I know that today, Barack Obama is considered a bit of a rock star, perhaps even a messianic leader. I find this most amusing. I don’t think I will ever see Barack Obama as the rock star that others seem to see. This is because I had the opportunity to meet Obama years before the hype. At that time, I saw a man who I thought would be a great president. I still see that same man now.
I first met Barack Obama in 2000. At the time, he was running for Congress for a seat in the House of Representatives. There was a Democratic primary debate a couple of blocks away from my house in a small church. There was no line out the door, no overflow crowd of thousands, no crush of reporters. Barack Obama was a state senator representing a nearby district. During the debate, I saw a thoughtful man. Here was a man full of intelligence, who taught Constitutional law, a man who really thought carefully about the issues, instead of just always spouting the latest party line. This was a man who used his law degree from Harvard to help the community and not just enrich himself. I thought to myself that this man represented the best of us. We needed men like him in our government.
In 2000, Obama was crushed in the primary. There was a little bit too much power in incumbency, and the incumbent (who is still in Congress) won handily. But during that race, Obama won my vote. And it was back in 2000 that Barack Obama won my vote in the primary and general elections in the 2004 Illinois race for the U.S. Senate and my vote in the primary and general (hopefully!) elections of 2008 for U.S. President.
In 2004, Obama ran for the Senate. I volunteered for his campaign during the primary. Peter Fitzgerald, the incumbent, had chosen not to run. It was a crowded primary. When I first volunteered, it really didn’t seem like we had any chance. Obama was pretty much at the bottom of the Democratic field. Phone banking seemed to be about explaining who the guy with the funny name was. We were always scrounging for office supplies at the campaign office. You had to ask around to find such luxuries as staplers and paper clips. But somehow, the message got through. We registered so many voters. Phone banking got easier and easier. By the end of the campaign, nearly everyone we called while phone banking not only had heard of Obama, but had decided to vote for him. We still always seemed short of office supplies, buttons, and stickers.
I am still volunteering for Obama now in 2008. The national campaign headquarters is much nicer than the Chicago Southside campaign office back in 2004. The carpet is nice and not tattered and office supplies seem to be much more plentiful. But the Barack Obama I see now in 2008 is the same Barack Obama I saw back in 2000—a man who represents the best of all of us. He still talks the same way and talks about the same things (though now in front of much bigger audiences).
It is a great time to be a Democrat. We have two great candidates running for President. (I really do adore Hillary Clinton.) But I have to say, you don’t have to buy into the hype to be an Obama supporter. Back in 2000, I met a man who I thought would make a great president. There are millions who now agree with me. I only wish that those millions could have seen the man I saw back in 2000—before the hype, before the media attention. But maybe that is what is great about country. People really can make a difference. All around us, there may be future leaders and future hopes. Great histories are written with the smallest of gestures.