PHILADELPHIA, 11 October -- The community organizer came to the community. Obama barnstormed this city, taking his message directly to the people, speaking to more than 60,000 supporters at rallies in four different neighborhoods: Progress Plaza in North Philly, the Mayfair Diner in the northeast, Vernon Park in Germantown, and at the intersection of 52nd and Locust in West Philly. Supporters camped out at the first location, Progress Plaza, some arriving as early as 5:00 a.m. Obama arrived at 8:30 a.m. And so it was at each of the rallies, crowds waited for hours. Obama was joined by speakers that included Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, Senator Bob Casey, Congressmen Chaka Fattah and Bob Brady, Mayor Michael Nutter and local politicians, each of them urging Philadelphians to vote in record numbers on November 4.
"The way to the White House," Fattah said, "comes through the row houses right here in West Philly." Sounding like a preacher talking to his congregation, Fattah said of Obama, "God raises up a person for times like these."
Rendell reminded the crowds that in 2004, only 53 percent of Philadelphians voted. He said he is counting on Mayor Nutter and everyone who attended the rallies to deliver 75 percent of Philadelphia's voters this year. During the primary season Rendell, a Hillary Clinton supporter, provoked controversy by claiming that white voters in parts of the commonwealth would not vote for an African American Presidential candidate. Rendell has proven to be an avid Obama supporter and said he believes those voters will now support Obama because Obama is the leader who will pull the country out of our economic morass.
"If you're drowning," Rendell said, "and someone throws you a lifeline--you don't care about the color of his skin."
Sporting a Phillies jacket, Brady heightened the excitement, rallying the crowd as a cheerleader for both the playoff contenders and Obama, "To win the Presidency, he needs to win Pennsylvania," Brady shouted, "and he can't win Pennsylvania without Philadelphia."
Although Obama has a double digit lead in recent polls, ranging from eleven to fifteen points, Pennsylvania is still a battleground state and a must-win for the Democrats. Underscoring the importance of the Keystone state, since June, the Obama campaign's neighborhood teams have sponsored 534,000 grass roots events across the commonwealth. Pennsylvania's number of registered Democrats has more than doubled, increasing from 580,000 in 2004 to a 1.2 million registered voter advantage this year, not counting those who registered in the days leading up to the October 6 deadline. The Obama campaign registered 204,135 of those new registrants. The campaign's 840,668 volunteers, throughout the state, have knocked on 1.3 million doors and made 2.7 million phone calls since June, all of which will help with the get out the vote (GOTV) effort.
In a conference call with the media prior to the Philly rallies, Senator Casey said Obama's great organization "is emblematic of the kind of change he has brought to the state and will bring to the country as president." He pointed out that parts of the state have been in recession for months and that as more and more Pennsylvanians have had a chance to see Obama close-up, they believe he can make the changes we need.
"Pennsylvania is hurting from job loss," Casey said. By investing in the necessary and crucial rebuilding of the nation's infrastructure, Obama will create two million new jobs nationally, 820,000 of them in Pennsylvania. His investment in green energy technology will also create new jobs all across the nation.
Pennsylvania, with its high percentage of senior citizens, is one of the oldest states in the country. Obama's plan to eliminate taxes for senior citizens whose income is less than $50,000 will greatly benefit Pennsylvania's seniors. McCain's plan to decrease spending by cutting funding for entitlements like Medicare and Medicaid and his support, two years ago, for privatizing social security has made Pennsylvania's seniors wary of the Republican--and receptive to the Democrat.
Obama began his remarks at each rally by telling a story. He described how, when he was in Ohio, he and Governor Strickland, stopped by a restaurant for a piece of pie. Two servers asked the senator if he would pose for a photo with them, adding that the owner of the restaurant was a Republican and they wanted to "rub it in." Then the owner came out and Obama asked him, "How's business?" (The crowds laughed at this line, as if on cue.) The owner said, "Not so good," explaining that folks aren't eating out much these days because they cannot afford it. So, Obama asked him, "Who's been in charge of the economy for the last eight years?" (More laughter from the crowds) Obama then asked the owner, "If you keep banging your head against a wall again and again until it hurts, wouldn't you want to change? Why not give the Democrats a try?" The owner told the senator he would think about it.
In talking directly to the community, Obama outlined how the crisis on Wall Street is connected to the crisis families are facing economically; how if because of the credit crisis, a small business cannot get a loan, it cannot make payroll, if it cannot make payroll, the business will have to lay-off workers, if workers lose their jobs, they can't pay their bills or buy a car and so events spiral downward. Even as he articulated the domino effect of the economic crisis, Obama expressed confidence that Americans, with the right leadership, can work though and overcome these challenges. "We are not missing talent, we are not missing skills. We are missing leadership in Washington," he said.
"Now is not the time for fear," Obama told the crowds, "Now is not the time for panic. Now is the time for leadership."
At seventeen, high school senior Heather Evans is not yet old enough to vote, but she stood on the sidewalk near her house on Locust street, in an African American neighborhood decorated with flower boxes filled with autumn blossoms on the porches, to hear Obama. "This is the first time any candidate ever came to our neighborhood," she said, "My mother was here at 7 o'clock this morning. I love Obama, he's an inspiration." When I asked her why she loves the Illinois senator, she responded with a serious answer. "Because he listens to people like us. He has changed everything around. I have brothers who didn't think about going to college," she said. "Now, because of Obama, they want to go to college. Heather, who will enter Hampton University next year, wants to be a journalist. "Obama gives me hope. He makes me feel that I can do anything." Heather told me she and her friends have been following the election and discuss it at school. When I asked for an example of what they talk about, she said lately they've been talking about the tone of the campaign. "McCain is a mess," she said. "He's just stirring up fear."
James Tyson, 48, is block captain for Heather's Locust Street, steps from where Obama spoke. A mortgage broker, Tyson has been voting since he was eighteen. "I've been in the mortgage industry for 18 years," he said, "and this is the worst year for business I've seen." However, he explained, "We're doing better in Philadelphia than business in other places because we have more city and state programs to help people in foreclosure." Tyson believes Obama has a better understanding of the global economy and will restore confidence in America at home and abroad. "He's already changed the way the world looks at us," Tyson said. "He has a better chance of bringing the world together globally-- and that will help the economy." Like Heather Evans, Tyson reflected on the impact Obama has had on young people. "I have a 17-year-old son," he said. "And he's taking school much more seriously since Obama began running for President."
Michael Benjamin came to the U.S. from Mali to study business and for the past two years, has owned a restaurant, Soliel du Minuit, in West Philly. Like the restaurant owner in Ohio told Obama, Benjamin explained to me that business has not been good lately. "Business was good until around five months ago. Now, some days we don't even have walk-by traffic because people aren't on the streets." He believes Obama will help Americans and people around the globe. "He understands people who are struggling to have a life," Benjamin said. "I see him as a man. I don't see his color. I respect him as a man."
Colin Kavanaugh, 20, a reporter from the Daily Pennsylvanian, the University of Pennsylvania's publication, recognized me from the morning Obama gave his race speech at the Constitution Center, and we began to talk. Kavanaugh, who is from Tulsa, Oklahoma, told me he's been working on elections since he was 15, but that this one is different. As a professional journalist, he wouldn't tell me who he is supporting, but was willing to be interviewed. I asked him one question -- whether he thinks young people will come out to vote on Election Day. "They will come out," Kavanaugh said. "Students are energized for this election. It's widespread because everyone understands the impact of their vote." He explained that the Obama campaign has contributed to this. "The Obama campaign is so well organized. We're on [Fall] break and people are still volunteering. The campaign has thrown out so many opportunities for young people. They will come out."
The night before the neighborhood rallies, Obama attended two fundraisers in Philadelphia where he raised several million dollars.