Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Grass-roots activists have seized on Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s assertion last week that Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama’s one-time role as a “community organizer” makes him less prepared for higher office than her stint as mayor of a small town.
Now, slighted organizers — some of them Obama supporters — have entered the fray to defend their roles in the community.
Prominent among them: renowned Las Vegas community organizer Ruby Duncan, 76, who marched on the state welfare office in 1969 demanding to see a government manual that instructed officials how to treat women like her — poor, black and with a young family. Duncan was arrested for her effort.
“A community organizer goes door-to-door to people who don’t understand what’s going on with (an unjust) government,” Duncan said. “You’re the ones who tell people, ‘Oh, yes, you will overcome.’ It is a very structured, very hard job.”
In 1971, Duncan helped orchestrate a march across the Strip and into Caesars Palace, a campaign that closed the casino and boosted national awareness of the need for improved services and treatment of the poor. This movement provided the thrust for the 2005 book “Storming Caesars Palace: How Black Mothers Fought Their Own War on Poverty” and is one of many examples of political courage that encouraged secretaries of state nationwide to grant Duncan the Margaret Chase Smith award this year. (Former Vice President Al Gore was a finalist.)
Duncan is considering sending a copy of that book to Palin, who she says has belittled her and other community organizers.
Speaking at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., last week, the party’s vice presidential nominee said: “I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer. Except that you have actual responsibilities.”
That oft-repeated line prompted 51 community organizers in the Las Vegas Valley to sign a letter condemning Palin’s remarks. The author, Hannah Brown, complained Tuesday that Palin had reduced the role of a community organizer to that of an “ant,” before she walked into the Henderson office of Republican presidential nominee John McCain to deliver the letter, accompanied by two other organizers.
Brown, president emeritus of the Urban Chamber of Commerce, wrote: “The group signing this letter represents community organizers who have braved 110-degree heat and angry dogs to approach our neighbors’ doors and talk to them about their problems. We have worked with law enforcement and elected officials to address the needs of homeless people. We have registered new voters, fought on behalf of mentally disabled homeless people, and advocated for increased student aid for college students and brought light to the factors causing deteriorating neighborhoods.”
McCain spokesman Rick Gorka called the letter “a cheap shot by the Obama campaign.”
Obama campaign workers denied any involvement with Brown’s cause but tagged along to videotape the proceedings anyway.
Brown acknowledged that many, if not most, of the sponsors are Democrats, although she insisted her campaign was nonpolitical. One of the letter’s co-sponsors is Sam Lieberman, chairman of the Nevada Democratic Party.
Duncan said she would have signed the letter if asked, but she wasn’t.
“We’re the ones ... who help bring jobs to a city,” she said, unable to hide her anger. “We show how to make jobs work for people.”