Pennsylvania. October 19, 2008.
Twenty-one electoral votes were up for grabs in the battleground state of Pennsylvania (PA) and pollsters were showing a tightening race between the two presidential candidates: Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain. With this in mind, my friends Stephanie and Anne and I decided to travel from New York City to Pennsylvania to help win that state for Barack Obama.
For months I’d been looking with trepidation at the ever-changing color of the electoral college map of the United States: the Democratic liberal leaning blue states, the Republican conservative leaning red, and the yellow “undecided” states. Prior to the controversial 2000 presidential election, there was no universally recognized color scheme. According to the Washington Post, it was a television journalist who first established this color code. As the days turned into weeks over the disputed Florida vote back then, more and more media outlets adopted it.
Barack Obama in his keynote address before the 2004 Democratic National Convention cautioned against the division of the United States into red states and blue states, saying, “We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and have gay friends in the Red States. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.”
After a three-hour early morning drive, we arrived at Carbondale, a small town located in northwestern Pennsylvania. We went straight to the local Obama Campaign headquarters, where volunteers were busily preparing for the day’s work. After signing in we were directed to the briefing room, where an eclectic group of volunteers had gathered: young and old, mostly white, and primarily from New York City and Connecticut. Two campaign workers gave us some pointers about the art of canvassing: knock on as many doors as possible, speak about your own personal reasons for supporting Obama rather than trying to remember all of the campaign’s policy and positions. Then, armed with campaign literature, we headed out to the front lawns of America.
We knocked on doors of college kids voting for the first time, a self-proclaimed libertarian who refused to acknowledge who he was voting for, until his wife and daughter ran out to grab the Obama campaign literature, promising me that they would have him “turned around” by Election Day, and then I reached the door of Annie K. Her stats told me that she was 91-years-old and still an “undecided.” A very spirited 91-year old lady answered the door. When I told her I was with the Obama campaign, she smiled and said, “Oh yes, I’m voting for Obama,” adding, “the more I hear about McCain, the more I feel that he is out of touch, and as for that lady he has with him, Sarah Palin, well what was he thinking?” McCain’s decision to put Palin on the ticket clinched it for Annie – Obama would get her vote. I asked if she would like any assistance to the voting poll, and she replied, “Oh no, but thanks. I know exactly where it is,” explaining with a wink, “after all I have been voting for over 70 years.” I wished her well and continued my journey down the street. The late afternoon sun shone brightly as I made my way to the next door, where Francis, a young woman in her early thirties, answered. She too was voting for Obama, and since she was off work on Election Day, she also signed up to volunteer.
A little while later, I met Stephanie and Anne for lunch at a local deli, where we spoke with Cindy, the sandwich maker. Although she thought that most people in this primarily Catholic area would vote for Obama, the local Bishop was advising them against it because of Obama’s pro-choice abortion views. We were also reminded that this was Hillary Clinton’s home state and many were still bitter about her defeat in the primaries. However, it helped that Obama’s running mate Joe Biden was born in the neighboring town of Scranton, PA. Then the owner of the deli popped in, and when the conversation turned to Sarah Palin and her perceived lack of experience to hold the nation’s second highest post, he had this to say: “Give me ugly and smart any day.”
Outside the late afternoon light was slowly giving way to dusk, and it was time to knock on the last batch of doors. By evening’s end we had knocked on well over 60 doors, and campaign manager Maria told us upon our return that collectively we had knocked on over 1,600 doors that day. We left with a sense of achievement as Maria reminded us that this is how elections are won.
After crossing the George Washington Bridge back to Manhattan, we pulled into a gas station, where the attendant admired my “O’Bama” pin with the shamrock rising and asked if I had any more, but alas I had none. When Stephanie heard about my encounter, she pulled out an extra badge from Pennsylvania, and said, “Give him this one… it’s good karma.” When I ran back into the store and handed him the badge, his eyes lit up as he pinned the small Obama/Biden badge onto his work shirt and thanked me. “Yes, good karma,” I thought as we pulled out of the gas station bringing our day’s adventure to a close.
New York City. November 4, 2008 Election Day.
When I arrived at the local voting center at 9:00am in Woodside, Queens, a long line was already snaking its way out the door. Inside, several white-haired ladies were taking the voting cards from people waiting to cast their vote. A woman with a “Republican Campaign Worker” badge handed me my voting card at the check-in table and directed me to the booth. There another lady sporting a “Democratic Campaign Worker” badge took it from me as I pulled back the two black curtains of the voting booth. Then with one swift move of the large red lever, I cast my own historic vote. Afterwards, I headed to a nearby coffee house to catch up on my e-mails. Reports were coming in from friends around the city and the country:
Barbara, New Jersey:
HOW EXCITING IS THIS?? I WAS TEARING UP AS WE WALKED INTO THE POLLING STATION!!!! And to think I was born a Republican :-)
Oh, it’s so exciting! Experienced my first line ever to vote at my polling place.
Dan & Diana, Brooklyn:
We waited an hour out here in park slope. Totally great vibe and sense of civic spirit though (plus a bake sale!)
Emily, New Jersey:
I just voted out here in Jersey and only had to wait 5 minutes… They did say that it was the slowest it had been all day.
There are long lines here too…. 1-2 hours!
That evening I headed to Mr. Dennehy’s, an Irish bar on historic Carmine Street in the West Village to meet up with a group of friends who had gathered to watch the election returns. Inside the mood was definitely upbeat and festive. As the returns came in on the large flat-screen TVs the crowd cheered when a blue state was called. But it was not until Pennsylvania turned blue that everyone erupted into euphoria… this was the turning point. We now knew that it was only a matter of time before Obama would reach the magical number of 270 electoral votes.
Evening gave way to night and as polls across the country continued to close, all eyes were on the west coast. Shortly after 11:00pm, an alert came up on the screen announcing that the west coast polls would close in five minutes, and then came the countdown. I can only compare it to waiting for midnight on New Year’s Eve at the dawn of the new millennium, but more so. We knew what would happen yet we waited with baited breath as the clock began to tick down to one minute and everyone began the count down at five seconds… four, three, two, one… and with that California, Oregon and Washington all turned blue, and Barack Obama became the 44th President of the United States. We all were overcome with emotion, openly weeping, stunned into disbelief. Champagne was uncorked, people hugged — a small microcosm of the celebrations taking place around the city, the country and the world. Outside, apartment dwellers flung open their windows and yelled out in celebration, pedestrians danced in the streets, parts of Broadway were shut down to traffic, Harlem exploded with a passionate and unbridled joy. We were witnessing a great historic moment.
When at 12:07am my phone beeped, there was an e-mail from President-elect Barack Obama titled “How this happened”:
I’m about to head to Grant Park to talk to everyone gathered there, but I wanted to write to you first.
We just made history. And I don’t want you to forget how we did it.
You made history every single day during this campaign — every day you knocked on doors, made a donation, or talked to your family, friends, and neighbors about why you believe it’s time for change.
I want to thank all of you who gave your time, talent, and passion to this campaign.
We have a lot of work to do to get our country back on track, and I’ll be in touch soon about what comes next.
But I want to be very clear about one thing… All of this happened because of you. Thank you, Barack
Then with his family in Chicago Obama took the stage and an almost reverential hush descended in the bar. Moved by his speech many of us wept tears of joy.
New York City
November 19, 2008
Since that historic day, I’ve noticed a considerable difference in the demeanor of New Yorkers. They smile more, strangers talk to each other on the subway, and there is an extra bounce in our step. People are still crying tears of joy. I’ve experienced this before, after a tragedy, when the city pulls itself together: after 9/11, the 2003 blackout, the 2005 MTA transit strike — but this time is unique; people are coming together to celebrate a victory.
On a recent walk through Union Square, I stopped at a stall selling Obama memorabilia where two African-American men were talking excitedly about the election. I smiled and asked, “Have you ever witnessed one man that makes so many people happy?” They replied with big grins, “No, this is historic – he gives us all hope.” Emily Dickinson wrote: “’Hope’ is the thing with feathers—/ That perches in the soul—/ And sings the tune without the words—/ And never stops—at all—”
The times have changed and hope is in the air. Now we all wait for January 20th, 2009, and President Obama’s Inauguration. Officials predict over 1.5 million people coming to Washington, D.C. Many of my friends are writing to their State Senators to try to snag one of the coveted 240,000 Inauguration tickets. New York Senator Charles Schumer’s office has been so overwhelmed by ticket requests, 100,000 to date, that he decided to hold a statewide Internet lottery to distribute the 350 tickets he received. Winners will be announced on Friday, December 5, 2008. Yes, I’ve tossed my name into the hat.