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Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Obama Supporters Are Now ‘Organizing for Action’

Advocates are focused on issues, not elections

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President Barack Obama won two national elections thanks, in large part, to his campaign’s ability to link his deep and wide grassroots support with the latest social media technology.

But that connection hasn’t disappeared now that Obama is no longer running for office.

His official Obama for America campaign has morphed into Organizing for Action (OFA), a nonpolitical, nonpartisan network of community activists attempting to build support for Obama’s major initiatives, including comprehensive immigration reform, climate change legislation, universal background checks for all gun purchases and access to health care.

In Milwaukee, the East Side Organizing for Action got off the ground in January and has held a number of events and press conferences, mostly around background checks for gun purchases. Last week, outside of the Lake Express ferry on the Lake Michigan shoreline, it held a press conference to raise awareness about climate change.

The group scored what it calls a big victory last Thursday, when a handful of OFA representatives met with Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson to discuss immigration, climate change and gun control.

The OFA members didn’t change the notoriously conservative senator’s mind on any of their chosen issues. But Paul Geenen, East Side OFA’s leader, said that the meeting was “awesome” and “he took us seriously,” despite Johnson’s continued denial of man-made climate change.

Did Johnson really listen to their concerns?

“He’s not a listening kind of guy,” Geenen said.

 

‘We Have Amazing Data’

The new OFA fills a vacuum left at the end of almost every campaign, when activists are still interested in working toward shared goals, but the personal connections are lost after the votes are tallied.

Geenen, a retired entrepreneur and the author of Milwaukee’s Bronzeville 1900-1950, said the repurposed OFA allows Obama volunteers to stay connected and use the skills that they learned in getting him re-elected.

“We do the digital stuff really well,” Geenen said. “We have amazing data.”

For example, right after meeting with Johnson, Geenen tweeted a photo of the OFA members with the senator. Almost immediately, OFA’s national director, Sara El-Amine, retweeted the photo to all of OFA’s Twitter followers, building momentum for the cause. The group’s climate change press conference is also featured on the national OFA website.

That kind of national-local link is constant, said Geenen, who is on strategy- and message-related conference calls at least once a week. When national emails go out, “it’s like a light switch goes on,” Geenen said, with support flooding in.

OFA groups across the country are primarily made up of volunteers, but additional paid staffers are being added as the five-month-old organization grows.

That volunteer-based grassroots network allows members to take on local issues that are important to them. In Wisconsin, that could mean improving voting rights currently under assault by state legislators, while OFA in Illinois is pushing for marriage equality.

“It’s certainly evolving,” said Jim Gramling, a retired municipal judge and East Side OFA member. “That top-down structure is not as evident now.”

 

Enacting the Winning 2012 Agenda Isn’t Easy

Organizing for Action is a 501(c)(4) tax-exempt social welfare organization, the kind that the Internal Revenue Service has scrutinized for partisan bias. Not surprisingly, conservatives and Republicans have charged that OFA is a political group doing Obama’s bidding and abusing its tax-exempt status.

But OFA members stress their independence and their focus on issues like background checks that are supported by wide majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents. The group came under fire for criticizing Democrats who oppose gun control, while it held a thank-you event for Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain—which he attended—for his support of universal background checks. And Gramling said OFA supporters often feel that Obama isn’t as progressive on their issues as they would like.

At the climate change event, the only mildly partisan comment came from Mark Gill, from the Milwaukee chapter of Bill McKibben’s 350.org. Gill kidded that there are now more openly gay professional athletes and Catholic popes than there are Republicans in Congress who recognize climate change.

“Organizing for Action is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization focused on making sure that the agenda that the American people voted for in 2012 is enacted in Congress,” said Ben Finkenbinder, regional communications director for OFA. “And it’s doing so through volunteers and OFA supporters and actions across the country to make sure that their elected officials know where they stand on the issues. We’re trying to push the scales of power back to the American people instead of the special interests.”

OFA groups across the country haven’t won any battles in Congress just yet. But Gramling said that success isn’t always measured in votes cast on specific bills. 

“When you speak out, you don’t know who is listening or who is actually being affected by your message,” Gramling said. “But from my perspective, it’s important that voices and opinions be expressed repeatedly to decision-makers so they don’t make decisions in a vacuum and say later, ‘I just didn’t hear that message.’”