Organic Chemistry

By

Ernie Corts came to see me in Washington last September. Ernie is a
legendary community organizer. In 1974, he set up the Communities
Organized for Public Service in San Antonio, which helped get the
city's Mexican-Americans involved in politics and was partly
responsible for making San Antonio one of the most progressive
cities in the Southwest. Since then, under the auspices of the
Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF)--which another legendary
organizer, Saul Alinsky, established more than a half-century
ago--he has built a network of community organizations in
Louisiana, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and California.Ernie is a short, stocky, balding man in his fifties. He often
frowns, and can become indignant when he thinks someone has
violated an axiom of organizing, but he can also be charming and
funny. He probably could have been mayor of a midsized Texas city.
Or a successful college professor. A graduate school dropout, he is
one of the best-read people I've met, and, whenever I run into him,
we talk books, the less current the better. Last fall, he was
pushing The Death of Adam by Marilynne Robinson and Kenneth
Hoover's Economics as Ideology. But he also recommended Adrian
Wooldrige and John Micklethwait's Right Nation, a book that claims
the United States is turning right. That got us into an argument
about what was going to happen in the November election. Ernie
turned out to be far more prescient than I.

Periodically, each year, Ernie convenes his organizers and elected
group leaders and invites a speaker to address them. The IAF
organizations have scored their greatest victories reforming
schools, getting money for health clinics or housing, and winning
living-wage provisions, but he wants his organizers to have a broad
knowledge of history, economics, philosophy, and religion; so these
sessions are never narrowly focused on how to organize. The last
time I attended one of these get-togethers in 1992, there were 15 or
20 people gathered in a small motel conference room. This time,
about 250 people are jammed into the ballroom of Austin's Hyatt
Regency. There are many clergy and ex-clergy (many of the groups
are still based in churches), a few lawyers and aspiring party
officials, and people of modest backgrounds who have risen up
through IAF's ranks.

Ernie wants me to talk mostly about my book on foreign policy, The
Folly of Empire, but we devote a breakfast together and one
morning's discussion in the ballroom to the election. When I had
seen him in Washington, Ernie had insisted that George W. Bush was
going to win because Karl Rove and Ralph Reed knew how to organize
and the Democrats did not. He feels vindicated by, although unhappy
with, the outcome. "The Republican strategy was developing organic
infrastructure," he tells me. The GOP, he explains, worked through
churches and urged parishioners to get their fellow parishioners or
their neighbors to the polls. By contrast, he says, Americans
Coming Together (ACT) and MoveOn "parachuted" volunteers into
places where they had little in common with the people they were
trying to organize. Afterward, they vanished. "They left nothing
behind," he says scornfully. He thinks that, if Democrats want to
win elections, they have to rebuild the "institutional
infrastructure" that used to exist around churches, union halls,
and precincts, but he doesn't think ACT or MoveOn have any interest
in this kind of patient, person-to-person organizing.

Ernie and his colleagues, many of whom come out of Latino
communities in the Southwest, are also disturbed by Bush's success
among Mexican-American voters. They think Bush got at least 40
percent of that vote but should have gotten no more than 20
percent. In an article Ruy Teixeira and I wrote after the election,
we cited Austin's Travis County as evidence that Democrats were
making inroads into postindustrial metropolitan areas, but Ernie
finds this laughably irrelevant. "What about Cameron County?" he
asks me. "You should have written about that. It's always been a
Democratic stronghold, and it went for Bush this election." After
breakfast, I go up to my hotel room to look it up. It's a largely
Mexican-American county at the southern tip of Texas. Bush won it 50
to 49 percent. Al Gore had carried it by nine percentage points in
2000, and Clinton by 29 percentage points in 1996.

The organizers from New Mexico attribute part of Republicans'
success to Latinos' belief that the military is the best career
choice for their young. But the Texans point to cultural
conservatism among Catholic Latinos. One priest from San Antonio
says, "Abortion was a major issue for Hispanics. There was
confusion in the messages from the bishops. My congregation in San
Antonio was in a lot of pain over that." He says that some Catholic
Latinos who did vote for Kerry went to confession afterward to seek
absolution. Ernie and the IAF organizers don't suggest that
Democrats should oppose abortion, but they criticize Kerry for
failing to address Catholic concerns the way Clinton did when he
called for making abortion "safe, legal, and rare." Ernie says
Catholic prelates tell him, "We don't expect Democrats to overturn
Roe v. Wade, but give us something. Something that we can cite when
the right wing attacks us." He adds, "They feel that they helped
build the labor movement and the Democratic Party, and now they
feel jilted."

I argue with Ernie about the importance of MoveOn and the Internet.
(I'd argue with him about ACT, but my limited experiences with that
organization in Washington and West Virginia dispose me to share
his prejudices.) There is no question, though: Ernie is a
curmudgeon about the Internet. He doesn't even have an e-mail
address. When I say that some people, like me, would rather belong
to a virtual community than to an actual community organization, he
starts banging the table--I've clearly violated an axiom of
organizing. But he is not wrong about Democrats' inability to reach
people who aren't always online and about the dangerous inroads
that Republicans have made among Latinos. As the conference ends,
we are talking books again. "By the way," he says, "have you read
Joshua Mitchell's book on Tocqueville, The Fragility of Freedom?" I
write it down on my Ernie book list, right after Robinson, Hoover,
and that other book about how conservative the country is becoming.

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