NW Phila. volunteers drum up support for Obama's Sunday rally

Posted: October 09, 2010

With a brick of leaflets tucked in the crook of her arm, Joyce Woods asked the man behind the counter of the Jean-Jacques Gallery on Germantown Avenue if he'd be willing to pass out notices of President Obama's Sunday rally.

"Sure, honey, who wouldn't?" owner Sherman Oberson said Thursday afternoon. He pointed to a stack of "Vote 2010" stickers with the ubiquitous "O" symbol of the president's 2008 campaign. "I'll take some of those, too," he said.

Woods, a community organizer with Organizing for America, the White House's grassroots political arm, tramped up and down the avenue in Mount Airy and Germantown, dropping off fliers at Johnson's Barbershop, McMenimon's Tavern, Infusion Coffee & Tea - anyplace willing to take them.

Her urgent goal, and that of other volunteers in Northwest Philadelphia, was to build a big crowd for the rally, scheduled to begin at 4 p.m. Sunday at 60 E. Haines St., next to Fulton School. "We're trying to get people energized, to tell them what's going on," said Woods, 63.

Democrats hope the rally will help jolt awake voters in a neighborhood and city that were fired up for Obama in 2008, but have displayed less enthusiasm for the Nov. 2 midterm election.

The hip-hop band the Roots will perform at the Germantown rally, and Vice President Biden will help warm up the crowd for Obama. Tickets are not required for the event; space is available on a first come, first-served basis.

Party strategists know that keeping control of Congress depends on getting at least some of the "Obama surge" - largely young and minority voters who cast ballots for the first time in 2008 - as well as the party's regular base voters to go to the polls.

And in Pennsylvania, Philadelphia is crucial to the Democrats' statewide chances. Senate nominee Joe Sestak and gubernatorial candidate Dan Onorato have been trailing in the polls, and need a high turnout and large victory margins in the city to have a chance of carrying the state.

The Sunday event is the second in a series of five "Moving America Forward" rallies in which Obama frames the election as a choice between progress (Democrats) and obstruction (Republicans).

"The president is going to be focused on urging people to turn out, to make the things happen that they voted for in 2008," Democratic National Chairman Tim Kaine, former governor of Virginia, said in an interview previewing the Philadelphia visit.

Nationally, polls have shown that Republican-leaning voters, energized in part by the tea party movement, are more intensely interested in the election and are considered more likely to vote.

A president's party almost always loses congressional seats in midterm elections. But this year, Democrats, burdened by high unemployment and voter angst are trying to avoid heavier-than-usual losses in the midterm elections.

Earlier this week, the Gallup Poll found that Republicans enjoyed a 13 percent to 18 percent turnout advantage among likely voters. In 1994, when Republicans took control of the House, their voters were 7 percent more enthusiastic than Democrats were in the last Gallup Poll before election.

Christopher Borick, a political scientist and pollster at Muhlenberg College, said his surveys in Pennsylvania show that Republican enthusiasm has essentially negated the Democrats' registration advantage of more than one million voters. "It's so difficult to manufacture enthusiasm," Borick said. "When the president gets back on Air Force One and leaves, how much of the energy and excitement from a rally will remain with voters?"

On Thursday, Woods got polite reactions at the businesses she visited. Most people seemed to have heard that Obama was coming to town, and many were interested in attending. But there was less awareness of the races for governor and senator.

"You don't have the hype you had in 2008, to go out for him [Obama]," said Mark Lightfoot, owner of the Philadelphia Hair Company near Germantown and Chelten Avenues. "I'm not hearing a lot of input from regular people."

In the end, the Democrats' success locally and in the nation could come down to the efforts of people such as Joyce Woods, a longtime community volunteer who had never been involved in politics before 2008. At the time, she was recovering from surgery and chemotherapy for thyroid cancer and was curious about all the activity at the Obama campaign's Germantown office, which she passed on daily walks with her husband and their dog.

"My husband said, 'Why don't you go in and find out,' " Woods said. She eventually was working 14-hour days running phone banks and door-to-door canvassing operations.

With the election won, Woods thought that was the end of it, but she joined Organizing for America and campaigned among her neighbors to get them to communicate with Congress in support of Obama's health-care program. "People don't see you have to keep supporting him, or you can't get anything done," Woods said.

Contact staff writer Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-854-2718 or tfitzgerald@phillynews.com.

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