Obama Team 7.5 makes
inroads in Pennsylvania
BARACK NEEDS YOU. Obama campaign workers making their pitch.
Mark Peterson/NEW YORK TIMES
Change makes a call on Levittown
By MICHAEL SOKOLOVE
April 6, 2008
THE OBAMA for President headquarters in ., is set on a busy thoroughfare just to the east of where all the houses begin – 17,311 of them built by the developer William Levitt between 1952 and 1957. Right next door is the Dairy Delite, which began selling soft-serve ice cream 50 years ago and is still going strong. About four miles north, along the Delaware River, is what Levittowners have always just called “the mill” – the mighty Fairless Works, a U.S. Steel plant that grew up alongside the town and at its peak employed some 10,000 workers.
Any longtime resident could lead you to the other sites where the men of Levittown found muscular, good-paying work – Vulcanized Rubber and Plastics; Mining and Manufacturing (3M); Thiokol, a defense contractor; the big General Motors plant across the river in Trenton. They worked their shifts and came home to their young families and their little patches of green. Many had moved here from the cramped neighborhoods of ’s blue-collar “river wards” or from coal country in upstate Pennsylvania.
You could call the Levittown experience the American dream, but that does not get to what was best about it: its concrete, earthbound specificity. The union wage. The house you could purchase in the mid-1950s for $8,990, with a down payment of $100. The elementary schools that Levitt & Sons put right in the neighborhoods, so that no young child would have to ride a bus. The Olympic-size public pools and the Levittown Shop-a-Rama, with its department stores and soda fountains and its parking for 6,000 cars.
Last month, as the epic struggle for the Democratic presidential nomination between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton reached , I came to watch it through the prism of Levittown – its past and present. The dream is vanishing in the same specific ways it came to life. The young men of the community no longer follow their fathers into the mill, because the work force at U.S. Steel has dwindled to fewer than 100. A Spanish-owned company now occupies part of the site, where it makes wind turbines. The old 3M plant has become something called the Commerce Center, and most of the other manufacturers are long gone. The town’s main intersection, Five Points, is dotted with check-cashing agencies and pawnshops. The original Shop-a-Rama was leveled.
I was focused primarily on Levittown’s response to Obama. Here, after all, was a place that needed a big change, a new dream, which for many voters Obama – with his mixed race, international background, inspiring life story and his soaring rhetoric – represents. But Levittown, while largely Democratic, is composed of many white, working-class “Reagan Democrats,” exactly the part of the electorate that has been least receptive to him – even before the controversy over the incendiary remarks by Obama’s former pastor, Jeremiah Wright.
And on matters of race Levittown has a particularly shameful history. It was billed as “the most perfectly planned community in America,” and part of the plan was for it to be whites-only: 5,500 acres, stretching across three Pennsylvania townships and one borough, closed off to blacks. The first development of mass-produced homes by Levitt & Sons, , N.Y., on , which dates from 1947, had the same exclusionary policies. William Levitt weakly insisted that he would love to sell houses to black families but had “come to know that if we sell one house to a Negro family, then 90 to 95 percent of our white customers will not buy into the community. That is their attitude, not ours.”
In 1957, when a black family, the Myers, finally did move into ., after buying from an original owner, their home was besieged for several nights by a mob that numbered in the hundreds. Rocks were hurled through the windows. In seeking a court order to stop the harassment, Daisy Myers referred to “annoying practices,” which included parades of cars rolling by her home as the occupants sang “Old Black Joe” and “Dixie.”
That was a half-century ago. Still, by the numbers, Levittown is not much changed. According to the last U.S. Census, just 2 percent of its 54,000 residents are African-American; about an equal percentage are Hispanic. The town’s white population includes many second- and even third-generation residents. Could Obama connect here? When his impassioned volunteers came around, would people open their screen doors and talk to them? And if Levittown seemed to prefer , did that make it a place that remained wary of blacks – or one that, for whatever economic or cultural reasons, was just not attuned to his message?
At 6 p.m. on a weekday evening in mid-March, about 15 people crowded into a small conference room at Obama’s Levittown headquarters. A half-dozen more spilled over into an adjoining area, where they stood near a whiteboard on which someone had written the oft-quoted – and oft-mocked – line from one of Obama’s speeches: “We are the ones we have been waiting for.” Meetings of Obama volunteers begin with what his professional field organizers call “relationship building.” Everyone talks about what brought them together and what they have in common, which, of course, is Obama.
The first to testify, as if in church, was Jack Field, a soft-spoken 78-year-old retiree who said that he had been a Republican for nearly 60 years but had changed his registration so he could vote in ’s Democratic presidential primary on April 22. “I read both of Obama’s books,” he said. “I thought to myself, Here’s a guy I can believe in.”
Next was John Annunziata, a former politician who had once been council president in Bristol Township, one of Levittown’s four municipalities. “I got disillusioned with the process and dropped out,” he said. “This is something special. I saw his Jefferson-Jackson Day speech, and it just blew me away.” Then came Rose Abondio, a native of who works in banking. “I am very far out of my comfort zone,” she said in a gentle lilt, referring to her new political activism. “But all I’ve been doing is watching CNN and . I’m addicted to cable news.”
One of the last to contribute was Rich Cucarese, a 41-year-old second-generation Levittowner who described himself as one of the last employees of U.S. Steel at Fairless Works. “There’s about 75 of us left,” he said. “It’s nice to hear a candidate talk about the blue-collar worker. We’re the ones who built this country up.”
This was Obama’s “Team No. 7.5” in . Its members had come together through his campaign Web site. They were a mix of volunteers from and nearby towns, split about evenly among blacks and whites (with one Hispanic man and one Asian man). Most of them were in their 30s, 40s and 50s.
Their mission, at this meeting, was to organize a drive to identify Obama supporters among voters registered as independents and persuade them to change their registrations so they could vote in ’s “closed” Democratic primary. This is painstaking, low-yield work, but the Obama campaign’s strategy everywhere has been to try to expand the universe beyond traditional voters.
Rachel Levine, a recent college graduate and paid field organizer who had earlier worked for Obama in and other primary states, stood in a corner of the room but said very little. In each new state, the campaign tries to build leadership from the ranks of volunteers, and it considers taking over from them to be “disempowering.” Whenever Levine joined the conversation, she did so skillfully and almost apologetically, at one point saying, “Rachel Levine from ., is not going to be able to convince the people here to vote for .”
Ersula Cosby became the co-leader of Team No. 7.5 because she seemed to have energy and a talent for organizing. She had worked as a technical writer while attending Temple University’s law school at night and was living in a newer condominium complex in Levittown. The only time that Cosby, a black woman raised in , betrayed an awareness of the tough terrain they were stepping into was when she mentioned where she hoped to open a law practice. “People have advised me I definitely need to get north of Route 1,” she told me, meaning out of Levittown and toward the middle part of , which is perceived as being more socially tolerant.
Annunziata, the former council president, was probably the most politically astute of the volunteers. “It’s silly to ignore it or pretend Obama’s race isn’t a factor, especially for some of the older people,” he said. Annunziata lives in Levittown with his 78-year-old father, Carmine, but said he had not yet been able to make him an Obama voter. “I have to realize that this is a big change for him,” he said. “So far, the best I’ve been able to do is move him from Hillary to undecided.”
Annunziata had been a motel manager but is not currently working. He thought Obama needed to “touch people in the wallet” in Levittown, but he was not primarily attracted by detailed campaign proposals. At times, he sounded almost mesmerized. The very challenge that Obama faced in Levittown and similar places – winning the hearts and votes of people who may never have dreamed they would vote for a black man for president – is part of what entices Annunziata. “When he won , it touched my soul,” he said. “I was very emotional. I felt like we were moving toward what this country should be.”
A few days after this meeting, Cosby and her team were joined by a large number of out-of-towners that included college students from and , as well as Peggy Kerry, the sister of Senator John Kerry, and her husband, George Kaler. Sophia Danenberg drove down from with her husband, Dave, and her background seemed particularly apt for the difficult job of conquering Levittown for Obama: she was the first African-American to climb to the top of .