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Racist Incidents Give Some Obama Campaigners Pause

The Farmers for Obama headquarters in Vincennes, Ind., was vandalized on the eve of that state's May 6 primary.
The Farmers for Obama headquarters in Vincennes, Ind., was vandalized on the eve of that state's May 6 primary. (By Ray Mccormick)

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The bigotry has gone beyond words. In Vincennes, the Obama campaign office was vandalized at 2 a.m. on the eve of the primary, according to police. A large plate-glass window was smashed, an American flag stolen. Other windows were spray-painted with references to Obama's controversial former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and other political messages: "Hamas votes BHO" and "We don't cling to guns or religion. Goddamn Wright."

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Ray McCormick was notified of the incident at about 2:45 a.m. A farmer and conservationist, McCormick had erected a giant billboard on a major highway on behalf of Farmers for Obama. He also was housing the Obama campaign worker manning the office. When McCormick arrived at the office, about two hours before he was due out of bed to plant corn, he grabbed his camera and wanted to alert the media. "I thought, this is a big deal." But he was told Obama campaign officials didn't want to make a big deal of the incident. McCormick took photos anyway and distributed some.

"The pictures represent what we are breaking through and overcoming," he said. As McCormick, who is white, sees it, Obama is succeeding despite these incidents. Later, there would be bomb threats to three Obama campaign offices in Indiana, including the one in Vincennes, according to campaign sources.

Obama has not spoken much about racism during this campaign. He has sought to emphasize connections among Americans rather than divisions. He shrugged off safety concerns that led to early Secret Service protection and has told black senior citizens who worry that racists will do him harm: Don't fret. Earlier in the campaign, a 68-year-old woman in Carson City, Nev., voiced concern that the country was not ready to elect an African American president.

"Will there be some folks who probably won't vote for me because I am black? Of course," Obama said, "just like there may be somebody who won't vote for Hillary because she's a woman or wouldn't vote for John Edwards because they don't like his accent. But the question is, 'Can we get a majority of the American people to give us a fair hearing?' "

Obama has won 30 of 50 Democratic contests so far, the kind of nationwide electoral triumph no black candidate has ever realized. That he is on the brink of capturing the Democratic nomination, some say, is a testament to how far the country has progressed in overcoming racism and evidence of Obama's skill at bridging divides.

Obama has won five of 12 primaries in which black voters made up less than 10 percent of the electorate, and caucuses in states such as Idaho and Wyoming that are overwhelmingly white. But exit polls show he has struggled to attract white voters who didn't attend college and earn less than $50,000 a year. Today, he and Hillary Clinton square off in West Virginia, a state where she is favored and where the votes of working-class whites will again be closely watched.

For the most part, Obama campaign workers say, the 2008 election cycle has been exhilarating. On the ground, the Obama campaign is being driven by youngsters, many of whom are imbued with an optimism undeterred by racial intolerance. "We've grown up in a different world," says Danielle Ross. Field offices are staffed by 20-somethings who hold positions -- state director, regional field director, field organizer -- that are typically off limits to newcomers to presidential politics.

Gillian Bergeron, 23, was in charge of a five-county regional operation in northeastern Pennsylvania. The oldest member of her team was 27. At Scranton's annual Saint Patrick's Day parade, some of the green Obama signs distributed by staffers were burned along the parade route. That was the first signal that this wasn't exactly Obama country. There would be others.

In a letter to the editor published in a local paper, Tunkhannock Borough Mayor Norm Ball explained his support of Hillary Clinton this way: "Barack Hussein Obama and all of his talk will do nothing for our country. There is so much that people don't know about his upbringing in the Muslim world. His stepfather was a radical Muslim and the ranting of his minister against the white America, you can't convince me that some of that didn't rub off on him.

"No, I want a president that will salute our flag, and put their hand on the Bible when they take the oath of office."

Obama's campaign workers have grown wearily accustomed to the lies about the candidate's supposed radical Muslim ties and lack of patriotism. But they are sometimes astonished when public officials such as Ball or others representing the campaign of their opponent traffic in these falsehoods.


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