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On a chilly and rainy Monday night at American Serb Hall in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in a banquet room lined with paintings of former Presidents, John Edwards spoke at another Small Change for Big Change fundraiser. Serb Hall has been the site of many political speeches throughout the years and the large dim hallways of the building, which boasts its very own bowling alley, added to the Elks Lodge type old-fashioned atmosphere.
Tickets were $15 to attend. Along with my 7 year old son, Ezra, who if you can believe it, is also interested in politics, I made the hour and 1/2 drive from Chicago. I previously attended a Small Change for Big Change event in Chicago in May, but this event was distinctly different than the Chicago one held at a downtown pub called BB's with many working professionals and singles present.
Supporters milling about with a drink in hand at BB's tended to be more focused on the sheer novelty of meeting a possible future president. It wasn't immediately clear whether they were still undecided about Edwards or in full support. But here at Serb Hall, which was advertised to have a cash bar that night, there were no signs of drinks in anyone's hand. There was also little doubt about what was on everyone's mind, as conversation centered around Edwards' policies.
Ezra and I arrived early, as did a few of the other Edwards supporters who began trickling in around 5:15 for the 6:30 evening start time. The majority of the supporters appeared to be over age 40, white, and a great number were gray-haired seniors, although there was a small group of Students for Edwards from nearby Madison present near the front of the stage. Ezra appeared to be the only child there.
In contrast to the Chicago event, the mood was one of quiet excitement, although many supporters easily engaged in conversation with their nearby neighbors. When several of the seated seniors were asked by a campaign staffer to rearrange their chairs to the left and right of the stage to keep an area in the middle for those standing, they politely obliged.
I spoke with one of the organizers of the event, Chris Honecker, a bearded man in his 30's, who was staffing a donation table at the entrance with campaign stickers, "Labor for Edwards" and "Wisconsin for Edwards" buttons. Here, Ezra grabbed a couple of free buttons to pin to his t-shirt as I spoke with Honecker who volunteers with one of the four Edwards One Corps action groups in Milwaukee. Honecker said he's a Milwaukee resident and just this Labor Day, had organized a table for the campaign at Laborfest, held by the Milwaukee County Labor Council AFL-CIO in downtown Milwaukee.
"We were the only campaign that had any strong presence then," he said.
Leslie Ratcliffe, who described herself as a student from Madison, attended the fundraiser along with 11 other members of a Madison One Corps group. They all came dressed in white "Wisconsin for Edwards" T-shirts. Ratcliffe saw Edwards speak in Dubuque this year and said the issue she feels is most important to her is his health care plan.
She referred me to another member of the Madison group, Connie Smalley, who was there with her husband Chuck Smalley. Smalley, a friendly lady with a bright smile and a collection of short, wavy white hair, enthusiastically described herself as an active blogger on The Daily Kos. She talked about seeing Edwards speak at theYearly Kos convention in Chicago this year.
"Bill Richardson tried to entice us with cookies, but we just walked right by," she remarked with disdain, describing the room where Richardson was scheduled to speak and making her way to an Edwards question and answer session at the convention.
A former delegate from Boston for Kerry Edwards in 2004, Smalley pinpointed health care and global warming as issues that are important in her support of Edwards. In April, she attended the citizen climate change rally "Step It Up" in Madison and believes Edwards' philosophy "matches" these groups.
Ken Sabroff, a Madison resident who worked formerly in broadcast radio and is now a stay at home dad said the fundraiser was his first time meeting Edwards. He asked if I was with the media and was eager to share his opinions on Edwards. He said his reasons for supporting the candidate are because he believes Edwards appears to be "honest" and "sincere."
"His history is helping people without money," Sabroff explained.
Soon it was nearly a half hour past the event start time, but it was not apparent on the faces or the mood in the room, as most appeared to continue their patience as they waited quietly. Finally, after a bit of rallying and chanting from one young woman at the front of the room, apparently a local volunteer with the campaign, the event started. Joe Wineke, the chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, who personally endorses Edwards, briefly announced the candidate to the near capacity crowd of about 800, saying the time was ripe for change in the White House.
Then a few short seconds later, Edwards entered the hall to music, shaking hands along the way and wearing a crisp white shirt rolled up at the sleeves, a bright blue tie slightly loosened at the neck. He spoke for about a half hour to the crowd and touched on several of his campaign proposals, opening with his speech on lobbyists in Washington and his healthcare plan. On global warming and energy, he was quick to call out his opponents on their stances.
"Unlike some of my opponents, I do not favor building more nuclear power plants," he said.
Continuing on, Edwards appeared to take a much stronger stand on his campaign issues, resulting in much response and cheering from the crowd after nearly every proposal statement and at several times coming close to being drowned out by the cheers. It was interesting to see such an enthusiastic reaction to the candidate's proposals from an audience that, at least in Chicago, one would not usually expect to back Edwards' progressive plans. But, appearances are so often misleading and it's clear that the young and urban do not have a stronghold on the claim to being for progressive issues.
On his energy plan, he once again issued his call for active citizen participation in the efforts to stop global warming, saying "If we love this country, we have to conserve. All of us have to do this together."
Edwards then went on to touch briefly on poverty and the current situation in New Orleans which drew a one of the loudest and longest cheers from the crowd.
"We don't need a surge in Baghdad, we need a surge in New Orleans," he remarked. "For all those that say there's nothing we can do, that the great lie."
Labor was an issue that seemed to be on the minds of many, as union t-shirts could be seen on several of the men in attendance. Edwards outlined his personal support of labor, recalling his presence at several picket lines.
"Wouldn't it be worth something to have a president of the United States walk out on the White House lawn and actually say the word 'union'?" he asked, again drawing cheers from the crowd.
He talked of his College for Everyone initiative, which would pay for one year of college tuition, fees and books, requiring that students work part-time and take college prep courses in high school. He emphasized that the work component of his college plan would be a reasonable expectation of students.
"A lot of us worked when we were in college, it didn't hurt us a bit," he explained.
The candidate had strong words for President Bush's handling of global affairs and described the United States' reputation in the world as suffering miserably.
"I don't think George Bush has damaged our reputation in the world, I think he has destroyed it," he said to more loud cheering from the audience.
Closing his speech, Edwards said the Democratic Party needs to once again become the party of the people.
"I think it is time that the Congress do what the people put them in charge of doing and that's to bring an end to this war," Edwards said to sustained cheering from the crowd.
"Our party needs to show some backbone and courage," he continued. Later adding, "I have always believed that our party is at its best when we speak for the voiceless."
Following his speech, Edwards hopped down from the stage, withdrew his Sharpie pen and began shaking hands with and signing autographs for the crowd for several minutes. His aide noticed my son and I positioned at the center of the rush of supporters, just behind the candidate and asked if my son would like an autograph. He motioned for us to come closer. The aide whispered to Edwards over his shoulder, "There's a little guy here who wants an autograph," Edwards acknowledged quickly saying, "Okay, I'm going to turn around in just a minute."
He then turned around and greeted Ezra saying, "Hi buddy, I'll be there in just a minute." Moments later, he faced us, reached out to place his hand on Ezra's face and autographed his John Edwards 08 sign.
The above piece was produced through OffTheBus, a citizen journalism project hosted at the Huffington Post and launched in partnership with NewAssignment.Net. For more information, read Arianna Huffington's project introduction. If you'd like to join our blogging team, sign up here. If you're interested in other opportunities, you can see the list here.