Friday, March 21, 2008

Engaging the Peace Voters

Obama Links
War & Economy
in Beaver County

By Carl Davidson

Senator Barack Obama spoke this morning, March 17, to a full house of 1700 residents of Western Pennsylvania in the athletic 'Dome' of the Beaver County Community College, one of the largest venues in the area.

It was a good day for Obama and Beaver County, both of which are embroiled in the hotly contested presidential primary.

It was also a good day for those of us working on the 'Voter Engagement' project of UFPJ and Peace Action.

When we arrived, the local Obama team had already set up a Voter Registration Table. I approached the guy in charge, a retired member of the local teacher's union, and said we were going to distribute voter guides against the war. "Against the war? You mean against the INVASION, don't you?" and added some colorful terms for President Bush. It set the tone-we were very welcome to get on with our project.

There was a last minute rush to get in, and thorough-going security, and we just made it in time.

Inside, waiting for the speech, we made a point of talking with the reporters from the Beaver County Times, one of whom we had had a relationship with on earlier stories. We discussed the debate on the war in the editorial pages, noted that this was very new for Beaver County, and agreed to talk at length later.

The crowd was obviously self-selected and mostly pro-Obama. But it was still a cross-section of the county's demographics-mostly working class (the young volunteer who opened the day used the term 'working class' like it was the most normal thing in the world, and his crowd did, too), Italian-American, Serbian-American, African American, union jackets and veterans, young and old, men and women.

The youth were lively, multinational and kept trying to get 'the Wave' going in the stands, but the old folks weren't cooperating too well. Still, they got the rhythmic chants going, 'Ba-Rack!, O-Bam-A!, It Can Be Done! It Can Be Done!'

Obama was warmly greeted, and got into his regular speech, but said he would be short. He wanted to field questions. He stressed some economic issues, since the area is a poster child for the ravages of deindustrialization. He knew who he was talking to.

But it was when he condemned the war, and declared he would end it in 2009, that he got his first and loudest ovation, followed by another, when he stressed the need not to abandon veterans on their return. This was clearly an antiwar crowd, from young high school kids to grey-haired Vietnam vets. The economy was important, as was health care, prisons, and education, but Obama himself linked them to the war, and was cheered every time.

We left quickly at the end, to position ourselves outside, with our stacks on Voter Guides. 'Make the Election about Ending the War! Take one and pass them on!' Most people snapped them up, and a few came back for more. A few, mainly African American, were dubious, and wanted to know more. 'It rates all the candidates on the war, and your guy does very well.' That would click, and they would ask for extra copies.

One group of about a dozen students was standing together reading it. We joined in, and got a good number of e-mails on the sign up sheets on our clipboards. One of the kids claimed to be a Republican. Interestingly enough, the sidebar article in the Beaver County Times later in the day was on a student who said he changed his registration to Democrat that morning, so he could get behind Obama.

Make no mistake. McCain is strong here, even if people hate the war. But we had a good day-we got our message out, we formed some positive ties on voter registration, we renewed some ties with the local media, and got a list of new youth contacts we didn't have before. Not bad for a morning's work.

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