The biggest punch line so far at this Republican convention in St. Paul: “community organizer.”
Why did these two words suddenly become the zinger of the night at the convention?
The credit or blame for launching the “community organizer” mock-fest goes to former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani who told the convention Wednesday night, “You have a resume from a gifted man with an Ivy League education. He worked as a — community organizer.”
He paused and then said, “What?” as if to express befuddlement at that job title.
Giuliani had eloquent body language — a dismissive half-shrug — as he said the words, “community organizer.”
Immediately the delegates on the convention floor burst into laughter and guffaws.
GOP vice presidential candidate Gov. Sarah Palin also poked fun at Obama’s work as a community organizer, contrasting it with her own work as a mayor.
In a campaign stop in Pennsylvania Thursday, Obama defended his community organizing: "Why would that kind of work be ridiculous? Who are they (Republicans) fighting for... They think that the lives of those folks who are struggling each and every day, that working with them to try to improve their lives is somehow not relevant to the presidency?"
Work in Chicago in 1985
Right out of college, Obama worked in 1985 for a group called the Calumet Community Religious Conference to help unemployed people find jobs. According to the Chicago Tribune, the group also urged the city government to fill potholes and put up stop signs.
In his first post-primary campaign TV ad, Obama referred to his work as a community organizer, saying his dedication to public service “led me to pass up Wall Street jobs and go to Chicago instead, helping neighborhoods devastated when steel plants closed.”
Mocking Obama for using “community organizer” as a credential illustrates a Republican strategy of taking what an opponent thought was one of his strengths and trying to convert it into a weakness — like the Republican attacks on John Kerry's Vietnam service in the 2004 presidential campaign.
What Obama’s fans see as noble and altruistic, Republicans see as a bit absurd.
On Thursday, Republican delegates who reviewed the Giuliani-Palin mockery of the previous night varied in their reactions.
Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., said delegates reacted with laugher to the phrase “probably because a lot of folks don’t have much of an idea of what a ‘community organizer’ just might be.”
And in any event, Kyl said, Republicans don’t see “how it might prepare you to be president of the United States.”
'Whatever that exactly means'
Kyl added, “All life experiences shape your judgment and your ability to respond to crisis. So I don’t denigrate his law experience. He was primarily a lawyer while he was, quote, ‘organizing the community’ — whatever that exactly means.”
Kyl was partly wrong: Obama worked in Chicago as an organizer before he went to law school. He also did some organizing after he returned to Chicago after getting a law degree from Harvard.
“I’m all for anybody who goes to a community and tries to help people who need help,” the Arizona senator added. “That’s a very good thing to try to do. The problem with Obama is not what he did, but that there’s not much of it.”
Delegate Randall Dunning, who served for five years as a city councilman in Garland, Texas, said, “Community organizers are big talkers, but they’re not necessarily big workers. There’s not a lot of accountability when their ideas fail or when their programs don’t succeed. As a municipal official, I had to interact with community organizers. We work under a whole lot tougher accountability structure than community organizers do.”
He added, “It’s like a title that doesn’t have a lot of responsibility, and you can’t get hurt if you screw up, you just disappear into the woodwork. To be fair, some do very good and credible work, but others are almost like the protestors” seen here in St Paul.
Good preparation for presidency?
But Democrats I interviewed last winter before the Iowa caucuses admired Obama’s community organizing. And they saw it as directly relevant to his ability to handle the presidency.
When I asked about the argument used by Obama’s then-rival for the nomination, Sen. Joe Biden, that he (Biden) had worked with the foreign ministers and presidents ever since he went to the Senate in 1973, while Obama had not, one Obama fan, Margaret Weiner scoffed, “Hot air.”
She added, “To me the experience of (Obama) working on a community organizing level shows a way of relating to people that’s important, which is helping them decide what is good for them.”
Republicans could not see it more differently.
An Arizona alternate delegate Lou Munoz brushed off Obama’s work. “A community organizer is nothing but a rabble rouser,” Munoz said.
Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said Democrats had brought the mockery on Obama by belittling Palin’s work as mayor of Wasilla, Alaska.
“This is nothing I heard people make fun of, until the Obama campaign belittled her mayoral experience,” Flake said.
'The block watch kind of thing'
Flake said in his district in Arizona people would not know what a community organizer is – since they aren’t any there of the kind that Obama was. “It’s more the block watch kind of thing — that’s’ what people put it in the realm of,” Flake said.
But other Republicans in St. Paul said they either know a community organizer, or had done some work as community organizers themselves.
For these Republicans “community organizer” is a synonymous with volunteer.
“We all know that. We all do it on an everyday basis,” said Ed Sanchez, a delegate from Phoenix. “So what else can you do? What else can you show me?”
Sanchez has a job as a government consultant for the Hopi tribe and other clients, but has worked as a volunteer board member for a group which works in Arizona with senior citizens and runs a charter school.
Brent Lovett, a general contractor and a delegate from Las Vegas, said, “I don’t believe a community organizer is in the same realm or on the same level as a city council person, a mayor or a governor."
"I’ve actually done some community organizing myself, working in parts of Las Vegas that are more poverty-stricken and trying to organize communities to paint over graffiti and things of that nature," Sanchez said. "We’re trying to clean up a certain section of Las Vegas. Still, it’s not the same as city council person or mayor or governor. I don’t think it even comes close.”