Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Barack and me

Back in the 2004 election cycle, it didn't take me long to decide to support Howard Dean. By the summer of 2003, Dean's strong stand against the Iraq War and his phenomenal online fundraising and recruiting had won me over. By August of that year I was already attending meetups and tabling at Perrotti Park. And even though Dean lost the Democratic primary to Kerry, and Kerry lost the presidential election to Bush, I continued to be politically active. I started blogging at the now-departed Newport 9 blog, and I was involved in the 2006 Senate race.

The 2008 election cycle was different. None of the candidates inspired me the way Dean had. I was deeply unsatisfied with Hillary Clinton's AUMF vote, and the fact that she still seemed to think invading Iraq had been a good idea. I approved of Obama's organizing and Edwards' populist rhetoric, but I wasn't ready to commit to either one. What finally tipped me over the edge was Senator Chris Dodd's courageous stand against the FISA Amendments Act. I became a Dodd supporter, but my efforts to participate in his campaign were hampered by the fact that he didn't seem to have any campaign organization in Rhode Island.

When Dodd dropped out of the race after coming in 7th in the Iowa caucuses, I switched my support to Edwards. However, his distant 3rd place finish in the New Hampshire primary made it clear that he wouldn't be able to win the nomination, and I wound up becoming an Obama supporter. I signed onto mybarackobama and began looking for ways to join the campaign.

It didn't take me long to decide that the thing to do was start campaigning in the upcoming Massachusetts primary. I took part in a visibility event and meeting in Attleboro on February 1st, holding up signs in drizzling rain and later watching a video of Obama's speech at Ebenezer Baptist Church. The next day, I showed up at the Obama field office in New Bedford, where I helped make signs and phone banked. It was located in the offices of a small legal firm situated on Centre Street, which is the New Bedford counterpart to Newport's Thames Street (right down to the quaintly cobblestoned streets). The offices were fairly small, and with twenty or so people crowded in space was at a premium. But it was well organized, and the buzz of being among so many dedicated people (about half of them fellow Rhode Islanders, including several students from St. George's in Middletown) was invigorating.

A couple hours after I started work there, word came that some Clinton supporters were doing a visibility event (basically holding up signs and waving them at passersby) at a busy intersection a couple blocks from the field office, and that a local TV station was sending a news crew to tape the event. Quickly, two dozen Obama supporters (including me), were hurried out of the office with signs in hand, and we set up on the other side of the same busy intersection, waving for the passing cars and the TV crew, and chanting "Fired up! Ready to go!" The story on the local news ended up being about both groups.

I returned to New Bedford every day up to primary day itself on February 5, manning the phone bank and going out to do visibility events. Primary day ended with a caravan from the field office traveling to a polling place in Dartmouth half an hour before the end of polling to wave signs at the last few people going in to cast votes. As it turned out, Obama only got 41% of the vote and 38 of the 93 delegates in Massachusetts, but that was okay, because he won 13 out of 23 states that day and 847 delegates compared to Clinton's 834.

The Obama campaign opened a local field office in Newport on Fair Street a week before the Rhode Island primary. The people running the office were happy to let me bring my dogs with me, so I went in every day and spent several hours phone banking. My dogs made the acquaintance of Buddy, a Jack Russell terrier owned by another Obama supporter named Hilary Stookey. The phone banking and door knocking that the other volunteers and I did helped Obama win Newport by 2165 votes to 1777 for Clinton, though she wound up winning Rhode Island 58% to 40%.

After the Rhode Island primary, I basically stood on the sidelines and watched as Obama won the Democratic nomination, gave his acceptance speech in Denver, and went on to battle with John McCain in the general election contest. But as the weekend before the election arrived, I set a long anticipated plan into operation. Four years earlier, I had traveled to my home state of Delaware to visit my family, and while I was there I drove up to Pennsylvania every day to take part in the presidential campaign. Back then, I was due back at work in Rhode Island Wednesday morning so I had to leave right away. This time, though, I took a week off of work, driving down to Delaware on Sunday. The thought of being able to campaign in Pennsylvania was particularly sweet this time because the McCain campaign insisted that it was going to make its last throw of the dice there.

A quick perusal of mybarackobama.com found an Obama field office in nearby Chester, Pa., at Bethany Baptist Church. I set out there on Monday morning, and by a quarter past nine I was in the parking lot, greeting two women named Molly and Sara who were with the local campaign team. I spent the next eight hours in Chester, knocking on doors and leaving campaign literature. Most of the people in Chester are black, and somewhere between half and two thirds of the houses there had Obama-Biden lawn signs sitting out front. As is usually the case with door-knocking, most of the time there was nobody home, but on the rare occasions when there was, the people answering the door were usually happy to see me and assured me that they would be voting for Obama. I met several people who had attended a rally with Obama himself the week before.

Election day found me back at Bethany Baptist, and once more I was out knocking on doors, this time to sort out those who had already voted from who hadn't. The church basement where the Obama field office was located was a hive of activity, as volunteers arrived in a steady stream and were as quickly given orientation and canvassing packets and sent out again. There were boxes of campaign literature and door hangers sitting on trestle tables, and at one end of the room was a widescreen TV tuned to CNN.

Canvassing is pretty lonely work. There's just you and a list of addresses to visit, and the day is spent going from one house to the next, and there's usually nobody home. When you finish canvassing an area and return to the field office, the constrast is startling. Suddenly, instead of being alone in a strange neighborhood, you're in a large room full of enthusiastic fellow campaigners, loud and bustling. All you want to do is sit down and soak in the energy, and it takes a conscious effort of will to get up, grab another canvassing packet, and head on out to another strange neighborhood to do some more lonely door knocking.

Twelve hours of canvassing finally ended at eight o'clock in the evening, when the polls closed in Pennsylvania. After that, those of us who remained in the field office sat around eating donated food and watching the returns come in on CNN. There was a big cheer when CNN called Pennsylvania for Obama (thereby driving the last nail in the McCain campaign's coffin), and we all started cleaning up. I left for Delaware around 9:30 PM, then spent the next few hours watching the election returns in my parents' living room, grinning like an idiot when the polls closed on the west coast and the election was called for Obama. I stayed up long enough to see Obama's victory speech, then dragged myself off to bed.

The final act in the drama played out today. The staff at the Jane Pickens Theater in Newport splashed CNN's coverage of the inauguration ceremony across the big screen in high definition, and I just had to be there. Inside the theater I ran into an old friend named Lily Barnes, an immigrant from Croatia. Lily and I had been co-workers ten years before, and we met each other from time to time at Newport's no-leash dog park. Lily was there with her two daughters, and we spent the first few minutes enthusing about the prospect of finally seeing Obama become president. About half an hour before the inauguration, Lily got a text message on her phone from a friend in Croatia. It said HELLO AMERICA, ENJOY THIS DAY.

Everybody in the theater cheered when the camera showed former presidents Carter and Clinton and former vice-presidents Mondale and Gore walking through the halls of the Capitol Building on their way to the rostrum. There were a few cheers and a lot of boos when Chimpy appeared onscreen. When I saw Cheney rolling along in his wheelchair, I told Lily, "Welcome to Pottersville." The place went wild when Obama finally appeared, and again during the John Williams number when CNN noted that under the Constitution Obama had automatically become president at noon, even without the swearing-in ceremony. There was more applause at several points during Obama's inaugural address, a big cheer when the helicopter took Bush away, and a final round of applause when the Obamas joined the Bidens on the Capitol steps to watch the helicopter fly off.

Lily and I said our goodbyes and wishes for a better world in the lobby of the theater, and then I stepped outside. The early morning clouds had lifted, and the sun was shining out of a clear blue sky. Barack Obama was President of the United States of America.

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