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Election 2008 Thu Oct 30 2008

Why I voted for Barack Obama. And a few others.

In February of 2007, I took a bus to the Old State Capitol in Springfield, to witness Senator Obama formally kick-off his campaign in the spot where President Lincoln once spoke of a house divided.  In front of me stood a handsome woman with perfect hair and a fur coat (who unknowingly blocked the bitter wind). Behind me was a man in a service station uniform who smelled of motor oil and long hours. On my right was an iPodded young woman who was likely voting in her first election, and to my left, a Republican State legislator who smiled when he noticed me noticing him.


I was standing in the center of the Obama campaign.

You rarely witness that kind of cross-section - people of "all walks," as my grandmother would have said - standing shoulder to shoulder, looking in the same direction. You see it occasionally in airports. Or at the DMV, where social or economic status doesn't get you a better place in line. But you don't tend to see it voluntarily on a nearly sub-zero day in Springfield.  It could have been summer though, and I still would have had chills; something remarkable was happening.

You rarely witness that kind of cross-section - people of "all walks" - because they so rarely have anything in common, until now. What I saw that day was a glimpse into the rest of Senator Obama's campaign. On that bitter cold day, each person in my small unlikely circle had his or her own set of unique challenges and craved a fundamental change from recent history.  Maybe the young woman wanted to know that this new administration would take a pragmatic approach to climate change. Maybe the fancy lady bought that coat in the '90s, when she was in a more confident financial position, and wanted to know now that her grandchildren would have access to affordable healthcare. Maybe the mechanic, who likely makes less than $250,000 a year, wanted middle-class tax relief. And maybe the Republican State legislator, who has spent plenty of literal and figurative cold days in Springfield, wanted a leader who would pierce through the divisiveness and remind us of our common ground.

They came for different types of change, and it seems clear to me that Barack Obama managed to answer each of their calls directly.

Fast-forward to last weekend, when I went to vote early. There was a line over thirty minutes long. To vote. Early. Yes, we're in Blue Chicago, where our native son cut his proverbial teeth and McCain bumper stickers seem as odd as ketchup on a hot dog.

But it's not just here: unparalleled voter registration, turnout, and early vote totals have blown previously-set records out of the water on both sides of aisle, in all corners of the country.  People have given more time and money in this election than any other in presidential history, and for the first time in a long time, people are truly voting for someone, and not against someone else.

I'm not saying popularity is the, or even a, reason to vote for Senator Obama. But the fact that he has been able to reach out and motivate "all walks" speaks volumes. His ability to inspire people at a time when, let's be honest, we could use some inspiration, will leave a powerful and critical legacy. It will impact those whose names appear further down the ballot - and in turn, all of us - for this cycle and beyond.

That legacy is of particular significance to me. I used to manage a State legislative office where "all walks" would stop in, usually to complain. An issue with their local school council turned into an issue with the city school system which turned into a diatribe on how education is funded by the State, and so on. When all of my insights and otherwise-practical suggestions were dismissed, I'd go back to basics and ask if they were registered to vote. The idea of a citizen exercising his or her veto power by voting was as preposterous as ketchup... well, you know. For the record, they usually weren't registered, though I bet they are now.  Barack Obama has mobilized an electorate exhausted by disappointment and has moved them to pay attention - to cast aside the apathy and connect the dots between their local school and their elected officials.

It doesn't matter if Senator Obama is sincere, which he is, or has the chops to do the job,  he certainly does: Pundits will criticize voters and say we've been seduced by "rock star" sizzle where there might not be steak. Voters aren't stupid, nor are they easily wooed by hype. They talk about it at the water cooler, yes, but they don't stand in early vote lines or in bitter cold Springfield just to say they were there. Barack Obama transcends hype much the way he has transcended barriers and partisanship before.

As for my decision to enthusiastically support Obama, I don't think I can say it better than did the Chicago Tribune - a newspaper that has never endorsed a Democrat for U.S. President since it began making such endorsements in, wait for it, 1872:

"We have tremendous confidence in his intellectual rigor, his moral compass and his ability to make sound, thoughtful, careful decisions. He is ready... The change that Obama talks about so much is not simply a change in this policy or that one... Obama envisions change in the way we deal with one another"

Allow me to add to the Trib's list: He has risen from community organizer to State Senator to U.S. Senator to Presidential candidate with grace, strength and respect. He has repeatedly chosen to be right, rather than consistent, often to the chagrin of those on his own side of the aisle. He has made pragmatic governing choices over politically-motivated ones (one needs to look no further than his choice in running mate, but I digress).  He has taken the high road and focused upon the issues at a time when it has mattered most.  He has the humility to ask for help from those who have more familiarity with an issue than he might.  He listens carefully and builds consensus with the integrity of his word and the ease of his manner.

We are at a critical moment. As Sen. Biden would say, "let me say it again, because this is important:" We are at a critical moment. Much of it seems far bigger than any of us, but we are not powerless. We have the ability - right now - to make a fundamental shift in the direction we've been heading.

As Senator Obama recently said,

"At this defining moment in our history, the question is not, "are you better off than you were four years ago?"  We all know the answer to that. The real question is will our country be better off four years from now?"

I proudly voted for Obama (and several sensible, local candidates and referenda also on the ballot) not because he can talk the talk, but because he's walked with all walks. And they all have compelling reasons to follow him.

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