By Avis Thomas-Lester
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 8, 2008
They gathered their boots, mittens and earmuffs, rented a van and headed north on Interstate 95 out of Prince George's County to support their candidate for president.
In 20 inches of snow and subfreezing temperatures, they traipsed from door to door in New Hampshire, urging a vote for Sen. Barack Obama -- professionals, college students, children of supporters, suffering cold toes and fear of rejection in their first foray into national politics.
The young ones had never been old enough to participate. The older ones said they had never been this excited about a candidate. Their advocacy, reflected in campaign contributions and phone bank volunteer rolls, conveys that Prince George's residents are stepping out for the man they consider the first viable black presidential candidate in a way they have never supported a candidate before, political observers say.
"Prince George's County has always been for Obama. We didn't wait until Iowa to get on the bandwagon," said Orlan Johnson, a lawyer from Bowie who is credited with stirring support in the county for the candidate early last year. "We supported him from the beginning. He saw that, and he rewarded us by coming to Prince George's County when everybody was trying to get him. We didn't wait for others to validate him."
Other Democratic candidates enjoy support in the nation's wealthiest black-majority county: Maryland Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, who lives in Mitchellville, spent yesterday in New Hampshire campaigning for New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. The former first lady also has the backing of former county executive Wayne K. Curry, as well as many voters loyal to her husband for years. Some Democratic leaders, including Rep. Albert R. Wynn, and voters have yet to declare a preference.
But a Washington Post analysis of campaign finance reports suggests deep support for Obama in Prince George's. Obama had raised about $250,000 there through September, more than double Clinton's $120,000 take. The trend is evident in other majority-black communities, including Richmond and Portsmouth in Virginia and DeKalb and Clayton counties in Georgia, according to census figures and campaign finance reports. Clinton topped Obama in contributions from District addresses, raising $3.6 million to Obama's $2.7 million.
Prince George's County's involvement has not gone unnoticed at Obama's headquarters in Chicago: Forty county residents were among the supporters feted at a two-day event at media mogul Oprah Winfrey's California home over the summer.
"They know where Prince George's County is and what Prince George's County is, which is the largest Democrat-producing jurisdiction in Maryland and the most affluent African American jurisdiction in the country," said Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, co-chairman of the Maryland for Obama campaign. "Those two things will put it on any political campaign map."
In a county and state that are often all but ignored in national elections, Prince George's scored a coup by drawing Obama to a rally in October. The candidate took home $200,000 in contributions. County Executive Jack B. Johnson and State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey also have endorsed Obama.
"I don't think we've seen this kind of interest since Jesse Jackson ran for president in 1984," said Terry L. Speigner, chairman of the county's Democratic Central Committee.
Nathaniel Tutt, 40, of a mortgage broker from Fort Washington, drove eight hours to New Hampshire to campaign with his son, Judah, 11. Tutt bundled the child into two coats, a hat and gloves for five hours of door knocking. Tutt said he has never been involved in a national campaign before.
Obama, he said, offers more than the symbolic candidacies of African Americans in the past, such as Jackson and Al Sharpton.
"I think there are a lot of candidates who won't win but who bring a message that needs to be heard, and that's what we had before," he said. "But now, we've got an electable black candidate."
That sense of his viability, as much as Obama's "progressive populism" on issues such as health care and education, resonates with many black voters, said Ron Walters, a University of Maryland political science professor. "Though he has not made a big deal of race, the fact is that it is symbolically important to people in Prince George's County that he is African American," he said.
Debra Ross, a public health administrator who lives in Glenn Dale and managed the campaigns of Rushern L. Baker III for county executive in 2002 and 2006, said Obama is the first national candidate she has worked for. She rode north in a van with Baker and her son, Kenneth, 19, a freshman at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
She and Baker knocked on about 50 doors, while Kenneth and Rashee Nelson, 18, of Lanham, a freshman at Morgan State, knocked on dozens more.
Baker said the reception they received on New Hampshire doorsteps demonstrated Obama's ability to unite the country. "Anytime you have 50-something-year-old white men opening the door to blacks in the suburbs of New Hampshire, you know something exciting is going on that is very positive for the country," he said.
In eleventh-hour campaigning yesterday, Baker's son Rushern "Rush" Baker IV, 20, a student at the Cooper Union in New York, and Christopher Wallas, 19, a sophomore at Prince George's Community College, both of Cheverly, worked fervently in support of their candidate.
"I'm supporting him because of his outreach to young people," Wallas said. "Growing up in Prince George's, I have seen people of my generation struggle with drugs, crime, poverty and school. Having him come to the college to speak . . . showed me he is committed to helping our generation get on the right track."
Database editor Sarah Cohen contributed to this report.