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Originally published June 4, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 4, 2008 at 10:00 AM

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Danny Westneat

Obama won race from ground up

How in the world did Barack Obama do it? How did a rookie upset the establishment to win the Democratic crown for president? For a glimmer into...

Seattle Times staff columnist

How in the world did Barack Obama do it?

How did a rookie upset the establishment to win the Democratic crown for president?

For a glimmer into how, consider the story of the South Park incinerator.

There is no such incinerator, thankfully. But back in the 1980s, the city of Seattle wanted one: a pollution-spewing plant burning 1,800 tons of garbage daily.

It didn't happen, in large part because of a Jesuit priest named Greg Galluzzo.

"The feeling always was that South Seattle was doomed to be a dumping ground, and you couldn't fight it," recalls Jim Diers. "Then this priest came along, talking about how there's two kinds of power. The power of money, which has always run things. And the power of people."

The priest insisted: You can fight City Hall. If you join forces, around common causes, you can shift the power.

"It was amazing to see people come alive," Diers says. "When people on the margins see that they can effect change, the energy is a sight to behold."

Galluzzo trained college-grad Diers in how to organize a fractious community. They formed SESCO, the South End Seattle Community Organization. It was a powerhouse, one of the most successful neighborhood groups in city history. It killed the incinerator.

Diers went on to head Seattle's Department of Neighborhoods and write a book on bottom-up organizing, called "Neighbor Power."

Galluzzo stayed in Seattle for four years, then moved to Chicago. Not long after, he trained another raw college grad looking for a purpose, named Barack Obama.

Among Galluzzo's lessons: Community organizing isn't for do-gooders or idealists. It's about power. How you can shift power away from moneyed, entrenched groups.

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I spoke with Diers Tuesday, as Obama was clinching the nomination. He was giddy about how Obama, who gets derided for never having run much, has pulled off what's considered a miracle in community organizing circles.

He somehow community-organized the nation.

"It's such local work, neighbor by neighbor," Diers says. "It's tricky — you can't do it from the top down. It never works if it comes from the parties, or establishment groups.

"For him to take community organizing and apply it on a national level is astounding. It's never happened before."

It's why Obama won. It's how he got a record number of donors, 90 percent giving less than $100. How he mobilized the most volunteers. Started voter drives in all 50 states.

"The real story is that this has been a grass-roots effort," says Kurt Peppard, an Obama backer from Federal Way. "It's bigger than him. The point isn't just to get him elected. It's to use community organizing to change how national government works."

That's heady stuff, maybe too heady. The trouble with people power is people can be fickle. Unlike lobbyists.

But right now, it's cause to celebrate. After years of corporate fat cats and their stooges, America has put a gifted mass organizer of people — a minority one to boot — at the door to the White House. Who ever thought they'd see the day?

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

About Danny Westneat
Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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