As the Democratic race moves into the two-ring circus of Texas and Ohio, the poll numbers show a healthy lead for Clinton in the Buckeye State but not much of one in Lone Star country. You’d think she would be doing better there, given that Latinos, who have been among her strongest supporters in the rest of the country, constitute a huge proportion of Texas Democratic voters. Clinton also has a lot of old ties in Texas politics, dating all the way back to her college years, when (as she is reminding people in the Rio Grande Valley) she helped register voters there.
But Obama may be resonating with Texas Latinos as a result of his experience as a community organizer in Chicago from 1983 to 1987. His work then was with the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), which was founded by the legendary activist Saul Alinsky. The organization was and remains based in religious congregations, and it was through that connection that Obama found his own religious identity.
Beginning in the 1970s, the IAF expanded beyond Chicago, and nowhere was its expansion more successful than among Latinos in Texas. This was thanks to the extraordinary efforts of Ernesto Cortes, Jr., who estabilshed Communities Organizing for Progress (COPS) in San Antonio in 1974. The non-partisan but confrontational organization transformed public life and public decision-making in the city, and thrives to this day. Cortes went on to create a network of a dozen IAF organizations around the state, and they have had a substantial impact too. (Here’s Peter Applebome’s New York Times piece on where things stood in Texas back when Obama was working in Chicago.) Today, Cortes helps run the IAF, based in Austin as director of its Southwest region.
One of Obama’s Spanish-language radio spots in Texas includes the line, “And instead of accepting job offers that paid a lot of money, Obama decided to work with churches, giving a helping hand to those less fortunate in his community.” That’s not exactly playing the IAF card, but in Texas’ Latino community, it’s a signal that means something. And who knows what other signals about Obama’s organizing past are being sent out by his campaign.
Interestingly, Hillary Clinton has her own longstanding IAF connection, having done her college senior thesis on Alinsky. As Carl Bernstein describes it in his recent biography:
Hillary’s research on Alinsky was largely based on her own academic visits to impoverished areas of Chicago, where she examined local community action programs in which poor people themselves set out the goals, developed the mechanisms of implementation, and controlled the purse strings.
But this is a walk that Obama has actually walked.