Building the Left in Harbor Country

We met our neighbors and helped turn rural Michigan blue.

Jim Vopat

Members of Harbor Country Progress hang the sign at their office on the Red Arrow Highway in Union Pier, Mich.

6:30 P.M. Harbor Country Progress (HCP), an all-volunteer, nonprofit, chartered club of the Michigan Democratic Party, is meeting in the village of Union Pier, Berrien County, Mich. To many of those assembled in the former art gallery on Red Arrow Highway, the Harbor Country office is a historic” place. Historic” because during the Obama campaign volunteers from little Union Pier (population 727) made more than 25,000 phone calls, registered more than 750 voters, canvassed more than 4,500 homes and had a 300-plus volunteer list. When Berrien County went blue and voted 40,376 for Obama and 36,128 for McCain, it was the first county-wide Democratic win since the 1964 Johnson/​Goldwater election. (In 2004, Berrien Country voted 41,076 for Bush and 32,846 for Kerry.)

In this post-election period, progressives in Harbor Country (defined as Michigan’s 6th congressional district, it includes miles of Lake Michigan lakefront) are enthusiastic and restive. The healthcare reform battle is being fought in Berrien County as it is across the nation and HCP is part of the fight. Health Care Is a Right” t‑shirts are for sale near the door, and a number of folks in the room are wearing them.

People have arrived early for the potluck – fresh asparagus, salads, pizzas, homemade breads, pasta primavera, spinach pie, baked chicken, wine, soda and a dessert table. The food and wine thing,” as one member terms it, is one of the ways HCP achieves its community identity. It goes back to one of the earliest tenents of organizing – get social, eat each other’s food and have a good time. 

Tonight people are gathered for a healthcare forum. Two local doctors will talk about the benefits of a public option. HCP Chair Bob Miller asks everyone to introduce themselves and say where they are from. Three Oaks,” Sawyer,” Grand Beach,” Niles,” Weesaw,” Harbert,” Lakeside,” Galien,” Bridgman,” New Buffalo” and, of course, Union Pier.” The roll call affirms that people are here from across rural southwest Michigan, that they represent more than themselves, that together they have and will continue to bring change to a historically Republican area. (Full disclosure: Miller is my partner.)

MoveOn roots

The seeds of Harbor Country Progress, which boasts more than 100 active members, are rooted in neighborhood meetings organized by MoveOn in 2005. MoveOn suggested we invite neighbors over to share some food and talk about issues that mattered to us,” Miller says. We kept meeting monthly, sharing food and ideas and then planning political actions, like street protests against the war in Iraq.” The monthly MoveOn meetings attracted new participants soon outgrowing living rooms and kitchens. By the time the Democratic presidential primaries began in 2008, one of the members of the group closed her art gallery in Union Pier, Mich., and we decided to turn it into an office.

Having a physical space made it possible for the group to become a center for Barack Obama’s Campaign for Change. Frustrated by the lack of a real Democratic presidential primary in Michigan, members worked for Obama in the neighboring Indiana towns of South Bend and Michigan City – canvassing, phone banking and learning how to get out the vote. Once Obama became the Democratic candidate, members moved the strategies they had honed in Indiana to Michigan.

People started showing up to volunteer,” says Margarita Doerschner, the HCP office manager. Someone out on Basswood Road came in and said, I’ve been living here for 45 years, and this is the first time anyone knocked on the door for a political candidate.’ “

Post-election organizing

After the euphoria of Obama’s victory, many wondered if the HCP office would have a future. There was a feeling that we wanted to continue to support Obama’s agenda, that he would need our support,” says Miller. And that we would need to hold him accountable if he didn’t follow through.”

After a series of meetings, the group chose Harbor Country Progress as its name. It’s mission: An informed and empowered electorate.” To fulfill that mission, members decided that HCP would become an official Democratic Party club and establish a Political Action Committee (PAC) that would continue to be part of Obama’s grassroots network. To make it work, the group established the following three all-volunteer steering committees: 

Political action: For HCP, political action means coordination with Obama’s Organizing for America, community forums, letters to the editor, and attendance at and reporting on relevant community meetings – from school board to township and village governance meetings. Having a regular representative at these public meetings helps keep HCP membership informed about important issues and decisions, and gives the group notice of impending committee vacancies. We want to identify progressive candidates to run for or be appointed to open positions,” says HCP political action chair Bonnie Kasten. Community forums have focused on the economic stimulus, the Employee Free Choice Act and green energy initiatives. As part of its healthcare reform focus, HCP has organized a Health Care Is A Right rally at the office of Rep. Fred Upton (R‑Mich.).

Community service: This steering committee organizes and contributes to poverty relief projects in the 6th District, animal rescue efforts, and the distribution of trucks full of clothes and household goods to migrant families. One of HCP’s most successful efforts involved planting organic seedlings in community gardens – Recovery Gardens – at three sites: the Benton Harbor Emergency Shelter, maintained and harvested by shelter residents; the New Buffalo (Mich.) Elementary School; and an open community space also in New Buffalo. As with other political and community programs, the community gardens brought new members into the group while informing people about the benefits of growing and eating local organic produce. 

Membership and fundraising: The future is ours but we have to work for it,” says Doerschner, and that’s particularly true for fundraising.” Although completely volunteer-based, HCP still needs to meet monthly operational expenses of $1,500 and fund political action and community service initiatives. HCP also wants to provide resources for progressive candidates to run for political office throughout the 6th District. Money comes from selling political art, buttons, stickers, jewelry and t‑shirts, passing the hat at forums and meetings, annual membership dues, better than rummage” sales, raffles and donations. 

In the membership/​fundraising area, HCP’s juried art shows have been particularly successful. HCP’s first art show, It’s Obama Time,” included artwork from HCP members, as well as more than 40 regional and national artists – both insider and outsider.”Obama inspires a lot of people to make art – not just professional artists,” says Sara Scherberg, one of the curators.

The art shows serve to strengthen the connections between individual artists in the group, and they attract other artists to HCP.

After Francisco Cuadra of Hammond, Ind., was laid off from his factory job and lost his home to foreclosure, he started painting portraits of Obama in politically charged settings. The only way I could control myself was to pick up my brushes,” Cuadra told a local reporter.

Not everyone likes to canvass or make phone calls, staff the office, ask for donations, attend local meetings, write letters to the editor, make buttons or enter data—but someone does.
Lessons learned

Interviews with our friends in HCP suggest a five-point consensus about what’s been learned and where we are headed:

Build community. Whether it is the potluck dinners or people introducing themselves and where they live at the start of each meeting, building a sense of community is central to HCP’s success. When people have a personal connection with and understand each other as individuals, they not only work better together, they also listen to each other more carefully and more empathetically. 

Bridge political divides. Providing quality affordable healthcare, donating household necessities for the local migrant population, and supporting local agriculture and clean energy initiatives are issues that appeal to and energize people across the political spectrum. Instead of wedge issues, we look for community issues that bring people together,” Miller says. It isn’t just Democrats who want clean energy.” 

Develop a list of leadership and volunteer opportunities. Not everyone likes to canvass or make phone calls, staff the office, ask for donations, attend local meetings, write letters to the editor, make political buttons or enter data – but someone does. The volunteer philosophy of HCP is that people are productive and enthusiastic when they are doing what they want to do. Identify expertise and tap into it. 

Create a visible presence. This includes having a good place to meet and work, an inviting website and and a weekly newsletter, in our case e‑mailed to a list of 1,200. Organizing programs and events generate positive media coverage. More than 4,000 postcards for the It’s Obama Time” art show were distributed throughout the Harbor Country area. The front of the postcard was one of the pieces from our show, a color photo of a Obama sign made out of wooden letters at a rural intersection (the image featured on the cover of this In These Times issue). One of the group’s proudest achievements during the Obama campaign was arranging for two large Obama/​Biden billboards – one on Highway 12 and one on Red Arrow Highway.) 

Continue with what works. People want to volunteer on a political campaign, and they’re thinking driving voters to the polls. And we’re thinking going door to door and phone banking.” says Kasten. One-on-one contact through canvassing and phone banking were the ways HCP helped turn Berrien Country blue for Obama. The same strategies are just as successful on the local level. In a recent Three Oaks Township Trustee election, HCP backed the only candidate against landfill expansion, a candidate who proudly identified as a Democrat in an area where many Democrats running for office don’t draw attention to their party affiliation. Through phone banking, letters to the editor, handing out fliers and canvassing, this Democrat won in a landslide, creating the first Democratic majority on the Three Oaks township board anyone can remember. 

9:00 P.M. The meeting is over. Chairs have been collapsed and stored in the back room. Pockets of people are still talking, holding their empty potluck dishes. Obscure as it may be in Union Pier, Harbor Country Progress shows the change that is possible across rural America. Progressives have formed community and achieved political success. Instead of taking off their boots and lying down for a long nap, we are energized and ready to continue the fight of our lifetime. As Union Pier goes,” says Miller, so goes the nation.”

The last cars pull out of the HCP parking area and drive away, lighting up the sign Harbor Country Progress” along Red Arrow Highway. 

GET INVOLVED:
Harbor Country Progress

Jim Vopat and his partner Bob Miller, founding members of Harbor Country Progress, live in Three Oaks, Mich. Vopat, the author of five books including Writing Circles: Kids Revolutionize Workshop (Heinemann, 2009), founded and co-directs the Milwaukee Writing Project. 

Subscribe and Save 66%

Less than $1.67 an issue