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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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Karen Seifert, a volunteer from New York, was outside of the largest polling location in Lackawanna County, Pa., on primary day when she was pressed by a Clinton volunteer to explain her backing of Obama. "I trust him," Seifert replied. According to Seifert, the woman pointed to Obama's face on Seifert's T-shirt and said: "He's a half-breed and he's a Muslim. How can you trust that?"

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Pollsters have found it difficult to accurately measure racial attitudes, as some voters are unwilling to acknowledge the role that race plays in their thinking. But some are not. Susan Dzimian, a Clinton supporter who owns residential properties, said outside a polling location in Kokomo that race was a factor in how she viewed Obama. "I think if it was somebody other than him, I'd accept it," she said of a black candidate. "If Colin Powell had run, I would be willing to accept him."

The previous evening, Dondra Ewing was driving the neighborhoods of Kokomo, looking to turn around voters like Dzimian. Ewing, 47, is a chain-smoking middle school guidance counselor, a black single mother of two and one of the most fiercely vigilant Obama volunteers in Kokomo, which was once a Ku Klux Klan stronghold. On July 4, 1923, Kokomo hosted the largest Klan gathering in history -- an estimated 200,000 followers flocked to a local park. But these are not the 1920s, and Ewing believes she can persuade anybody to back Obama. Her mother, after all, was the first African American elected at-large to the school board in a community that is 10 percent black.

Kokomo, population 46,000, is another hard-hit Midwestern industrial town stung by layoffs. Longtimers wistfully remember the glory years of Continental Steel and speak mournfully about the jobs shipped overseas. Kokomo Sanitary Pottery, which made bathroom sinks and toilets, shut down a couple of months ago and took with it 150 jobs.

Aaron Roe, 23, was mowing lawns at a local cemetery recently, lamenting his $8-an-hour job with no benefits. He had earned a community college degree as an industrial electrician, but learned there was no electrical work to be found for someone with his experience, which is to say none. Politics wasn't on his mind; frustration was. If he were to vote, it would not be for Obama, he said. "I just got a funny feeling about him," Roe said, a feeling he couldn't specify, except to say race wasn't a part of it. "Race ain't nothing," said Roe, who is white. "It's how they're going to help the country."

The Aaron Roes are exactly who Dondra Ewing was after: people with funny feelings.

At the Bradford Run Apartments, she found Robert Cox, a retiree who spent 30 years working for an electronics manufacturer making computer chips. He was in his suspenders, grilling shish kebab, which he had never eaten. "Something new," Cox said, recommended by his son who was visiting from Colorado.

Ewing was selling him hard on Obama. "There are more than two families that can run the United States of America," she said, "and their names aren't Bush and Clinton."

"Yeah, I know, I know," Cox said, remaining noncommittal.

He opened the grill and peeked at the kebabs. "It's not his race, because I got real good friends and all that," Cox continued. "If anything would keep him from getting elected, it would be his name. It might turn off some older people."

Like him?

"No, older than me," said Cox, 66.

Ewing kept talking, until finally Cox said, "Probably Obama," when asked directly how he would vote.

As she walked away, Ewing said: "I think we got him."

But truthfully, she wasn't feeling so sure.

Staff writer Peter Slevin and polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.


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