In S.C., Beauty Salons Are Also Political Soapboxes

By Krissah Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 14, 2007

CHARLESTON, S.C. -- At Hair Menders Unlimited beauty salon the other day, owner Margaret Bell was working up a soapy lather in a customer's thin, gray hair when a conversation in the waiting room took a dangerous turn.

"My girlfriend and her daughters went to see Obama downtown -- paid $100 for tickets," said a retired school janitor as she waited her turn for the shampoo bowl. Another woman, waiting for her biweekly appointment to cover her grays with red dye, responded with a nice-if-you-can-afford-it look, but from the next room came a loud voice.

"Hillary was just here at the NAACP banquet," said Bell, ignoring the suds dripping down her customer's forehead.

She didn't have to say anything more. The regulars at Hair Menders -- mostly retired African American women older than 60 -- know that Bell is a Hillary Clinton enthusiast with a knack for turning any political conversation to her favorite presidential hopeful and any down-talking of Clinton into something positive. Mention something about Bill Clinton's White House philandering, for instance, and she'll say: "I'm glad she stayed. Hillary's no fool."

When South Carolina Democrats vote in their presidential primary in January, African American women will make up 29 percent of voters. One place Clinton and her main opponent, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, think they can reach them is at the hairdresser's.

"Girl, that's where we like to spend our time. If I could, I'd be in a beauty salon now," Clinton's state director, Kelly Adams, said with a laugh. "Seriously, we have to go where the voters are."

Both Adams and Obama's South Carolina campaign director, Stacey Brayboy, are black women who understand that beauty salons allow for intimate exchanges. They are escapes from a woman's hectic life -- places where the pulls of work, husbands and kids take a back seat to a new hairstyle and a good talk.

Eighteen miles from Hair Menders, in the small city of Goose Creek, Obama staffer Lauren Champaign, 21, darted through the afternoon rain and into Passion Slice hair salon, a modern-looking place in one of the growing community's newer strip malls. She greeted the owner, Shanaya Hammond, with a familiar "Hey!" and a few minutes later stood in the middle of the shop introducing herself to women getting their hair cut, dyed and curled.

"We need your support, y'all," Champaign said over the buzz of domed hair dryers in a room decorated with abstract art and thick with the smell of hair spray and oil sheen. "I want you to vote for Senator Barack Obama not just because I work for him. I don't want you to vote for him because he is the black candidate or just because you think he's cute, but because he is the best candidate."

The salon is one of dozens Champaign has visited since she started working for Obama in the spring. The polls show that her candidate has made progress among black women in this state, but the latest Washington Post-ABC News national poll found that black women support Clinton over Obama 54 to 35 percent, giving Champaign's job urgency. Obama's camp wants badly to win the black vote, and beauty and barber shop visits -- which Obama's campaign calls "the B&B strategy" -- play a big role in its grass-roots organizing.

As each side makes its case across the state, the beauty shop politicking has become a contest of race vs. gender: Do you identify with Obama because he's black or Clinton because she's a woman?

Clinton won Bell's undying support in part by playing on her femininity. In addition to the policy pronouncements she gave during the keynote at a black hairdressers' convention this summer, Clinton ran through a slide show of her hairstyles through the years.

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