers. Voter lists. Precinct callers. By March 2004, John and Michelle Presta’s grassroots movement was a machine that cranked up again in 2006 and 2008. (More)

Mr. and Mrs. Grassroots, Part III – Machine (Non-Cynical Saturday)

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

Pulling it all together.

By March 1, 2004 Barack Obama had taken a slight lead in the Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate seat. Senator Peter Fitzgerald (R) had announced he would not seek reelection, and Jack Ryan was leading the Republican primary. Obama’s campaign had saved their money for the last three weeks of the primary race, but now their advertizing blitz was on and Obama’s lead was growing.

Still, the grassroots took nothing for granted. John and Michelle Presta were the area coordinators for the southwest side of Chicago, covering nearly 150 precincts. They scheduled poll watchers at every precinct. The poll watchers went out early to set up Obama signs, and the Prestas had a truck full of replacement signs ready as signs were damaged or knocked down. The poll watchers had palm cards that showed how to mark the ballot, and most also had “poll sheets” – lists of registered voters in each precinct who supported Obama, compiled from county records and canvassing reports. As voters came in, poll watchers checked off their names. After the lunchtime voting rush, the poll watchers reported back with the names of supporters who had not yet voted. Other volunteers contacted them one by one.

The Prestas’ grassroots teams were using the same strategies as the vaunted Chicago machine. With only about 300 volunteers to cover 150 precincts, they couldn’t match the machine’s manpower. But with they made up the difference in energy. While the Chicago machine came in shifts, most of the Prestas’ volunteers worked the entire day.

A landslide victory.

Obama was not expected to win anything in the 19th Ward. Dan Hynes grew up there, and he was popular in the neighborhood. Obama’s campaign manager, Jim Cauley, thought they would “get creamed.” But the Prestas’ teams had been canvassing for months. One volunteer reported having knocked on over 700 doors in his precinct. That precinct went 85% for Obama. Hynes narrowly won the 19th Ward overall, but it was nowhere near enough. In a field of seven candidates, Obama carried over 52% of the statewide vote. Hynes finished second with less than 24%. The grassroots movement had become a Grassroots Machine, powerful enough to beat the Chicago Machine.

Obama’s victory in the Illinois Senate primary garnered nationwide attention, and an invitation to give the keynote speech in the 2004 Democratic National Convention. That speech, Obama’s first to a nationwide audience, set him on the path to the presidency in 2008.

For the grassroots volunteers, the general election campaign posed a difficult choice. The Obama campaign needed both the grassroots machine they had built and the Chicago machine’s political heavyweights. The Obama campaign asked the Prestas and their volunteers to work with the 19th Ward structure, but for some the primary wounds were still too fresh.

Fortunately, the general election was never in doubt. Republican nominee Jack Ryan was forced to withdraw in July, after courts unsealed his 1999 divorce files. His replacement, Alan Keyes, moved to Illinois only days before entering the race and had no political ties in the state. Obama won with over 70% of the vote.

The Grassroots Machine gears up again, and again.

John and Michelle Presta did not expect to work another political campaign. The call from Debra Shore, founding editor of Chicago Wilderness Magazine, came as a surprise. She would be running for Metropolitan Water Reclamation Commissioner in 2006, and Dan Shomon had suggested she call the Prestas. They had founded the Reading On Walden Political Discussion Group with most of their 300 volunteers from the 2004 Obama campaign. The group met periodically to talk politics, but Shomon knew the Prestas could turn it into a political machine again.

And Shore would need a machine. The Chicago machine had traditionally placed candidates on the Water Reclamation Commission as a reward for party loyalty. Shore’s candidacy “drew scoffs and giggling on the part of career politicians.” They couldn’t believe an environmentalist would run for the commission, and thought she had no chance against the hand-picked candidates of the Chicago machine. They didn’t count on the Prestas.

Once the Prestas met Shore, they knew she was their kind of candidate: fully committed to bringing better government to Cook County citizens. Their first priority was to interest volunteers in a race for a county commission most had never heard of. To do that, they invited Shore to speak at their political discussion group. She won over their volunteers, and they got to work gathering petitions to get her on the ballot. She wanted at least 16,000 signatures, enough to weather the inevitable challenges from the Chicago machine. With the Prestas’ help, she got over 20,000.

Just as the Grassroots Machine was beginning to roll for Shore, Obama sent another candidate to them. Alexi Giannoulias was running for Illinois State Treasurer. Yet again, it was time to gather petitions. Yet again, they would face a Chicago machine opponent, so they would need more than enough signatures to survive challenges.

And yet again, the Grassroots Machine would have to turn out the vote on election day. The Prestas and their volunteers poured the same energy into the Shore and Giannoulias campaigns that they had given the Obama campaign two years before. And yet again … their candidates won.

In from Iowa … off to Indiana.

The Prestas and their Grassroots Machine would play a very different role in Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. Obama would not need their help to win the 19th Ward, or Chicago, or even Illinois. But the presidency is a national race, and Obama again faced experienced opponents with extensive political connections: John Edwards and especially Hillary Clinton.

To win the Democratic nomination, the Obama campaign knew they would need to win the caucus states, starting with Iowa. In 2004, Howard Dean’s netroots volunteers had met a cool reception in Iowa. In 2008, Obama’s grassroots volunteers were Iowans … trained by the Prestas and others in Chicago. His win in that state kicked off a string of grassroots-driven caucus victories that gave him an insurmountable delegate lead.

John Presta wasn’t in Grant Park on the night of November 4, 2008 to watch President-Elect Obama address his hometown. He was in Indiana, where he’d been sent to train and lead still more volunteers. It was a state no one expected Obama to win. No Democrat had carried Indiana since LBJ in 1964, and he was the first Democrat to win the state since FDR in 1936. Obama won, by less than 30,000 votes from over 2.7 million cast. In a margin that narrow, credit the grassroots.

As progressive Democratic activists, we need to be John Prestas and find other John Prestas in our communities. We and they are the difference between victory and defeat.


Happy Saturday!