SPEAKERS AT the GOP convention last week launched a barrage of heavy sarcasm at an ill-chosen target: community organizers. The attacks generated a lot of snickering from the Republican delegates and may have succeeded at exploiting the resentment some voters feel toward big cities, where community organizers do a lot of their work. But on substance, the attacks border on slaphappy.
Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, former mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, needled Democrat Barack Obama, who worked for three years in Chicago with public housing tenants in the 1980s before launching his political career. A small-town mayor, said Palin, is "sort of like a community organizer, except that you have actual responsibilities." Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani had warmed up his state delegation earlier with similar barbs aimed at Obama: "He was a community organizer. . . . What do they do?"
Giuliani, of course, knows better. Community organizers played a significant role in helping him redeem blighted public land, create jobs, start new businesses, fight crime, and increase city revenues when he served as mayor from 1994-2001. And Governor Palin knows the role of community organizers at the nonprofit Alaska Community Development Corporation, who help thousands of families with weatherization and housing improvements.
The Republican Party wants to build a 1960s-era frame around Obama. They hope a picture emerges of a candidate steeped in the period's racial politics and penchant for confrontation over results. But the 1960s were not the formative period for the 47-year-old presidential candidate, and reckless confrontation is not his way.
The GOP attacks on community organizers sound even more foolish when applied to today's practitioners. Many of them are as comfortable in boardrooms negotiating the sale of Low Income Housing Tax Credits or working with bankers to prevent foreclosures as they are holding English classes in church basements. In nearly every major city, neighborhood organizers advance successful nonpartisan policies, including community policing and mixed-income public housing. And in Boston, it was community organizers, not the GOP, who took on the city's teachers union when it became clear that union work rules stood in the way of education reform.
Republican delegates had a good laugh at the expense of community organizers. But it makes about as much sense as poking fun at nurses or safety engineers.