The Obama Awakening

Obama supporters at the DNC.

Bonita Childs from Temple, Texas, never expected to find herself standing in the sun on the Democratic convention’s Delegate Service Day, when she donned a pair of canvas gloves and headed out into Denver’s Cherry Creek State Park to pick up trash. Before March 4, aside from the occasional vote for president, Childs had always expected someone else to pick up the trash from the political landscape.

But a phone call from a community organizer on the day of the Texas primary that reminded Childs to caucus that night “changed my paradigm about politics,” she said, smiling in the Denver sun that illuminated every day of the convention. “My them’s and they’s became us and we’s,” Childs reflected before heading off to help San Antonio state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte plant a Texas purple sage in honor of Lady Bird Johnson. Before the planting, Van de Putte reminded delegates of the “place at the table” that Lyndon Johnson had created with his civil rights legislation. The delegates laughed and joked with the senator, and a Colorado volunteer said that, were it not for Barack Obama, these civilians might otherwise not be standing there, working alongside a politician for the common good.

There has been much talk about Obama’s potential to change the face of politics with his impassioned beliefs and intellectual vision. There’s also a trickle-down effect-the changes in individual people that he has motivated. No longer is it just a handful of blue-haired activists who show up at county party meetings. Young people and old people alike are not just voting for the first time, but also paying attention for the first time.

“This was zero to 100 for me, and I’m in it for the long haul,” Dripping Springs resident and national delegate James Akers said one morning as he recharged over a cup of coffee at the Texas delegation breakfast. “I mean, I’m hosting house parties for local Democrats,” Akers said, sounding almost incredulous at his own activism. “Before, they were lucky if I’d let someone throw up a yard sign. But I’m realizing these locals, like Bill Hutchison and Woodie Jones, can win. Do you know who Woodie Jones is?” Time and again, delegates in Denver pounced on opportunities to educate anyone they could on local, down-ballot races, a fierce urgency apparent in their voices. “I’m inspired by Obama,” Akers said, “but I’m also motivated by my fears. He brought about more of an awareness of those fears.”

The one constant among delegates this year was their passion about having made it to Denver. To be elected a delegate in this election cycle took full-fledged campaigns, complete with Web site, fundraising, and outreach to other caucus-goers. The delegates who were selected were often underdogs who beat out more established party players-proving that in 2008, the old rules of the game are off. The huge influx of Texas voters continues to be something that pundits and politicians aren’t quite sure how to handle. “They bring about a completely different perspective,” state Rep. Eddie Lucio III said after making the trip to Denver. “They’re not the same old faces engrained with political messaging,” said the San Benito legislator. “We’re coming to a time where instant access makes for a more policy information-driven voter.”

Voters aren’t just voting-they’re getting involved and staying involved. By the end of Obama’s campaign-or by the beginning of his presidency-some of the new participants in the political process will likely cross over into the realm of running for office.

Michael Flowers has spent the last seven years working as a youth counselor in Elgin while raising two sons and getting his MBA. He became an Obama supporter in 2006 when he watched Obama’s 2002 anti-war speech on YouTube. “Everything he said was right,” Flowers said. “I thought ‘This man has vision.’ A lot of intellectual people saw what he saw, but he was brave and bold enough to say it. That’s all I needed to know.”

At the first Obama house party Flowers attended in February 2008, Bastrop County Chair Mitzi VanSant asked if he was interested in being a precinct captain. “I don’t know if she asked because I was fresh blood or just young, but her asking that question got me thinking about what I can do,” he said. Flowers became a poll worker and spent a lot of time studying caucus rules. When the caucus rolled around on March 4, Flowers was among the few who knew what they were doing and established himself as a leader among local voters. He was asked to be the Obama delegate to the county convention, where he was promoted to delegate to the state convention. “I didn’t want to fight people I’d been working with to get to state,” Flowers said after a quick interruption from his cell phone-whose ring tone was Obama’s 2004 keynote convention speech. “They chose me.”

The example of Flowers may be the real legacy of the Obama campaign before Obama’s legacy as president even begins (assuming it does)-a campaign that brought power back to the people and created new kinds of politicians who will have cut their teeth on grassroots organizing and community involvement, not at elite universities or competitive law firms.

Akers, who works in food service sales, chuckled when asked about his political aspirations. “My wife might read this,” he said. “But I will tell you . . . this whole experience has got me thinking ‘Why not?'”

Flowers, whose involvement in politics began only this year, is more forthright about his career plans. “There’s a 98 percent chance I will run for county commissioner of Precinct 4 in 2010,” Flowers said. He’s also been involved in talks about starting a Big Brothers Big Sisters branch in Bastrop County. “There’s not a lot to do [in Elgin],” Flowers said. “You’ve got to walk four miles to get to town, and even then all you are is at (Highway) 290,” Flowers said. “Look for me to do things for the youth in Bastrop County, one way or another.”

There are countless potential sources of inspiration at a national convention-moving speeches, historic momentum, common denominators among the people attending. But the one thing that will carry on long after the final ballot is placed November 4 will be the new breed of American that Obama has motivated.

Politicians like Austin state Rep. Mark Strama have noticed the newcomers to politics and follow their paths carefully. Strama, who endorsed Obama early in 2007, recalled the rally on Austin’s Auditorium Shores in February of that year, when roughly 25,000 people showed up to hear Obama. “It’s not about Obama,” Strama said. “It’s about the people he inspires. That’s who I endorsed.” Asked if he thought the involvement of new, impassioned people would help change the way politics works in Texas and in Washington, Strama said, “I hope so.”

There’s that word again.

Native Austinite and activist Rachel Farris writes at www.meanrachel.com, a progressive politics blog.

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Published at 12:00 am CST
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