PHILADELPHIA -- South West Philadelphia is a neighborhood, like so many urban neighborhoods across the United States, plagued by crime and drugs. Although the people who live there care about issues affecting their families as much as families in affluent neighborhoods do, it isn't the kind of place visited by presidential candidates or their spouses, even during political campaigns. Yesterday, though, both Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, wives of Democratic Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates Barack Obama and Joe Biden, came to South West Philly. It was a historical first for the neighborhood.
Appearing before a crowd of approximately three thousand people, on the grounds of the Francis Meyers Recreational Center between the playground and the baseball diamond, Obama and Biden were joined by Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter. Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell who had to leave early, warmed-up the crowd before the mayor and the First and Second Lady-hopefuls arrived.
"By order of the Governor," Rendell said to the enthusiastic Obama supporters, "you are all now official volunteers for Barack Obama, first to register voters and then to get out the vote."
Obama, Biden, Rendell and Nutter each expressed their condolences and prayers for the family of Patrick McDonald, a 30-year-old Philadelphia police officer who was killed in the line of duty the day before, the second Philadelphia police officer killed this month. They, also, thanked police officers across the city and around the country who put their lives on the line for fellow citizens every day.
Philadelphia is a city of murals. For nearly twenty years, through a citywide program, truly beautiful murals, painted by local artists, have replaced graffiti on the walls of buildings throughout the city, creating a ubiquitous open-air art museum. Two walls of the Francis Meyers Recreational Center, visible behind the podium where Obama and Biden spoke, were covered with murals. One of them was a wall of memories and, appropriately, one of the memories featured the words, "I remember when I decided that change was the best thing for me."
Jill Biden, who grew up in the Philadelphia area, shared her memories explaining that she and Joe Biden had their first date in Philadelphia. Before introducing Mayor Nutter, she reminded the crowd of why November 4 matters, "This election is about you more than anyone else," she said, "it's about choosing leaders who will look out for the American people."
Grieving over the death of Officer McDonald, Mayor Nutter spoke passionately. He indicted the federal government for allowing the proliferation of guns on the streets of American cities, "We need sensible gun safety measures," he said. "The federal government could do something about this; they could show up." Moving on to the election, Nutter said, "There is going to be a tomorrow filled with a sense of opportunity and promise. We need a new partner in the White House and Barack Obama is that partner. That brother is tested."
Without mentioning her by name, Nutter took issue with Sarah Palin's mocking comments about community organizers during her Republican National Convention acceptance speech. "The only reason some communities are organized," said Nutter, "is that they have community organizers." In a remark that appeared to take aim at John McCain's call to suspend his campaign and postpone the first presidential debate, Nutter said, "Barack Obama can do more than one thing at a time. We need a multi-tasking president."
Michelle Obama made the case for the Obama-Biden team, telling the audience that she understands why many Americans neither trust politicians nor believe their promises, and explained that she knows many Americans have been disappointed by politicians in the past. "Look at this time as an opportunity for change," she said, and described meeting young people around the country who are finding their voices for the first time in this movement, and not-so-young people who are finding their voices again. Connecting with the audience emotionally, she told them, "I come here as a wife...a mother...and a daughter," and shared her personal story of growing up in a working class family on the South Side of Chicago. She, also, shared her husband's story including his having been reared by a single mother. Michelle Obama described how watching his mother's anxiety about her health care coverage, in the midst of her suffering from the cancer that took her life, gives Barack Obama a first-hand perspective on "the heartbreak caused by a broken health care system," a perspective shared by far too many Americans.
"This election is personal," Obama said, talking about the economic crisis facing the American people, those who live paycheck to paycheck. "You feel it when you buy gas; when you pay for groceries, pay for milk, when you buy juice because you can't afford milk," she said. "You feel it when you put off going to the doctor, when you need to see the doctor, because you can't afford it or can't afford the co-pay." Telling the throng that it is time for real solutions, she said, "Barack gets it and we need leaders who get it. We need a team that gets it. We need policies that reflect our realities and values. Instead of just talking about family values, we need policies that value families. Barack understands hardworking Americans." Only one team, she continued, has an economic plan based on the middle class, with a plan for creating jobs at home, a comprehensive health care for all Americans, a long-term energy plan, a plan for investment in education, and for ending the war reasonably.
"The fact that she would choose to come to this area is a testament to the kind of people the Democrats are and it shows that Obama really cares about regular folks," said Darius Wilson, who grew up in South West Philadelphia and returned to hear Michelle Obama and Jill Biden. "This community has potential for growth and can be turned around. It is thirsty for change, starving for change," he said.
In closing, Michelle Obama said, "In forty days, we get the chance to put Barack Obama in the White House. We need a focused and engaged electorate." She encouraged each person present to register ten to twenty people before Pennsylvania's October 6 deadline, and then she leaned forward into the microphone and said emphatically, "Let's get it done."
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