Monday, January 28, 2008

Dispatches, Volume 6

An Attorney Comes to Town…The Blow-Out in Palmetto Country…Getting Ready for War With Machetes and Swords…

There was cause to be nervous in the days leading up to the South Carolina primary. The South Carolina offices, apparently devoid of the top staffers that ran Obama’s earlier states, were full of unpaid staffers, recently in from out of town, struggling with Campaigning 101. Organizers were cutting turf as volunteers arrived, late in the morning, running out of phone lists by noon…Even a vaunted church outreach session where volunteers were supposed to read a message from Obama to church members went awry, as stressed out campaign staff forgot to print mapquest directions until that morning, leaving most of the crowd late for services where they weren’t even on the agenda.

I lucked out, getting assigned to a United Church of Christ, where a church member got to the front of the room, peered at the letter and said, “Senator Obama’s written this letter to us. It’s very long, so I’m gonna paraphrase. The primary is this Saturday. Senator Obama is one of our church brothers.You should all strongly consider voting for him.”The service ended with all of us holding hands and singing "We Shall Overcome."

Thursday I did some advance work in Kingstree, where Obama would be speaking to a more rural crowd, and network friendly stump lines wouldn’t quite do the trick. Lines like ‘this country needs a new energy policy’ were met with crickets, and his first two standing ovations occurred when he clarified, “I am a Christian, and have attended the same church for the last 20 years,” and “My first job as commander in chief is to keep all of you safe.” But Obama showed a remarkable ability to adapt, making politics accessible to a large crowd that didn’t follow Washington gossip, or have candidates visiting its bake-offs and country fairs every day for a year and a half. This skill will be increasingly important as he engages in a mad dash to persuade 22 states to vote for him in 8 days. Obama had given a press conference after the event in a nearby room, and in a telling moment, he came back to the gym afterwards, where only the 20 or so volunteers were left cleaning up. We were gathered together, and he shook all of our hands to thank us for our help, and then took a group picture with us. There were no cameras rolling, no reporters on hand, but he was as friendly and charismatic as ever, as middle-aged women squeezed him and squealed with joy.

Folks asked me why the Obama campaign thought it needed 200 lawyers for voter protection in a Democratic primary, and I wasn’t really sure. But when Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree shows up to help lead the legal training the night before, you know the stakes are high. I showed up to my staging area in Dorcester County at 7am Saturday morning. Our staging area was in charge of getting out the vote in six precincts, and I would serve as the campaign’s sole legal representative in the area. Being a law student in New York gets you used to being pretty low on the totem poll, but the local office was ecstatic when I arrived.

“Voter protection? Hey, everyone, our attorney is here!”

“Well, I’m actually a law student, but…”

“Hey, you’re the attorney?”

“I’m not technically an attorney…”

“Attorney, we’ve got a problem down at Brentwood Middle School…”

“We’ve always got problems at Brentwood…”

“I saw one of the zero tapes, and it wasn’t set to zero. That’s not legal is it?”

“Attorney, I just talked to a man who’s irate because his son couldn’t vote!”

“Is his son registered there?”

“I’m not sure…”

“Attorney, one of our poll workers is yelling at the poll manager!”

“Why is he yelling at the poll manager?”

“Because she won’t let him see the books.”

“He’s allowed to look at the books, right?”

“Can they do exit polls inside the gym? Cuz right now they’re doing exit polls inside the gym.”

I kind of knew the answer to these questions. “Tell the poll checkers and the runners to calm down for now. We need to work with these poll managers all day- let’s be nice to them and try to smooth things out. A couple of these problems might cause issues, but as long as we can work around them we’ll pick our fights for later in morning.”

And who better to bring those fights than Hillary Clinton. Not once, but twice I had to intervene to get her volunteers from distributing campaign literature at the door of the polling location, a blatant violation of a well known rule that requires campaign literature and images to be kept two hundred feet from voting locations. The second time I had to go down in person and drive Clinton volunteers off the lawn of a schoolyard. It felt great. On the way back I bemoaned to the driver that there were no Obama signs anywhere on the highways or back roads. Later an organizer shook his head. “We’ve been putting up signs all day- the Clinton people just wait till we’re gone and take them down.”

But the problems weren’t all caused by the Clintons and testy poll managers. The Party had turned the primary over to the state, which promptly underfunded it, leading to the consolidation of hundreds of polling locations. This left many voters confused and frustrated, showing up to their usual voting locations, now closed, sometimes with no explanations. One of our main jobs was to get voters in Ladson, Dorcester County, to North Charleston, Charleston County, a 20 minute drive. “It’s just not right,” sighed a weary volunteer who had spent the afternoon shuttling voters to the polls and handing out leaflets of explanations. “It’s just not right.” Between all these debacles, and the media hype that Obama was suddenly polling 10% among white voters, the mood in the office was nervous, bleak.

And in the end, it was a blow-out. The news channels called the race before a single precinct reported. Our office was overcome with emotion. Pepper Hill, our most troublesome precinct, case 411 out of 511 votes for Obama. There were tears and cheers of joy ricocheting across the halls of the South End Brewery in downtown Charleston. For so many in the crowd, Obama was the first candidate they’d ever believed in, and his win showed them that all their volunteering for someone they believed in was worth it. For many others still, who have endured the agony of loss after loss, a win like Saturday was beyond our imaginations. Folks probably know the juiciest statistics- 55% of the total vote, 82% of the black vote, 53% of the women’s vote. One of my personal favorites is him winning 66% of first-time voters. For those who wonder whether he’ll be a strong national candidate in the general election, grasp this: Obama won more votes in the South Carolina Democratic Primary than John McCain and Mike Huckabee won in the South Carolina Republican primary combined. It’s the first time in the modern primary era that Democrats drew more voters than Republicans in South Carolina. Obama will be a candidate in all 50 states.

And I’ll tell you who agrees- former South Carolina Governor Jim Hodges and former Mississippi Ray Mabus. Mabus, voted in a state poll as the best Mississippi governor of the last millennium, is charming and smooth, think Bill Clinton without the sleaze. He replaced Clinton as youngest governor in the U.S during the 80s, and Clinton later appointed him as Ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Mabus said that only Obama could make Mississippi a competitive state in the national election for the first time since Jimmy Carter won it in 1976. Hodges said the same thing. If I’m going to trust anyone on national electability, it’s those poor red state governors and Senators we leave to dry every four years, and this year we finally don’t have to. In fact, when I saw Ray Mabus speak, I finally knew who I wanted as Obama’s running mate.

Obama pulled 25% of the white vote in South Carolina, and the drive-by media is playing right in to the Clinton narrative that Obama is somehow screwed for Super Tuesday because he can’t connect with white people. First, if you add up all the white votes cast in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada, Obama actually beats Clinton. Second, South Carolina doesn't have the best racial relations in the union.

South Carolina is home of the quadrennial question, ‘Should South Carolina have the right to fly the Confederate Battle Flag over its capital?’ The safe duck and cover has always been that it ‘no one should tell a state what to do with their state flag’ explanation. Except it’s not the South Carolina state flag in any shape or form, and it never has been. That distinction goes to the Palmetto crescent flag. That’s why any decent person ought to say, as, Hubert Humphrey eloquently stated at the 1948 Democratic convention, that “It’s time to step out of the dark shadow of states’ rights and into the bright sunshine of human rights.” The Confederate battle flag is a source of pride to some, but like the Dartmouth Indian, the warped nostalgia it generates cannot overcome offensive bigotry it represents to many in South Carolina.

Anyway, I got a little off track. The point is that come Super Tuesday, Obama will win white votes all over the country, and the talking heads will trip over themselves explaining how Obama was ‘able to re-connect with white voters’ as a rationalization of their piss-poor, Clinton-driven analysis. Of course, Hillary wasn’t so confident about getting those white votes anyway. Check out this robo-call her campaign sent out to white areas of South Carolina the day of the primary:

“Hello, This is the Hillary Clinton for President Campaign.

Before you vote on Saturday, you should know that John Edwards voted for permanent trade relations with China. That’s right, John Edwards voted for the bill that cost thousands of jobs. Like the ones in the textile mills he talks about so much down here.

You should also know that John Edwards made nearly a half a million dollars working for a Wall Street investment fund. A fund that’s been profiting on foreclosing on the homes of families; including 100 homes right here in South Carolina. That’s according to The State newspaper. Here in South Carolina, Edwards says he’s one of us, but up on Wall Street he was just another one of them.
Can you trust John Edwards?”

Putting aside the irony that a Clinton would actually make this a vote on trustworthiness, it’s a particularly slimy job from the people that not only brought us NAFTA, but pushed actively for the China bill, which passed 83-15 before Bill Clinton signed it. The roll call on this vote was odd- a bipartisan mixture of liberal Dems, right-wing Republicans, and centrists can be found on both sides of the vote (Jesse Helms and Paul Wellstone voted against it). If anyone could enlighten me/us on the dynamics of this bill it would be much appreciated.

As for John Edwards, the poor guy only won one county, the one he was born in. People felt sorry for him- after we read off one precinct’s result, ‘279 for Obama, 78 for Clinton, 4 for Edwards,’ a couple people murmured sad sighs, ‘Aw, the poor fella, 4 votes, and he was born here!’

Edwards, who brought valuable issues of poverty into the campaign dialogue, now talks about nothing else. He knows his candidacy is no longer viable, a Dennis Kucinich issues campaign with a better looking front-man. While I’m conflicted about the implications of him staying in the race, I’m more confused as to what he hopes to gain by doing so. He has no interest in serving as either candidate’s Vice-President, and the notion that he’ll play ‘king-maker’ at the convention is just ridiculous. By hanging on, he will inevitably be blown out in at least 18 of the Super Tuesday states, leading to more of the awkward on air-interviews that begin, ‘So…Senator Edwards…you’re still here…’ He’s like the third wheel at the end of a Saturday night hook-up scenario (‘I’m getting pretty tired, how ‘bout you, John?’), except the hook-up here is the final fisticuff fireworks between Clinton and Obama.

And what about the black voters? You know, the ones who thought Barack Obama wasn’t black enough, the ones who were so enamored of Bill Clinton, the nation’s ‘first black president.’ They came out in droves for Obama. One of the reasons not talked about much is the role of white volunteers. Almost every white canvasser I spoke with over the past two weeks had some anecdote about a disillusioned black voter who went wide eyed that not only did white people like Obama, they liked him enough to drive down twelve hours to knock and their door and talk about him. They had been spoon-fed the disheartening narrative that a black candidate couldn’t win, and once they knew he could, they came out in droves.

So what next? Some people are worried about Super Tuesday now. It’s coming up around the bend, and Clinton has a bunch of leads. Those leads will whither, my friends. Politics is like waves crashing on a shore- and it’s all about being in the right place when the wave crashes. Momentum is building. Ted Kennedy’s endorsement should not be taken lightly. Not only does he actively foment the JFK comparisons, dispel the experience argument (“Obama is ready to lead one day one”) and add himself as a talented Obama stumper in the Super Tuesday run-up, but it was his inner circle that turned things around for Kerry at the end of 2003. His people know what they’re doing, and they will be a force to be reckoned with.

Super Tuesday will be the greatest battle for the soul of the Democratic Party waged since at least 1972, and it’s only 8 days away. Between the State of the Union tonight, the Republican Florida primary, and California debates from both parties, this will be a monster week leading up to it.

As this dispatch signs off, fear not of Hillary’s poll numbers and dirty tactics, but remember the words of Joshua 1:9- “Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the Lord thy God is with thee wherever you go.”

1 comment:

fulch said...

hey dude, I met you at the Charleston victory party. You may still have my business card, but I'd like to e-mail you when I post my new blog on SC. Enjoyed yours and meeting you! e-mail me: