On a balmy August morning, after the Organizing for America office in Asheville, North Carolina announced they would be would be handing out DNC "credentials" for the president's acceptance speech in Charlotte, a crowd began lining up early. The long row of people stood cheerfully chatting even as the gray sky gave way to drizzling rain, occasionally leaving the queue to fetch umbrellas or coffee, and this being Asheville--unsweetened tea.
After registering their credentials inside the buildings, line members emerged out the back door triumphant, holding up shiny blue passes to cheers from the crowd. Many attendees signed up for a bus that would take them to Charlotte, returning early the morning after the speech. A full day trip to and from the convention punctuated by hours of standing in line is not for the faint of heart, but none in the crowd seemed dismayed.
But then again, this is Asheville. Staunchly liberal, gay-friendly, eco-conscious, "crunchy," (as Californians say) was fertile Obama territory in 2008. The picturesque town nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains is a favorite destination of hikers, rafters, mountain bikers, and the Obamas, who during their campaign appearances and family vacations developed a special relationship with the place fondly nicknamed "Ashevegas." For a mountain community with more yoga studios than Chick-fil-A's, the moniker is a joke, but one that points to Asheville's reputation as a place where nearly anything goes, at least compared to traditional church-going burgs that make up most of rural North Carolina.
In 2008, the Organizing for America office next to Bojangles' Famous Chicken 'n Biscuits on Asheville's busy Merrimon Avenue buzzed with dedicated volunteers. The campaign was so overstaffed that on election day, volunteers reporting to polling stations were turned away by fellow volunteers who had gotten there first. The enthusiasm paid off when the future president won North Carolina, an outcome even the staunchest supporters did not dare predict. On election night, Asheville's Organizing for America volunteers took leave of their humble digs near Bojangles' to celebrate at the Crowne Plaza Hotel where the news was announced to deafening cheers.
These days, the mood among Asheville's Obama volunteers is still pro-President, but significantly more muted. Asheville, though less blighted than larger cities, has been hit with the same problems impacting the rest of the country--economic stagnation, slow job creation, and unemployment. Socially, the state has swung more to the right, a recent constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and civil unions voted through by a resounding 61 %.
On Wednesday morning, the day before the president's speech, tightlipped staff members at Asheville's Organizing for America handed out an official press release from the DNCC. Citing "severe weather forecasts" the planned event at Bank of America Stadium had been moved, effectively canceling the 65,000 community credentials that North Carolinians in Asheville and throughout the state had stood in line for.
That afternoon an Obama campaign official conceded that the majority of people shut out from attending the president's speech would be North Carolinians--volunteers who had completed the 9-3-1 program or community members who had waited on line. Citing "tens of thousands" impacted by the decision, the official made a point of stating that North Carolinians were not the only state's residents impacted, and that those turned away could take part in a conference call with the president.
"I'm disappointed, but I don't think it's going to change enthusiasm much," Asheville native Ray Mapp said, emerging from the OFA office Wednesday afternoon with an Obama flyer and instructions for attending a televised watch party.
Community credential holders posting on the DNC's Facebook page Wednesday were less generous. Many expressed confusion, dismay, and anger at the decision, some claiming reports of ill weather unfounded, and many lamenting taking off work in anticipation of the event.
Regardless of Thursday night's change of venue, in solid blue Asheville the president's support is likely assured. Across the rest of North Carolina however, a last-minute stadium change could impact a tightly-fought race. In a state the president won in 2008 by 14,000 votes, the "tens of thousands" of community credential holders--9-3-1 volunteers and those who waited for hours on line--were his staunchest supporters, and those who might bring a spark to a lagging campaign. The elimination of the community credential program has landed a symbolic blow to the president's grassroots efforts in a key battleground state.