By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 28, 2008
At the end of a tumultuous week that had him wrestling with dire economic warnings and preparing for his first presidential debate, Sen. Barack Obama seemed pleased, even relaxed, last night as he paid homage to political forebears and took a jab or two at his rival for the White House.
Obama and his wife, Michelle, were among thousands attending the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's annual awards dinner at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. He hailed the caucus, founded nearly 40 years ago, as laying the groundwork for his nomination, and he asked the crowd to join him in his historic run for the presidency.
He recalled the dreams of an earlier generation: " 'I may not ever see a black man be able to be in the White House, but maybe my child will see it or my grandchild will see.' That's the long way we've come," Obama said to roars and a standing ovation.
The dinner serves as the climax of the foundation's four-day Annual Legislative Conference, where issues of particular concern to the African American community are debated and potential solutions are proposed.
Obama's attendance was far from certain this year, given the events of the week. But in the end, he stuck with a Saturday schedule that included stops in Greensboro, N.C., and Fredericksburg before the gala dinner, where tables for 10 started at $7,500.
Obama was given the foundation's Harold Washington Award, named after the late Chicago mayor and honoring the senator's work in coalition-building. He saluted Washington, who he said had inspired him to move to Chicago and become a community organizer.
"He understood that ultimately power comes from the people," he said.
Obama (D) then devoted the rest of his 20-minute speech to economic issues and to emphasizing the differences between his positions and those of his opponent, Sen. John McCain (R).
"Change isn't just a slogan, saying, 'I'm for change, too. I'm a maverick,' " he said, pausing for the crowd's laughter and applause. "He's taking my stuff."
The Congressional Black Caucus Foundation is nonpartisan, but its membership trends heavily Democratic. Dozens of fundraisers and debate-watch parties became an unofficial part of conference activities this year and filled hotel suites, bars and lounges every night of the past week.
The slogan this year, for the 38th ALC, was "Embracing the Promise, Realizing the Vision," an indirect reference perhaps to Obama's candidacy that was underscored by an online greeting from caucus members: "What was once thought to be beyond our grasp is now at our fingertips."
Before last night's dinner, Obama's wife, Michelle, addressed an exclusive group of campaign contributors at a reception at the nearby Embassy Suites hotel, where the price of admission started at $1,000 per person.
"We all know why you're really here. It's CBC weekend. We just happened to stop through here," she said. "We are just trying to catch a bit of the wave. . . . The CBC weekend is so important for the leadership of this country. It's important for Barack and I to be here . . . to remind everybody that history is on the way."
Her nearly half-hour speech touched on bringing health care to the uninsured and underinsured, ending the war in Iraq, educating children and repairing the economy. But she also stressed the importance of voter registration and, ultimately, turnout.
"Let's just say right here and now: Barack has done his job," she said. "So now it's on us. . . . We have no excuse anymore.
"I'm sure everyone in this room knows some trifling person who is not registered," she added. "You need to talk to them, those folks, and shake them. Tell them we don't have time to play. Because the choice is clear. We know what we will get if Barack Obama doesn't win."