MADELEINE BRAND, host:
Community organizers hope the election of a former community organizer to the White House would bring them more political clout. NPR's Pam Fessler has been following one group, it's called the Virginia Organizing Project, to see if that's been the case.
PAM FESSLER: The Virginia Organizing Project, or VOP, usually works on local issues and lobbies the state legislature in Richmond. But this year, it's part of something much, much bigger.
(Soundbite of rally)
Crowd: (Chanting) We want, we want health care!
FESSLER: That was the chant at a rally last month at the U.S. Capitol organized by a coalition called Health Care for America Now. It involved thousands of union and liberal grassroots activists who back President Obama's health care plans.
Joe Szakos, executive director of the Virginia Organizing Project, says his group's participation is a win-win. He provides ground troops for the national campaign, about 150 for this rally, and Health Care for America Now gives him money to pay two full-time staffers and other costs.
Mr. JOE SZAKOS (Executive Director, Virginia Organizing Project): I call it revenue sharing, right, because we're doing it not just to get health care for everybody in the country, but we're also doing it to try to build local community groups.
FESSLER: And to strengthen VOP's statewide network.
Szakos says after health care, there'll be many other issues Virginians care about. Now, VOP is trying to influence the debate by finding personal stories to illustrate the need for a health care overhaul. And they're having some impact. Remember a town hall meeting President Obama held earlier this month in Virginia where he hugged a woman with cancer who had no insurance?
Here's Richard Kirsch, who runs Health Care for America Now.
Mr. RICHARD KIRSCH (National Director, Health Care for America Now): We got a note from the Office of Public Engagement at the White House saying, would you like to send two people to the town hall meeting? First thing we did is we wrote VOP and said, do you have people you'd like to send?
FESSLER: The woman who came from VOP was Debby Smith, a volunteer from southwest Virginia. When President Obama called her story Exhibit A in the need to overhaul health care, that was no accident.
(Soundbite of knocking)
FESSLER: In fact, VOP interns have been knocking on doors all summer, 140,000 in all, collecting similar stories and support for a health care overhaul.
Unidentified Woman: Hello.
Mr. JOE HUENNEKENS (Volunteer, Virginia Organizing Project): Hello, hi. My name is Joe Huennekens. I'm working with the Virginia Organizing Project.
Unidentified Woman: Uh-huh.
FESSLER: Huennekens asks a woman in Alexandria, Virginia, what issue she cares about most, and like many, she says health care. She says her son died from liver disease, and it was a nightmare dealing with the insurance companies. Huennekens suggests she calls Virginia's Democratic Senator Mark Warner to push for a public health insurance option.
Mr. HUENNEKENS: It's toll free. You call, you press a one, it connects you and you ask for his office. And would you mind if we got either your phone number and e-mail address, because you have such a strong story about health insurance reform.
FESSLER: Huennekens and other VOP interns are collecting similar information from other people they talk to. They enter it into a huge database to be used later to generate phone calls and letters to wavering lawmakers.
The following day, Huennekens and five VOP colleagues meet at the Capitol with the staff of Virginia Congressman Gerry Connolly. He's one of several freshman Democrats who oppose a House plan to pay for health care by raising individual taxes. Huennekens recounts the story he heard the day before.
Mr. HUENNEKENS: Her son had had liver disease and had had health insurance through his job. But when he got sick, he lost his job because...
FESSLER: VOP is trying to exert influence by showing lawmakers that it has its ears to the ground, that it knows what their constituents are thinking.
Kevin Simowitz, VOP's intern coordinator, realizes Connolly, like every lawmaker, is getting pummeled from every side.
Mr. KEVIN SIMOWITZ (Intern Coordinator, Virginia Organizing Project): So if you all have suggestions about ways that we can be helpful to the congressman's position…
Mr. GEORGE BURKE (Communications Director, Office of Representative Gerry Connolly): It's more important that you dispel the misconceptions. I mean, the opposition is spending a lot of money to get their message out.
FESSLER: Connolly's communications director, George Burke, says VOP's grassroots work is important, although it's difficult to know how much impact the group will ultimately have.
Still, Kevin Simowitz says afterwards that VOP is in it for the long haul.
Mr. SIMOWITZ: And I just watched five college-aged interns sit in a congressional office and talk with somebody about their summer experience.
FESSLER: He says they now know a lot more than they did about community organizing. The hope is they'll put it to use the next time an issue they care about comes along.
Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.
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