It's hard work being an Obama supporter in Kentucky. According to Sue Koplowitz and the other folks organizing a rally for Saturday September 27 at the public library in London KY, they couldn't find any campaign signs, buttons or stickers to hand out. None of the in-state Democratic Party offices they contacted had any to spare. Sue's small group, Laurel County Democrats for Obama-Biden (www.BarackObama.com), knew they could order the items at substantial cost from the Obama Web site, but shipping time is 4 to 6 weeks, pointless when the election is 6 weeks away.
The group plowed ahead, printing full-color Obama sunrise logo signs and handouts at their own expense. They also invited Jim Holbert to speak. Holbert, a local emergency services helicopter pilot with a career in the US armed forces and as a commercial pilot, is running as an Independent against deeply-entrenched Congressman Hal Rogers. Rogers (Republican, 5th District), in office since 1981, has successfully brought home the bacon to his district -- which stretches across southern and eastern Kentucky -- in the form of schools, roads, community centers, task forces, roads, and more roads. Even so, not everyone likes him, maybe in part due to "King Hal's" well-known arrogance. He has not acknowledged Jim Holbert's existence, and did not show up for Kentucky Educational Television (KET)'s 2008 candidates forum, where Holbert alone spoke on behalf of the 5th District (www.ket.org/election: 5th District).
At 9 a.m. the library conference room was ready for Obama supporters, a table laden with good food and strong coffee. According to Sue, Laurel County Democrats for Obama-Biden was inspired to meet by the impromptu anti-Palin rally in Anchorage, Alaska on September 14 that drew an estimated 1000 passionate people out of the blue. But at 9:30 a.m. the final rally count in London, Kentucky rested at 9 including this intrepid reporter, who drove the 80 miles south on I-75 from Lexington to report on this rare event: people rallying on behalf of a Democratic Party African-American candidate in a Republican stronghold with a history of hostility to blacks.
The news is that the 9-person rally is only a partial indicator of what is going on in Laurel County and places like it. Here, too, change is taking place. The national Democratic Party and Obama's team may have "written off" Kentucky as not worth their time and money, but based on what I saw yesterday in London, Barack Hussein Obama will get a lot more Kentucky votes than he may be expecting.
Kentucky has a vicious segregationist past, and this area of the state has a particularly notorious history. One exit further south along I-75 is the small city of Corbin, probably best-known as the birthplace of Kentucky Fried Chicken's founder, Colonel Harlan Sanders. Less well-known perhaps is that in 1919 the white citizenry of Corbin embarked on a successful ethnic cleansing campaign to drive the black population out of town, recently documented in Elliott Jaspin's 2007 book, Buried in the Bitter Waters: The Hidden History of Racial Cleansing in America. The 2000 Census lists Corbin's African Americans at 0.08% of the total population.
Based on that vile history, plus recent remarks from several area residents that "this campaign has brought racism out in the open down here," and reports of an Obama sign being shot up twice, the mailbox filled with filth and set on fire; verbal abuse hurled at a mixed-race couple; and near-fisticuffs between a black and a white truck driver arguing about Obama vs. McCain at a London truck stop, I was not expecting the public enthusiasm for Obama that I found on Saturday in London.
The 9 rally participants got acquainted, talked intensively for two solid hours, and resolved to work together to get Obama as many local votes as possible. They accepted the obvious limitations to their success, and agreed that theirs is a truly grass-roots campaign. The group solemnly agreed that "it is up to people like us to flip the 20 percent gap between Obama and McCain" in Kentucky. They then headed to the World Chicken Festival going on in downtown London, to help out at the Democratic Women's Club booth. The usually quiet city streets were lined with hundreds of booths and carnival rides and packed with thousands of people, and a heady scent of chicken fried in peanut oil permeated the air.
Near the crest of the hill atop which sits the Laurel County Courthouse, the Republican Party booth faced off almost directly across the crowded street from the Democratic Women's Club booth. Many among the steady flow of strollers wore Mitch McConnell re-election stickers on their shirts. Senator McConnell, the ultimate bacon-bringer of recent times, is also up for re-election in Kentucky. While Republicans are confident that he will prevail against Democratic challenger Bruce Lunsford, the Democrats across the street were putting up a good fight, their booth plastered with lurid "Ditch Mitch" signs.
Thanks solely to Sue Koplowitz and her small rally group, the booth also had a pile of colorful Obama signs and handouts explaining the Presidential candidate's position on the issues. Sue stood next to the booth with signs and flyers, calling out to passers-by, "Vote for Obama! Come register to vote!" And this is where the quiet signs of change were visible. Local Democratic Party leader Roy Sizemore told me that at an event like this, they usually sign up "about 15 to 20 new voters," presumably Democrats (the Republican booth across the street was doing the same thing.) This year, Roy said, they had signed up "about 45" by mid-afternoon on Saturday. As he spoke, I saw a young man at the booth bend down to fill out the form. Sue reported a trend of "older people bringing daughters" to register. All white folks.
Before heading back to Lexington I pulled Sue Koplowitz aside to ask her a few questions about the rally and the election. Did she think her group, Laurel County Democrats for Obama-Biden, could have an impact on the election? Yes, she replied, "We'll get a few more Democrats voting in a place that for a long time has not offered any choices." What has the group achieved so far? "Increasing awareness of Barack Obama and what he stands for." To my final question, What do you hope to achieve in November? Sue replied with gusto, "We are shaking up the local status quo. We are introducing change to a place that is dead set against it. It's soon going to be our kids' world, and they have to get involved now."
Late that same evening, Sue reported by email that the pace of change was continuing as Saturday faded into night at the World Chicken Festival: "People that hollered McCAIN! I hollered back MORE OF THE SAME! Two brave ladies from the crowd ended up joining me in waving our Obama signs! Lots of 18-yr-old folk saying they are already registered and going to vote! I went and printed up 150 more Obama signs & handed them out til they were gone, we ran out of almost all of the handouts when I left and they still had 2 hours to go. Maybe hope for this town yet! It's been a long day but a good one. Best, Sue."