The face behind Obama's famous 'ground game' in Oak Park

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By Deb Quantock McCarey

Contributing reporter/Gardening blogger

To all of you who've lived and breathed the hard work of change, I want to thank you. You took this campaign and made it yours starting a movement that spread across the country.

Barack Obama, Des Moines, Nov. 5, 2012

Jerry Delaney is a feisty, former nun who filters her political world view through the immortal words of President John F. Kennedy, who in 1961 said, "Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country."

Fifty-one years later, Delaney, 69, is living those words out loud.

As the committeewoman for the Democratic Party of Oak Park (DPOP), she's the woman state Senator Don Harmon, 39th District, refers to as DPOP's "lead instigator, cheerleader and coordinator" for both of President Obama's campaigns.

About Delaney, Mona McNeese, DPOP's deputy committeewoman in the 2008 campaign, says that Delaney this year was "the heart and soul of the Get out the Vote Obama campaign effort in Oak Park … the designated Neighborhood Team Leader, making sure volunteers understood the mission, and that communication was clear."

As one of the 5,117 Get out the Vote (GOTV) locations nationwide, this local "model organization" once again hit a home run for Barack Obama as well as Democratic candidates running for the U.S. House of Representatives.

"Success has many parents, and I am sure we all take more credit than is due," said Sen. Harmon, in a post-election phone interview, but the fact that the President of the United States is aware that the Democratic Party of Oak Park worked for him, I think, speaks volumes, not just in this recent election, but in his [2008] election for the presidency, and his [2004] run for the U.S. Senate. As I understand it, DPOP was certainly one of the vanguard organizations in the larger Obama campaign, and as such in 2008, we really had to make up some of our own protocols: How do you mobilize people? How do you get them to another state? How do you build a phone bank? I know that was recognized and appreciated by the Obama campaign. But when they sent it back to us, the new model in 2012 was a little different than what we had been doing."

Historically, Delaney says, Oak Parkers have a reputation of being really independent.

"We tend to have a hard time with people telling us how to do things, and we kind of ran into that a little bit in 2008," Delaney says. "I was determined that we were going to work with the campaign hand-in-hand this time. So it was kind of a learning curve for all of us, even though we had worked so much and so hard in '08. That was like baby politics compared to this time around.

"Their ground game was like that little pebble that starts at the top of a mountain and gets bigger and bigger, and before you know it, it's such a massive thing that there wasn't any way the Romney team, Project ORCA or no Project ORCA, could have gone up against this."

Getting to know her

First of all, it's Jerry with a "J," not a "G."

"My dad was Jerry," she explains. "He wanted a son so really bad, so I was named Geraldine, but given the nickname Jerry because his nickname was J-e-r-r-y," Delaney recalls.

As a teenager, she had a rebellious streak.

"I was in boarding school and got kicked out freshman year. I had a copy of Lady Chatterley's Lover under my mattress. Then I went to Wichita, Kan. to live with an aunt."

At age 17, upon graduating from high school, Delaney entered a convent and was a Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM) nun for seven years.

During that tenure, she earned a degree in chemistry from Mundelein College in Chicago, and taught in parochial schools for three years.

"One of our nuns was in the front lines with Martin Luther King in Selma, so for me, social justice and the gospels were really the filter I learned to look at the world through," Delaney recalls. "I don't think putting Band-Aids on things ends up changing anything. You have to have systemic change. And in this country, the only way to do that is through laws and politics to really get to that point."

She left the convent and taught on the West Side of Chicago, where she met her future husband. They moved to Oak Park in 1972 and had a large family with six kids.

As a stay-at-home mom, she remained politically active. In 1981, she took a job as circulation and classified advertising manager with the fledgling Wednesday Journal. One of her roles was organizing young Oak Parkers' paper routes.

"Then the time came when the family needed better health benefits. A friend called me and told me he was looking for a paralegal. One thing led to another. I left my jean overalls and picket signs behind and went to work for 'the man' downtown in a corporate law firm, and I have been a litigation paralegal at Mayer Brown LLP for 25 years now."

Getting to know 'Dem'

One day, Democratic Committeeman Harmon, who was a lawyer at her firm, invited Delaney to join him at the next DPOP monthly meeting in Oak Park.

"At that point, I said to him, 'I am an independent,'" she recalls. "And he said, 'No, I just really want you to come because I think you are going to see that I define Democrat differently than the big 'D,' and I felt very comfortable. That was the time [2004] the Kerry campaign was going, and I got involved in that."

But the plunge into politics took place when she met then Senate-hopeful Barack Obama at DPOP in Oak Park. Harmon recalls Obama being there in a short-sleeved shirt and khakis, checking out Oak Park, and allowing locals "to eyeball this guy who on the political scene was starting to make waves."

"I remember him having some little grassroots meetings here," Delaney recalls, "and we sat in a house with six other people, the future president, state Senator Harmon, and Michele and the two girls. We were in a living room, kind of playing with the girls while Obama was talking, and everything he said resonated with every core value I had."

In 2008, just prior to Obama announcing his candidacy for president, Delaney told Harmon, "Just plug me in and tell me what I can do."

He did, and they made history twice.

The out-of-state trips coordinated by Margaret Fulkerson, Bill Williams, Sara Spivy and Cecile Keith Brown, started in June and continued until election day.

"Our volunteers were initially driving to Iowa," Delaney said. "It was not until the last couple of weeks that our traveling volunteers began the focus on Wisconsin and we sent buses as well as carpools to canvass.

Myrna Lovejoy, 71, has been an Oak Park resident for 11 years. She has three grown children, who also live in Oak Park, and two grandchildren.

"When I retired," she said, "I started working at the Farmers Market with Bob Haisman. Then I started coming to the monthly meetings here. I phone-banked and canvassed in 2008. I also did a lot of phone-banking and canvassing in 2010.

"Jerry asked me to be the phone-bank coordinator for this round. I said yes because she said it was going to be a lot of fun. And it was. It was at times stressful, but the people here are absolutely wonderful."

Those people included Rob Baren, Mary Fitzpatrick-Howorth, Josephine Simmons, Ron Koch, Daunn Rounds, Susan Sachs, Andy Butler, Mona McNeese, and Mary Ellen Munley.

By the numbers

During DPOP's groundbreaking, four-day GOTV push, Nov. 3-6, approximately 1,100 grassroots volunteers from the Oak Park area jumped on the wagon.

That breaks down to over 300 volunteers being organized and sent by bus or carpool to Wisconsin; more than 800 phone-bank shifts being filled; and close to 38,000 canvassing phone calls being made, targeting Iowa and Wisconsin, using Obama for America's finely-tuned database of potential voters.

About 100 more volunteers carpooled to several regions in Illinois to provide field support for U.S. House races.

"Here, it's a family feeling, your neighbors, our community," Delaney says. "All together, I had a core team of 15 people: five phone-bank coordinators; several out-of-state coordinators; [a data entry team]; Bob Haisman, who coordinated the volunteers at the Farmers Market; Angel White, who was our special events coordinator and did everything with FitzGerald's; and Bill Williams, our media coordinator, who took pictures of all our events."

One week after the election, at 1243 Woodbine, Delaney reunited with a few of these "smartest most incredible people I have literally ever seen." With Karen Fisher, DPOP's two-term Obama for America "data queen," lead phone-bank coordinator Myrna Lovejoy, and Field Director Luke Casson, she retells how at 7:30 p.m. on November 6 volunteers were still walking in, eager to make "just 10 more calls on Election Night."

"I don't know … it was just this feeling that this was happening here, and we were one of five satellite locations in Chicago," Delaney says. "Then it's across Chicago, across Illinois, Wisconsin, in Ohio, in Florida, all of this GOTV momentum had been built up in all those states. 'How could he not win?' was what I started feeling. We would send out emails mils, and for the first shift we would have 50 people signed up, and 65 would walk in. People just didn't sign up. They heard about what we were doing, and just walked in.

"We were all doing it. I may have been coordinating the big picture, but this was a huge team effort."

Earlier that day around noon in the crowded phone-bank room, an urgent request for more "troops" in Racine, Wis., came in from the Obama's Illinois field office. Soon a platoon of 10 volunteers hit the road, Harmon recalls.

"I am a very emotional person," Delaney noted, "and for me, it was like, oh my God, these people are just going to do anything! I walked out to the alley and just sobbed because it finally got to me that people here cared that much, and it really was that 'we the people' had taken over, and 'we' were going to go out there and get Barack Obama elected."

And, from Oak Park, in a historic moment, they did.

The original version of this article wrongly attributed photos two and three to David Pierini, rather than Kevin McCarey. The third photo also incorrectly said volunteers were headed to Cedar Rapids, Iowa to canvass, rather than Milwaukee. Wednesday Journal regrets this error.

Reader Comments

4 Comments - Add Your Comment

Comment Policy

Ned Ryerson from River Forest, Illinois  

Posted: December 6th, 2012 8:19 AM

A fair point; but my inarticulate point was that even in Wisc; getting Obama elected seemed easy. In fact, the whole thing seemed easy. Only after the first debate did it seem as if Barack had to exert himself.

doug kittredge from oak park  

Posted: December 6th, 2012 7:13 AM

Ned - you are right, if the DPOP effort was just focused on Oak Park. I think you missed the mentions of Iowa and Wisconsin, as well as phone banking (to people all over the country).

Ned Ryerson from River Forest, Illinois  

Posted: December 5th, 2012 10:00 PM

Really? Its like you all are congratulating her on getting Derek Jeter elected to the baseball HOF. How hard was getting OP to vote for a good speech making liberal who will raise taxes and be socially liberal?

Gail Moran from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: December 5th, 2012 12:46 PM

Yes, she built that! A fitting tribute to a great lady!

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