DOOR KNOCKING REDUX: Judith Alexander campaigned in multiple states for Barack Obama's change and hope election in 2008. This year, she says, she is campaigning for Democrats out of "total horror at the alternative." File 2008/BOB SKOLNIK

Two years ago Oak Park, and to a slightly lesser extent River Forest, was swept up in Obama mania. Many local residents were passionate supporters of Barack Obama’s historic presidential campaign. Many spent weekends going to other states to knock on doors for a candidate who had a deep relationship with this area, who had touched a chord among local volunteers. Hope was the theme and the dominant emotion of the Obama campaign.

This year things feel different.

Now fear is often the dominant emotion among some of those same passionate Obama supporters. But with much talk of a perceived “enthusiasm gap” among Democrats who, nationwide if not in Oak Park, appear less energized by this year’s campaign than resurgent Republicans, local Democratic activists and volunteers are still working hard to support Democrats in an election that is now less than a week away.

But Judith Alexander, who travelled to Wisconsin two years ago to knock on doors for Obama, admits that this year her motivation is a little different than it was in those hopeful days of 2008.

“It’s very different,” said Alexander who has been knocking on doors in her Oak Park neighborhood this month for Senate candidate Alexi Giannoulias and Governor Pat Quinn. “It’s more total horror at the alternative. It was more like canvassing for (John) Kerry than it was canvassing for Obama. Working for Kerry I was bound and determined to do whatever I could to deny Bush reelection.”

As in 2004 Alexander now is motivated more by her dislike of the Republicans than by her devotion to the Democratic candidates.

“I’d be horrified to see President Obama’s (Senate) seat go to a Republican.” Alexander said. “I could have been very excited about (David) Hoffman, but he’s not the Democratic nominee. Quinn is someone who I’ve liked very much. I don’t think he’s been all that effective as governor, but when I think of (Bill) Brady winning, it’s oh my God, no way. He’s really frightening. He’s more frightening than Kirk. I’m motivated to try and prevent them from winning mainly.”

Two years ago Alexander was excited to follow every twist and turn of the campaign. This year, not so much.

“I’m so upset that I have to kind of force myself to listen to NPR,” Alexander says. “It was very different in ’08. I was so anxious to come home and listen to (Keith) Olbermann and (Rachel) Maddow. I hung on every word. I never missed a show.”

Arianna Valderrama, now a 17-year-old junior at St. Ignatius College Prep, worked hundreds of hours for Obama in 2007 and 2008 as one of his youngest volunteers.

This fall she has been busy playing field hockey for St. Ignatius and, while still vitally interested in politics, has not had much free time to volunteer.

“I went to two Saturday meetings and one Farmers’ Market,” says Valderrama who says that now that the field hockey season is over she will be doing more political work.

Like Alexander, Valderrama admits she is not as enthused this year as she was in 2008. She is disappointed in the relentlessly negative tone of the campaigns this year, including the campaigns of Giannoulias and Quinn.

“I’m a little disappointed in both races in just how the candidates have acted,” Valderrama said. “Like I definitely think they are better than the alternative, but that’s not really enough for me to feel like I need to get out there. I’m a little more enthused about Alexi.”

However long time activist Bob Haisman is still fired up. Haisman a retired high school social studies teacher who served six years as the president of the Illinois Education Association in the 1990s, worked as a full time volunteer for the Obama presidential campaign and hasn’t really stopped working on politics since then.

He loves politics and remembers accompanying his mother, who was a Democratic precinct captain in Berwyn, going door to door for John F. Kennedy in 1960.

“For me politics is more interesting than the Bears, for me politics is more interesting than the Hawks,” Haisman says. “Very few people can fathom that.”

Haisman said he has been putting in about 60 hours a week on politics this fall. As a volunteer coordinator for Organizing for America (OFA), a spin off of the Obama campaign, he has been working on this election since March.

“We’ve been working precincts and making phone calls since then,” Haisman says.

In the summer he admitted that things sometimes looked bleak for Democrats, but as the election has drawn closer he says there has been an upsurge of interest and activity from area Democrats.

“I think the arrow is pushing upwards,” Haisman says. “In March it was tough. I’ve slowly seen the needle point upwards. I think that interest is picking up.”

Haisman says that he sees new faces every week as volunteers gather at the headquarters of the Democratic Party of Oak Park (DPOP) for weekend door knocking.

And people have been clamoring for yard signs.

“We can’t keep the yard signs at the office,” Haisman says.

OFA and DPOP have worked closely with the Illinois Democratic Coordinated Campaign, an effort to promote the statewide Democratic ticket.

Haisman feels it’s important to elect Democrats, especially Giannoulias and Quinn, this year but the effort this year also serves to keep OFA strong in preparation for Obama’s anticipated reelection bid in 2012.

“This election is very important and we realize how important it is, but indirectly we’re getting ready for 2012,” Haisman says. “We’re trying to build capacity for 2012.”

Local door knocking and phone banking has been targeted at people who were first time voters in 2008 and at sporadic voters who usually vote Democratic, but don’t always vote, especially in mid term elections.

Campaign workers know that the turnout this year will be much lower than in 2008 when nearly 84 percent of registered voters in Oak Park voted. They know they won’t get that kind of turnout in a non-presidential election, but want to push turnout as high as possible among likely Democratic voters.

Turnout for mid-term elections is typically in the 50 to 60 percent range according to Luke Casson the field director for DPOP.

State Senator Don Harmon (D-Oak Park), who serves as the committeeman for the Oak Park Democratic Party and leads DPOP, agrees that turnout will be lower than in 2008.

“We’d love everyone to come out and vote again, but I don’t think it is reasonable to expect (that),” Harmon said. “There were so many folks who had never voted before who decided that they were going to register and vote for Barack Obama. We’re going to do our best to turn them all out, but I just think it’s unrealistic for us to expect that we’re going to succeed with all of those voters.

Casson and Harmon both say that volunteer activity may be down a bit from 2008 but is still very strong and higher than it has been for off year elections in the past.

“Using 2008 as a benchmark is wildly inappropriate given the explosion we had in volunteers, but clearly we have more volunteers by a considerable margin than we had four years ago,” Harmon says. “It’s dangerous for any of us to measure our performance this election or in the future against 2008. That was an anomaly. The intensity of interest in the presidential race in 2008 and the strong local connection to a favorite candidate, Barack Obama, was unprecedented and perhaps sets unachievable targets for any political organization.”

Casson says that Oak Parkers are still volunteering in large numbers.

“We’ve had very little drop off, we’ve had quite a lot of people interested,” Casson said.

Harmon says the bad economy and persistently high unemployment makes it tough for Democrats but disputes the notion that there is an anti-Democratic mood out there.

“I don’t think it’s an anti-Democratic mood, I think it’s an anti-incumbent mood,” Harmon says. “The economy is horrible, people are scared. If they have a job they hope they can keep it, if they’ve lost their job they don’t know where the next one is going to come from. They’re worried about paying their mortgage or making the rent. People are scared, they’re angry and they’re frustrated and there are more Democratic incumbents than Republican incumbents. So I think it’s easy to say it’s an anti-Democratic year but I think people are just fed up and they want government to do something to fix the problems and if they’re frustrated by the pace of government some folks will try to exercise those frustrations on incumbent office holders.”

In 2008 Obama captured a stunning 84.26 percent of the vote in Oak Park and received an impressive 64.89 percent of the vote in River Forest against John McCain.

Harmon knows that it is unlikely that Democratic candidates will match such totals this year, but still expects to carry Oak Park big for Democrats this year.

“Not everyone can be Barack Obama, but we certainly want to make sure that we do our part and turn out healthy majorities for all our Democratic candidates,” Harmon said.

Local GOP leader calls River Forest for Kirk

Local Republicans are fired up and ready to go for next week’s elections. Republicans can be hard to find in liberal Oak Park and River Forest. And clearly the villages have trended more Democratic in recent elections. But this year Republicans are hoping to do better here.

On Thursday evening local Republicans will hold a rally at the Oak Park Country Club in River Grove. The featured speaker will be Congressman Peter Roskam (R-6th District). GOP state treasurer candidate Dan Rutherford is also expected to attend.

River Forest Township Republican Organization Committeeman Tom Cronin said even though Barack Obama carried River Forest with 64.89 percent of the vote in the 2008 general election things will be different this year.

“In 2008 President Obama, from Illinois, from Chicago, it was just an enormous political force,” Cronin said. “It was a historic event. Regardless of your politics I don’t think any reasonable person would deny the history, and the importance of the history, that was made in 2008. That was just something quite momentous and all of us respected that. And of course President Obama is a Democrat. That certainly had an effect of bringing a lot of people to the Democratic Party for that election. That’s just something that you don’t repeat. Now it’s 2010. It’s a different time and a different year.”

Cronin said he thinks Republican Senate candidate Mark Kirk will do especially well in River Forest.

“I’m predicting Kirk carries River Forest,” Cronin said. “This year I’m happy that we have some good candidates. Mark Kirk, I think, is a good candidate. I think he has broad appeal and in comparison to his opponent I think he has a great shot and a great record. That brings people to the party.”

Cronin said Kirk fits the profile of River Forest and Oak Park Republicans better than does the very conservative GOP gubernatorial candidate Bill Brady.

“I think that River Forest and Oak Park Republicans find themselves on the more moderate places on the spectrum and for that reason I think the affinity for Mark Kirk is probably closer, for most,” Cronin said. “Believe me I’m not suggesting for a minute that there isn’t strong support for the gubernatorial candidate, Senator Brady. I would expect Mark Kirk to have broader support.”

Jim Bowman, a blogger and former Wednesday Journal columnist and an Oak Park Republican (though a former Democrat) thinks that Republicans will benefit this year as some people, perhaps even in liberal Oak Park, become disillusioned with Obama.

“Obama tried to do too much and he’s showed his hand as a very big government orientated guy in ways that are unprecedented and people are saying no, no. no,” Bowman said.


DPOP backing Berrios?

The Democratic Party of Oak Park is apparently backing Joe Berrios, the Democratic candidate for Cook County Assessor, in his battle against Independent Forrest Claypool and other candidates. But they don’t really want to talk about it very much.

“We’re supporting Democrats from the top of the ticket to the bottom of the ticket,” said State Senator Don Harmon, the Oak Park Democratic Township Committeeman.

That’s all Harmon would say when asked if he or DPOP was backing Berrios.

After making that statement Harmon was asked by Wednesday Journal if that meant he was supporting or endorsing Berrios.

“Don’t put words in my mouth,” Harmon said before repeating his comment that he was backing Democrats from the top to the bottom of the ticket.

Luke Casson, DPOP field director, was just a bit more talkative about Berrios, who his opponents allege is a machine politician beset by conflicts of interest.

“He is on the ticket and we are a Democratic organization,” Casson said. “I can tell you from a field perspective that when we go door to door he’s not at the top of the ticket so we don’t have much discussion (about Berrios) with the voters.”

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