US: Where are the Obama youth?
Truthout, Jamilah King
It’s a Thursday afternoon and Romero Jackson is busy mapping outreach plans for Milwaukee’s North Side, home to some of the city’s youngest and hardest to reach potential voters. At 25, he’s the field director for the Campaign Against Violence, the Wisconsin-based arm of the League of Young Voters. Today he’s jockeying between his laptop and stacks of voter pledges, while trading jokes around the room about what might help him grow taller. At barely 5-foot-5, Jackson’s got a slight build with smooth dark skin and short dreadlocks that trail his every move.
His words are nervous at first, but come easily once he’s comfortable. It’s that self-assured vulnerability that likely draws people to him, making him seem much bigger than he really is. And with less than two weeks left until the state’s big midterm elections, he’ll need all the charm he can muster to bring voters to the polls. Enthusiasm for the election in this part of town is in short supply.
The recent redevelopment of downtown Milwaukee isn’t visible in the North Side. Dr. Martin Luther King Avenue, the area’s main thoroughfare, is adorned with a healthy dose of Pentecostal and Baptist churches, a candy store, a few cell phone depots—and lots of empty storefronts for rent. Either side of the boulevard is surrounded by modest family homes whose lawns occasionally betray their owners’ political leanings. A stately brick home with a freshly manicured lawn boasts signs for local Democrats. Just a few minutes down the street, another home has got a sign up supporting the Republican gubernatorial candidate, Scott Walker. That Republicans have a foothold even in North Side is an indication of how disastrous the midterm elections have turned out for Wisconsin Democrats.
For Jackson, this year’s election is a big one, too. It’s his first time voting; he couldn’t cast a ballot in 2008 because he was on probation. Not that it stopped him from canvassing with friends and talking to neighbors about why Barack Obama needed to be elected president. Jackson was one piece of the energy that generated an historic black-youth voting wave in 2008—one that helped create a new generation of voters that was widely expected to permanently change electoral politics. Youth organizers like Jackson helped draw in millions of eager, young black voters in record numbers.
This year, Jackson has taken to the streets with new vigor. From Monday through Saturday, he and a team of paid interns spend at least five hours each day canvassing, phone banking, or promoting events to get out the vote. Jackson’s one of the oldest of the group, while the rest are just a few years out of high school and not necessarily intent on college. They’re all friends and cousins who’ve mostly grown up together, and are slowly becoming politicized through their efforts to get out the vote.
In many ways, Wisconsin is ground zero for the massive shifts currently shaking up the nation’s politics. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Barrett and Sen. Russ Feingold, a Democratic icon to many, are both in pitched battles that have become national symbols of the party’s peril this year. Milwaukee and its black vote turnout is key to giving either candidate any serious shot at victory.
Of course, as a 501c(3) non-profit, federal law prevents Jackson’s voter-outreach group from openly endorsing any candidate. But that’s just as well, because neither party has captivated this cadre of canvassers, or the many people they talk to each day. Instead, they’re focusing their energy on the more basic concept of civic participation. And they’re using more basic tools, too—promoting a mixtape that encourages youth turnout, throwing a Halloween-themed party that’s aimed at getting families excited to go to the polls.
Jackson himself admits to being only “kinda sorta excited” about this year’s candidates. He met Tom Barrett at a recent lunch, but his most memorable political experience came the day he convinced 15 guys standing on a North Side corner to fill out voter pledge forms. It was a small but important moment that proved that his efforts could have a direct impact on his community, he says.
“If no one gets out to vote, it’s gonna stay the same,” Jackson says. “Like a Twilight Zone.”
There’s something intangible that makes this year’s election different than most. For many, Barack Obama’s candidacy brought to the forefront a new, more accessible form of democracy. There was a massive communications network that engaged voters online, on the phone, and on their blocks. And there was Obama himself: a man of color who seemed to code switch his way from Chicago’s South Side to Harvard, who talked openly about racial profiling and boasted having Jay-Z on his iPod. He was a well-packaged newcomer who looked, talked, and presumably saw the world through the same eyes as many young people of color. And those eyes weren’t accustomed to the view from the White House.
Though Obama himself warned that his brand of change would be a gradual one, his election inspired many young voters—particularly African Americans—to engage in a political process from which they had long felt alienated. African-American young people voted in unprecedented numbers; their generation was believed to have come of political age in 2008. They had grown up alongside civil rights lore, had been told from birth that they were benefiting from decades of racial, economic and gender struggles that all seemed to culminate on election night in Chicago’s Grant Park. It’s unclear whether young voters themselves were ever willing participants in that narrative. But what’s certain is that two years later, the story arc has become decidedly less triumphant. In cities like Milwaukee, one pervasive question stands above the rest: What has happened to hope?
But youth voter advocates warn that’s the wrong question altogether. If you want to get young people of all colors involved, they say, it’s crucial to understand what drives them into politics. And more often than not, it’s got little to do with partisan campaigns or any particular candidate and much more to do with feeling that they’re heard and can control their own destinies.
A New Generation of Voters
It’s a rainy Saturday morning and nearly 200 people have gathered in downtown Milwaukee’s Red Arrow Park for a rally. With less than two weeks left before Election Day, people have gathered their small kids, big jackets, umbrellas and campaign signs to line up along the park’s concrete and listen to the state’s embattled Democrats make their cases.
Each candidate is there to encourage voters to cast ballots early, a tactic that’s proved increasingly successful for Democrats. Wisconsin Rep. Gwen Moore tells the crowd to stop “drinking the poisoned tea,” a reference to the emergence of the GOP’s tea party backed candidates Scott Walker and Ron Johnson. Tom Barrett, the city’s current mayor who’s locked in a tight race for governor, rambles his way through a story about discontinued bus lines near his Milwaukee home before settling instead for a sports analogy. “This is the fourth quarter of an NBA basketball game,” Barrett yells. “Their whole bet is that you stay home. I want them to lose that bet!”
Finally, crowd-favorite Feingold takes the stage. An 18-year incumbent, Feingold’s career has been characterized by his frequent breaks with party lines. In 2001, he was the only senator to vote against the Patriot Act. Campaign finance and health care reform are both issues that he proudly champions, despite widespread public backlash. But in a tough election season that’s proven hostile to incumbents, Feingold’s fighting for his political life against Johnson, a plastics manufacturer and tea party favorite who this week has a 2-point lead in the polls.
Still, Feingold knows what appeals most to his base. “There’s a ranking of senators that came out recently on Capitol Hill,” he tells the crowd. “Who’s the hottest, who’s a gym rant? I was none of those things,” he jokes. “But I was voted the number one enemy in Washington!” The crowd loves it.
David Crowley loves it, too. He’s been crisscrossing the crowd all morning, setting up speakers and shaking hands. At 24, Crowley is a field organizer for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, and a former employee of Feingold’s who once headed the senator’s African-American outreach committee. He credits Feingold’s rebellious approach to keeping him interested in politics. A few minutes later, when about a third of the crowd ventures up the street to cast early ballots, Crowley’s there snapping pictures on his camera phone. “This turnout is great,” he says, smiling. “Even better than we expected.”
A day earlier, Crowley sat at a restaurant and explained why, for him, the role of Democratic Party operative didn’t seem likely. Born and raised in MIlwaukee, he recounts how both of his parents battled addiction and an older brother was diagnosed a paranoid schizophrenic. He describes himself as a “rough-and-tumble kid” who popped pistols and flirted with selling drugs until he joined Urban Underground, a youth development organization, in high school. That’s when he began to see himself as part of a solution. He began leading workshops on the prison pipeline that was quickly swallowing many of the state’s black youth (“We went from herding animals to herding people,” he jokes) and began studying education at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, before taking a leave from school and getting involved in politics.
These days, Crowley jokes about his lack of a social life. A typical day starts just after dawn and ends shortly before midnight. His day is filled with door-to-door outreach, conference calls and emails, all in an effort to bring more people to the polls on Nov. 2. He estimates that he talks to an average of 200 people each day, and lately, their reactions have been mixed. Most people he runs into don’t know much about this year’s midterm elections, and know even less about their state’s pivotal role on the national political map.
“This election isn’t about Feingold or Barrett, ” he says over breakfast. “It’s about Obama.” Later, he hones in on his point. “All I’m trying to do is build a structure for 2012, because it’s not going to be as easy as it was [in 2008], if this year is any indication.”
That line may move some voters, but it doesn’t work on many. Particularly, he says, younger ones, who point out that their fortunes haven’t changed with a black president in office. It’s a strikingly changed attitude for a state that ranked second in youth voter turnout two years ago.
On Sept. 28, President Obama kicked off his national outreach to young voters with a speech at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. It was an indication of just how crucial Wisconsin’s young electorate is to Democrats. Obama warned the crowd against dropping a ball that was almost certainly in their court. “The biggest mistake we could make is to let disappointment or frustration lead to apathy. … That is how the other side wins,” he told a crowd of 26,000 supporters. “If the other side does win, they will spend the next two years fighting for the very same policies that led to this recession in the first place." CNN noted that the rally lacked the excitement of 2008, and the Washington Post declared that the mood of the day was “upbeat but controlled.”
Young voters, particularly those of color, have become increasingly important to the nation’s elections. In 2008, 68 percent of voters under 29 chose Obama, continuing a trend from 2006 in which nearly six in 10 young voters supported Democrats. But Obama’s election was a record-breaking moment for black and Latino voters, as the youth vote helped close the long-standing black-white gap in turnout.
According to the latest Census figures, black youth had the highest turnout among voters aged 18-24 of any ethnic group, and nearly two million more voted in 2008 than in 2004. Two million more young Latino voters also showed up at the polls, and roughly 600,000 more Asian-American voters. Meanwhile, the polling rate among young white voters stayed the same as 2004.
|Powered by Sigsiu.NET|