Before Karen Bass was elected Speaker of the California Assembly–the second-most-powerful job in the nation’s largest state, with over 36 million people–she was a community organizer. Her colleagues selected her for the post earlier this year because during her four years in the legislature she displayed the skills she’d learned as a grassroots activist–identifying key issues, finding solutions, developing strategies to win, mobilizing people and forging coalitions by listening to and finding common ground among people with diverse backgrounds and interests.
Bass would surely dispute Sarah Palin’s statement at the Republican convention last week that “a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer, except that you have actual responsibilities.”
In fact, Bass, the first African-American woman to serve as California Assembly Speaker, is one of many effective elected officials who began their careers as community organizers. These include the late Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, the late Ed Roybal (California’s first Latino member of Congress, elected in 1963), former mayors Tom Murphy of Pittsburgh and Andrew Young of Atlanta, Bev Stein, former chair of Multnomah County in greater Portland, Oregon, former Connecticut Secretary of State Miles Rapoport, former state legislators Gonzalo Barrientos of Texas and John McDonough of Massachusetts, and the late Sally Shipman, an Austin City Council member.
One-time organizers currently serving in public office include, just for starters, US Senator Barbara Milkulski of Maryland, Representatives John Lewis of Georgia, Jan Schakowsky and Danny Davis of Illinois, Raul Grijalva of Arizona, Linda Sanchez of California, and Donna Edwards of Maryland, Washington House of Representatives Speaker Frank Chopp, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, New York City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn, Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, state legislators Beth Low of Missouri, Michael Foley of Ohio, Gil Cedillo of California, Tom Hucker of Maryland, Tony Hill of Florida, and Crystal Peoples of New York, Alameda County (California) Supervisor Nate Miley, City Council members Jay Westbrook of Cleveland, Chuck Turner and Sam Yoon of Boston, and Melvin Carter of St. Paul, and San Francisco School Board member Jane Kim.
All would certainly be willing to explain to Governor Palin that their experiences as community organizers were excellent preparation for their many responsibilities in the executive and legislative branches of government. They’d have a few words to say to former New York Gov. George Pataki, at the GOP convention, sneered, “[Barack Obama] was a community organizer. What in God’s name is a community organizer? I don’t even know if that’s a job.” And if any of them found themselves face-to-face with former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, they might question his statement, while introducing Palin, “He [Obama] worked as a community organizer. What? Maybe this is the first problem on the résumé.”