Obama Launches 50-State Voter Registration Drive
By Garance Franke-Ruta
Sen. Barack Obama may not yet be the Democratic Party's presidential nominee, but Saturday morning his campaign launched in more than 100 other locations across the country a national voter registration drive intended to transform the electorate - or at least register more Democrats -- in advance of November's general election.
Dozens of men and women - black, white, Asian and Latino - turned out to Busboys & Poets, a cafe cum bookstore in Arlington's Shirlington Village, to pick up voter registration packets and then head out to find new voters amid the strip malls and supermarkets of Northern Virginia, politically significant region and Obama stronghold.
A lot could rest on their success: No president in modern times has won office without winning some Southern states. Virginia -- once a solidly conservative Southern state -- is now in political flux, thanks especially to rapid population changes in its north, and it has a history of having elected an African American governor. Many believe Obama needs a strong performance in the state to sustain his presidential hopes.
Many of those picking up packets were longtime Obama hands, having volunteered for him already. Some were part of his drive to win the Feb. 12 Potomac Primary, what analysts at the time called a turning point in the presidential nominating contest.
The Obama campaign doesn't yet have a Virginia office -- the pre-primary ones existed for just weeks -- and has only a handful of paid staff on the ground, preferring for the time being to continue to rely on its volunteers. "We're focusing on our primary right now," said Obama spokesman Hari Sevugan, "but we're building a nationwide grass-roots effort ... Obviously, this registration drive is part of that."
Some canvassers met with more success than others did in their two- to three-hour stints. Josh Shear, 24, president of George Washington University Law for Obama, spent the morning with a blonde female friend at the Rosslyn Metro station and reported back in with "eight or nine" completed new voter registration forms. Vernell Gibbs, 47, a Verizon employee from Front Royal who came out for her first-ever Obama volunteer event, brought back five forms from shoppers at the Van Dorn Center Giant. Paul Wilmot, 42, a technology account manager, skipped the Panera Bread restaurants and Giant food stores urged on him by the two Obama staffers at Busboys. Instead, he went door-to-door in public housing projects in Old Town Alexandria. He picked up one just new voter, and only after doing two swings on the same street, slowly winning residents' trust.
Gene Kippins, 55, a contract manager for a government agency, had more luck in the same Old Town area, which he visited with Wanda Savage and Monica Thompson. They not only registered seven voters in the public housing projects, their infectious enthusiasm got them invited back for a block party Saturday night where, they were told, they would win many more.
"If Obama is elected, Lord have mercy, this country is going to change," Kippins said. "This country is going to be the country our forefathers intended it to be."
"This is the first time in my life, as an American of African descent, I have felt proud, and, after 26 years in the military serving my country, I finally understand why I did that," he added, emphasizing that he was a U.S. Air Force veteran.
Theodore Fikre, 33, of Alexandria, came back from canvassing eager to talk about the Ethiopians for Obama group he has organized, while Cristina Chiappe, 31, the Northern Virginia Latino outreach grass-roots coordinator for the campaign, made sure to emphasize that Obama's appeal to minorities regionally was broader than in other areas.
"It's not just Latinos we are trying to reach out to, but all minorities," she said. "Ethiopians, all East Africans come out in huge numbers for Barack Obama." She pointed out that the region's Latinos had, unlike Latinos in Texas and California, preferred Obama to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. And. like Kippins, her reasons for backing Obama were deeply felt.
"If Barack Obama is the president, the message it will send to my children, to all minority children, is that there is a place for you in this country," said the Peruvian immigrant, now a naturalized American citizen, tearing up at the thought while sitting next to her two toddlers. "It's so personal to me."
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