Harlem4Obama Returns with Same Goal, Different Strategy


Chet Whye addresses Harlem4Obama supporters at the campaign's 2012 launch party in August. (Photo: Brian Cutts, Harlem4Obama)

Harlem4Obama has re-launched, organizing in its old stomping grounds in hopes of  reelecting President Barack Obama in 2012. This time around, the campaign, while claiming the same spirit and core of its 2008 supporters, has more experience and has redefined its strategies.

With less than a year until the Nov. 6 presidential election, Obama has a 43 percent approval rating, according to a November 20th Gallup poll. His Gallup ratings for 2011 average 41 percent, markedly below his 2009 peak at 64.8, a challenge for the campaign. But Harlem4Obama made an early start. Since August, the group of business owners, college students, the elderly and even a few Republicans has been working to build momentum, recruit volunteers and enlist local groups.

The uptown organization is a part of a citywide grassroots network including Queens for Obama and Brooklyn for Barack, but campaign director Chet Whye believes Harlem’s role is vital as “one of the most urban recognized neighborhoods in the country.”

For 2012, the main goal is to convince citizens that what would be a second term is just important as the first. “The second term is when a president always makes his legacy,” Whye said.

“I want us to rely on our brand and our model,” he said. “We have to shake people’s hands, look them in the eye and listen to what their needs are.“

Whye, originally from Baltimore, moved to New York in 1996. He has worked as an aerospace mechanical engineer and is currently executive director at Harlem 4 Change, a non-profit organization he formed after the campaign disbanded in 2008.

Some plans will be familiar. Four years ago, volunteers spread throughout New York and surrounding states, with people sent weekly to Pennsylvania, Virginia and Ohio. Harlem4Obama recruited over 2700 city volunteers who covered the East Coast, including 750 who worked on Election Day covering every New York City precinct. “New York was a winner for Barack so we focused our energy on battleground states,” Whye said. The organizers hope to use the same strategy.

But some 2008 efforts will be reworked. Harlem4Obama registered 3000 voters in two months, but this year intends to first train volunteers in voter registration. The goal is to double new voters by teaching volunteers whom to look for.

Ex-felons are a target group.  People with criminal records can vote in New York  state as long as they are off parole. “A lot of people assume they can’t vote. A lot of our people end up in the system for marginal things,” Whye said.

Gina Cascino, an administrative assistant at the Correctional Association of New York, agrees that much of this population is unaware of voting law. “Some ex-felons know their rights while others don’t,“ she said. “This is very important to us. That’s why the Drop the Rock subcommittee does a lot of voter registration.” According to its website, this statewide program aims to reduce the prison population by repealing the Rockefeller drug laws.

In 2008 the majority of Harlem voters for Obama were residents over 30 who’d lived in the neighborhood their whole lives but had never registered. Younger first-time voters made up 20 percent. The millennial group represents another target for Harlem4Obama.

Salim Mhunzi, the campaign’s youth director, says Harlem has one of the largest unregistered voter populations in the city, so the focus is to engage 18- to 25- year- olds. “Youth are generally skeptical of politics and it’s our job as organizers to educate and inform them on the process and show them how they can get involved,” he said.

As for volunteers, the goal is to have at least 500 by the time of the Democratic convention in September. Currently, the campaign has about 20 volunteer organizers.

Margaret McCann, for example, has volunteered to make signs for rallies and events. She supported Hilary Clinton in 2008 but has been wowed by President Obama’s performance in office. “I think overall he has done a great job. Some people’s goals for him have just been unrealistic,” she said.  She recently moved to Harlem from Atlantic City and decided to get involved with the campaign because it’s “important for him to be reelected.”

Oscar Carter, a retired hospital administrator, says he spent half of his time working with Harlem4Obama in 2008 as a way to give back to the community, although he considers himself an independent. “I personally do not consider myself a political person. I don’t align myself in politics,” he said. “But, I am 100 percent in support of the reelection of President Obama.”

Carter, trained by the national campaign, spent time in Philadelphia four years ago as a deputy field trainer. He’s now one of Harlem4Obama’s lead organizers. Registering people who have never been involved in the political process, he says, is the most rewarding part.

“It didn’t make sense to me to join any other support organization other than Harlem4Obama,” said Steve Leser, a political blogger and commentator. “Harlem has been the center of my local participation in politics.” Since February 2008,  he’s participated in phone banking and talks outlining the president’s postions on health care, jobs and economic growth.

Although the campaign is predominately volunteer, Whye says he wants people he can fire this year. “You want people to show up in time and make this their first option. We need some dedicated schedules,” he said.  Salaries would come from fundraising.

The campaign has yet to find office space or begin passing around voter registration cards. “It’s too early for that,” Whye said. He wants to build the campaign, then look for a location larger than last year’s 11,000-square-foot space on West 131th Street, which he says won’t work this time. “We have to accommodate a lot of phone banks, a lot of publishing and voter registration,” he said.

Federal law prohibits national campaigns from funding local ones, so Harlem4Obama works to raise money through donors, t-shirt and pen sales and support from local businesses. It donates a portion of this money to the national campaign.

Harlem has been a fundraising site for the national campaign.  In April tickets for a dinner at Red Rooster sold for $30,800 a plate. Afterwards, an invitation-only reception was held at the Studio Museum in Harlem. According to the national campaign’s website, Harlem4Obama raised over $450,000 in 2008.

This time around, the group wants to be active not only during the election but during the transition—when the new administration takes over. “We weren’t present after the elections and that was a mistake. Around the country that was a mistake for a lot of campaigns,” Whye said. “After the election people were dancing in the street and that was the last time we were in the street.”

The black community reframed from criticizing Obama, he believes, because people felt it would hurt the president. Instead they took to social media. “We are supposed to use the social networks to call people to action, not just to voice your anger,” he said.  “Take off your pajamas, put down the Cheetos, and put down remote and get out in the streets!”

Harlem4Obama made its first appearance in the streets last month. A crowd gathered at the corner of 125th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard holding signs that read: “Vote Obama 2012” and “This election is about you. Are you in?”  Carter passed out cups of iced tea and Whye took to the podium.

“We’re going to take back the definition of tea party. They wanted to define us, we’re redefining them,” said Whye, who named the rally the Harlem Tea Party. Nearly 30 radio stations covered it.

Campaign organizers acknowledge that the energy and enthusiasm about Obama has dwindled. But Carter has faith that Harlem4Obama can bring the same momentum back. “We created that. When we started talking about Barack, people didn’t even know who he was,” he said. “That  same excitement can come back.”

Whye understands Obama’s reelection will not come easy. “We need to work,” he said. “ We can’t make any assumptions.”

By Myeisha Essex



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