With the Jan. 29 Florida primary approaching, we are examining all the major candidates for the presidency, with an emphasis on the issues they are discussing and their supporters in Tampa Bay. This week, the junior senator from Illinois:
In April, Barack Obama had to cut through the backyard of Norma Gene Lykes' Hyde Park home in Tampa to reach the $2,300-a-head fundraiser being held in his honor. It wasn't the 200 people of all colors, creeds and sexual orientations jammed into Lykes' living room that forced the political phenom around back; it was the unrelated neighboring church fair that closed the street and made a grand entrance out front impossible.
As Obama made his way in, some of the church kids climbed up in the trees at St. John's Episcopal to get a better view of the Democratic candidate who seems to be channeling the Kennedy charisma.
"I told him, 'Look, we've got kids hanging out of the trees. Wave at them before they fall out,'" Lykes remembers. "That's the way you can talk to him."
Lykes — a 58-year-old activist, philanthropist and grandmother — describes herself as a yellow-dog Democrat who hates modern politics so much that she can't stand to read the A section of the daily newspaper. Yet she sounds like a religious convert when speaking about Obama and how he is different from other politicians.
"After he left my house," she said, "he went out in the street and shook hands [at the church fair]. I felt that I was in the presence of someone really special and yet someone who was humble, who was real and who hadn't been kidnapped by politics — you know, gunny-sacked."
Of all of the major presidential candidates for the 2008 election, Obama has the largest contingent of volunteer and grassroots supporters already organized in Tampa Bay. Approximately 400 people have joined the Tampa Bay O-Train, which holds twice-a-month meetings in St. Petersburg and Ybor City in advance of Obama establishing a campaign HQ here. He also has active social networking websites for Tampa Bay supporters on Facebook and MySpace.
Florida has been particularly good to Obama in terms of fundraising.
Through the first quarter of the year, the Illinois senator raised more than $1 million in this state, much of it in South Florida and Jacksonville. That was second only to Hillary Clinton and more than any Republican. Details and totals for the Sunshine State in the second quarter are not yet available, but his regional fundraising chairman, former Tampa mayoral candidate Frank Sanchez, says this area will account for more than $260,000 of Obama's record $32.5-million second quarter. Some of that money came from well-known Democratic fundraisers, including Hinks and Elaine Shimberg.
And it's not just money that's betting on Obama. More than 2,000 people turned out in April for a rally in Ybor City. His appearances have drawn comparisons to the kind of multiethnic excitement that Bobby Kennedy created in 1968; some supporters report seeing Obama's fans literally in tears after meeting the candidate.
The Obama campaign, with its antiwar and progressive message, understandably has attracted some of the growing progressive ranks in Tampa Bay, mostly from the Democrats for America organization. Local politicians who have endorsed him include Tampa City Councilwomen Mary Mulhern and Gwen Miller. O-Train volunteers include former Hillsborough County Judge Don Evans, as well as political veterans from both sides of the aisle: Marie Weston, who ran Democrat Betty Reed's successful legislative campaign; Juan and Yolie Capin from the Mulhern nonpartisan campaign; and Vivian Warren, who served as campaign manager for Republican county commissioner Rose Ferlita.
Obama's volunteers cite similar issues in explaining their support for the candidate: his consistent opposition to the war in Iraq; his interest in promoting diversity; their belief that he is the only candidate who can pull together an increasingly fractious nation.
"To me, he captivates; he's got universal appeal," said Megan Foster, an activist from the suburban Citrus Park area in northwest Hillsborough who said she was turned on to Obama by her college-age daughter. "I would probably have to say I would be considered more liberal than he is," Foster said, "but I'm looking for the best candidate who can appeal to the masses."
Then there is the curious fact that more than a few Obama supporters have past ties to the Clintons. Sanchez was a Bill Clinton appointee in the Department of Transportation. Aaron Smith, a retired USF social work professor, consulted on Hillary Clinton's (ultimately unsuccessful) attempt to create a national health-care system. Smith is co-chairman of the Tampa Bay O-Train grassroots group.
"He is able to bring people from diverse thinking and diverse cultures to the same table," Smith said. He added that he has heard all the knocks on Obama: that's he's not experienced enough, that America won't elect a black man president and (conversely) that he's not black enough. He dismisses those criticisms, predicting the candidate would be "a very focused president who will exercise good judgment."
Other supporters mention what has become a very disciplined message point regarding Obama's relative inexperience: He would have the same years of experience as another president who fought to unite the nation, Abraham Lincoln. (He would, in fact, have more years in public office — 11 — than Lincoln.)
The one political demographic that holds age and experience in least regard are younger voters, and Obama is cutting a wide swath through college-age activists, even if that group is also the most likely not to vote. Shane Ali, a 32-year-old Hillsborough Community College student, musician and Ybor City bartender, is the O-Train's youth vote chairman.
"I was never really involved politically before," Ali said. "I followed [politics], but I was one of those people who felt it can't change and why bother."
But Obama's candidacy altered his thinking. "There's just something completely different about him," Ali said. "He seems like an honest man who can not only change America but change the political system for the better."