San Francisco Chronicle

OAKLAND -- After weeks of Republican attacks on President Obama in rural Iowa, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Barbara Lee on Tuesday took to the pulpit of an African American church in Oakland to hear directly from voters and defend the president and Democrats on the most critical issue of the 2012 presidential race - jobs.

"It is a time in our country when the American people know ... that serious job creation must take place," said Pelosi, speaking to reporters before addressing a supportive crowd of hundreds at the Acts Full Gospel Church in East Oakland, one of California's staunchest Democratic strongholds.

"It is a sad time. ... There is no magic formula," Pelosi said. "But we know there are things we can do differently."

She called on both parties and the dozen members of the recently appointed bipartisan congressional deficit "Super Committee" to work together to solve the jobs problem.

"We are a civilized nation, we are not the law of the jungle," she told the often-vocal group gathered in the church's cavernous hall. "We are a civilized community. ... We have to take this to a higher ground."

The event, headlined "Speak Out for Good Jobs Now," aimed to take testimony from Americans on their concerns regarding the economy from an audience overwhelmingly made up of African Americans and labor union loyalists - the heart of the party base and among those hit hardest by the recession.

'Tax the rich'

Dozens filed up to mikes to tell their stories of unemployment. The session, organized by the Congressional Progressive Caucus, was at times raucous, with some heckling or angrily chanting that it is time to "tax the rich."

It also underscored a key challenge for Obama and his party if they are to maintain support from traditionally loyal Democratic voters as the Republican presidential field takes shape for next year's election.

Lee, who leads the Congressional Black Caucus, charged that Republicans, on the 224th day of their leadership in the House, had failed to produce a jobs bill or to deliver any solid proposals.

But both Pelosi and Lee, accompanied by Rep. Mike Honda of San Jose and Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona, also aimed to draw sharp contrasts between Republican and Democratic agendas on jobs.

"They think the way to produce jobs is to reduce taxes for the very wealthy people in this country. ... They did that in the Bush administration," Pelosi said to lusty boos from the audience. By contrast, she said, Democrats want jobs with a "living wage" for American workers, and believe "the more you pay the workers, the more they can become consumers, the more they can take care of their families ... the better jobs you create."

High unemployment

But in California, where unemployment hovers at 12 percent, joblessness among Latinos and African Americans was upward of 17 percent in 2010, compared with just under 10 percent for whites, according to a recent study by the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit Washington think tank.

Nationwide, the numbers are not much better: An Ohio State University study on unemployment and race showed that while the country's overall unemployment is just over 9 percent, it balloons to more than 16 percent for African Americans and 12 percent for Latinos.

The White House said this week that the president has established a Rural Economic Council to come up with a range of job solutions. It said the president will release a detailed jobs plan next month. Some at Tuesday's gathering expressed concerns about Obama's initiatives, with many saying he needs to be more aggressive in confronting Republicans.

"Obama needs to address corporations not hiring the unemployed," said Joyce Gell, an executive recruiter who sat in the audience. "In 2008, a lot of talented people ended up on the market - and they're still there. ... Corporations aren't hiring, and it makes no sense. There's a lot of talent on the streets."

But Chris Thornberg, a chief economist for state Controller John Chiang, said that politicians on both sides of the aisle are promising voters what they can't deliver - a silver bullet for the unemployment problem, particularly for minority communities.

"First of all, nobody has a jobs solution," he said. "Under these circumstances, the party not in power is going to point at the party in power. But neither one of them can deal with it - and there's no quick fix."

Minority communities are hit hard by unemployment, Thornberg said, because they have more lower-skilled laborers. "And there is no solution for that except for education - and that takes time," he added.

One participant in Tuesday's forum, Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, CEO of Green For All, an Oakland nonprofit that works for green jobs, said clean energy has the potential to alleviate poverty by bringing high-quality jobs to urban communities.

'The green economy'

"What's most exciting about the green economy is that it offers the possibility to have manufacturing again, to actually create things ... in both the private and the public sector," she said. "And the greatest growth sector right now is clean energy."

Ellis-Lamkins drew applause when she said that, too often, the focus of politicians is "about who is in the back of the room yelling the loudest."

"What the folks in Washington, D.C., would have us do is fight each other," she said. "I want to make sure the story of tonight is that people of color need jobs ... solutions and jobs."