OHIO STATE OF MIND: Bowzer & Me Save Democracy

EDITOR’S NOTE: Matt Goldfine has been working in Philadelphia and Harrisburg politics for the last five years. Tired of fretting over the polls from afar, he drove out to Ohio on Sunday to volunteer for the Obama campaign’s get-out-the-vote drive. He will be filing regular dispatches from Ohio up to election night

BY MATT GOLDFINE As I drove through downtown Cleveland this morning, an eerie fog clouded the tops of skyscrapers off in the distance. All the streetlights were all out and the ordinarily bustling sidewalks were empty.  I got a text message that the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party HQ, where I’m being stationed, has no power. The parking lot was empty, as was that of the more excitingly decorated building next door, the Crazy Horse strip club. As I got out of my car to head to a coffee shop, a sudden wind gust sent my car door flying shut, gashing my calf on the way. The rain blew sideways in front of me and I took a second to enjoy the scene, and savor the calm before the storm.

This Saturday, the madness begins. Organizing for America, the president’s campaign commonly referred to as OFA, will merge completely with state and local efforts to transform into the much vaunted ground game that is supposed to slay the Romney/GOP super-PAC dragon. Thousands of volunteers across Ohio and other battleground states will hit the ground running en masse in an effort to contact Democrats, independents and Republicans who have said they plan to vote for the president to make sure they get out and vote. Canvassers have been working for weeks to turn out early voters, but hundreds of thousands more will vote next Tuesday.

While much of this campaign has seen the Obama campaign slam Romney for his corporate ties, OFA’s effort very much has the structure and planning of a corporate conglomerate. At each of the 60 or so OFA offices in the area, there are manuals detailing plans with well-defined divisions of labor, flow charts, and minute by minute schedules explaining what each of the different leaders at the staging locations need to be doing from 4 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Election Day. Baristas at Starbucks locations don’t get this much direction. The fun and craziness of a buzzing campaign office is still a few days off for me, for right now I have been assigned to help out with the local effort, working with the field staff of Senator Sherrod Brown [PICTURED, ABOVE RIGHT]. OFA has scores of field directors across the county; the state party and Brown campaign only have a fraction of that, while his opponent Josh Mandel and his supporters have spent upwards of $30 million against him.

I’m glad to be working with Senator Brown’s campaign. He’s an unabashed progressive from the Paul Wellstone wing of the Democratic Party. Take Ed Rendell’s gravely voice and gravitas, mix in the working man’s respect that Bob Brady gets, the voting record and leadership on social issues of Allyson Schwartz, the willingness to challenge the corporatocracy unlike any Philly politician really has, and then you get Sherrod Brown. His political enemies have no problem with stoking the darkest fears of the electorate [PICTURED, BELOW LEFT]. In Pennsylvania you can push a button to vote straight party ticket, but not in Ohio. As a result you see a bigger “undervote” here, where people just vote for president and nothing else. Brown’s staffers aren’t worried, but they’re not taking any chances and are working hard to make sure voters keep pressing buttons after they vote for Obama.

I asked some of the people in the office about the city’s political machine, interested to see if this rust belt town’s Democratic committee is like ours in Philly, and they laugh. They tell me the city used to have a machine, and they are all in jail now. The past few years have seen one kingmaker after another brought down; a local paper even has a dedicated section on its website: “Cuyahoga County in Crisis: Continuing Coverage of the FBI’s Public Corruption Investigation.”

What Cleveland does share with Philly is a very ethnically-entrenched electorate. The city’s majority African-American population is reflected electorally. The Latino community here is growing rapidly, but does not seem to have matured politically. Irish and Italian communities have dominated politics here for years, but there are also other large and influential white ethnic communities, much larger than those in Port Richmond or the Northeast. Though shrinking in size, working-class neighborhoods of central and eastern European descent still make up good chunks of the voting populace, and it does play into political strategies.

I’m told that in past elections fliers have appeared in white neighborhoods depicting a black man stealing welfare money. Turning working-class communities against each other is a classic GOP tactic for dividing the low to moderate income populace —  from driving a wedge between black and Jewish communities during the Vietnam War era to Reagan’s mythical welfare queen of the ‘80s to the present day efforts to paint immigrant communities as job-stealing illegals.Some elections here have also seen sleazy  robo-calls and mailers telling Democratic voters to vote on the wrong day or with incorrect poll location information, and this election has already seen its share of voter intimidation.

Earlier in this month billboards went up in black and Latino neighborhoods across Ohio — paid for by a shadowy, unnamed ‘family values’ foundation — that screamed VOTER FRAUD IS A FELONY! UP TO 3 ½ YEARS & $10,000 FINE [PICTURED, RIGHT]. Under pressure from local officials, Clear Channel took the ads down a week ago, replacing them with new billboard ads that declare VOTING IS A RIGHT, NOT A CRIME! Yesterday the mystery of the billboards’ financier was solved when Wisconsin businessman Stephen Einhorn, a major GOP donor and Gov. Scott Walker supporter, came forward as the man behind the billboards.

So this week I will continue to recruit volunteers, because we’re going to need lots of boots on the ground to combat the rain and voter intimidation to come. Last night I left the office just before a phone bank started up, and I’m told that Bowzer from Sha Na Na was to drop by. To mark his 65th birthday, he’s been touring the country with the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare in a grassroots effort to organize and educate battleground seniors. I hope he’s successful, because it’s not my grandparents’ Social Security and Medicare mostly at stake in this election: it’s mine and yours.

RELATED: Bowzer’s Truth Tour

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TSherrod Brown illustration by DONKEYHOTEY