Mistakes were made. One look at the parking lot of the Martin Luther King Jr. rec center and you know that mistakes were made. In 10 minutes on this Thursday afternoon, a clutch of celebrities is supposed to pull up in a colorful bus, gambol to a podium and urge a few hundred young African Americans here in this struggling city to head to the polls on Tuesday.
But a get-out-the-youth-vote rally is nothing without young voters, and at the moment there isn't a young voter in sight.
This is bumming out the advance team of the Hip-Hop Action Summit Network, a group co-founded by the civic-minded tycoon of fly, Russell Simmons, and former NAACP chairman Benjamin Chavis. The network has spent millions of dollars and three years trying to turn young African Americans into a voting bloc meaty enough to require the care, attention and, with any luck, the pandering of politicians.
For months, this nonprofit, nonpartisan outfit has been registering people to vote at hip-hop concerts -- called "summits" for a bit of extra gravitas -- where artists such as Wyclef Jean and LL Cool J performed. More recently, two buses have been crisscrossing swing states with a rotating cast of celebrities on board, all of them hoping to lure the elusive 18- to 25-year-old black voter out of hiding and into a visible, cohesive force. There is plenty of substance in the pitch -- hang around this caravan for a while and you'll eventually hear mentions in speeches about jobs, health care and the war. But style often trumps content and the network knows it. Their goal is to make voting cool.
"Hip-hop is a language that young people speak," says field organizer Jeff Johnson, a charismatic 31-year-old with a ponytail of cornrows. "Young people trust hip-hop artists more than politicians, so when Jay-Z or Puffy says, 'Go out and vote,' they're more likely to listen."
Enthusiastic crowds have assembled at every stop in Cleveland, a city that is emerging as the highly contentious epicenter of the battle for the presidency. But there was a communication snafu this afternoon, and the mayor of East Cleveland, an ample and elegant woman with short gray hair named Saratha Goggins, is surprised to learn that she's about to have company. Not just any company, either. Superhunk Tyson Beckford is on the bus now barreling her way, as is Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth, the fetching villainess of "The Apprentice," and a rapper named Eightball.
"Who?" Goggins asks, sitting in the rec center lobby, shaking her head and tsk-tsking a little. "I've never heard of Eightball. I know about James Brown. If it was James Brown, I'd go get my wig."
Goggins is trying to drum up an instant crowd on the phone, and within a few minutes she's reached the superintendent at nearby Shaw High School, who promptly tells students about the imminent arrival of famous people to the neighborhood. Not even John Kerry visits when he comes to Cleveland, according to the locals, and the concept behind this hastily planned visit was to break the area's celebrity-free streak. This was Goggins's idea, actually. She begged for a drop-by on Wednesday but she never heard back from network organizers. Or rather, they called, but she didn't get the message.
"We called," whispers Maurice Henderson, part of the advance squad here, rolling his eyes. He isn't panicking , but clearly the thought of Omarosa glowering at a patch of unpopulated asphalt has focused his mind.
Fifteen minutes later, a group of about 80 kids from Shaw swarm into the parking lot. School has just let out, and though none of this sophomore-heavy crowd is of voting age, nobody seems to mind. Not Omarosa, who smiles that glistening Miss America smile of hers and improvises.
"Make sure you tell your mamas to vote," she yells into the microphone. "Then we can say to George Bush on November 2, 'You're fired!' "
Eightball comes out next, dressed in a gray jumpsuit and shaped about as close to a sphere as a man can get without actually rolling. He's wearing dark shades and mumbles that he's a man of few words, an odd admission for a rapper. He says cheerful things about voting and then shuffles off to make way for Beckford, who gets the biggest reaction. The girls let out some "That's him!" squeals and jostle for a better view.
"On November 2, you need to take what is yours!" booms Beckford.
"My mama is single!" shouts back a youngster in the front row.
When done, he plugs an upcoming movie, then stands up on a concrete wall and points to a T-shirt emblazoned with the words "Vote or Die."
"Take off your shirt!" says another young lady.
Beckford declines, cracking up.
"It ain't that kind of a rally."
The Unknown Variable
They call it the "X factor" out here on the trail. It's the unknown variable of a few million voters who are typically too apathetic, or too disengaged, or too something to cast a ballot. The Hip-Hop Action Summit Network isn't the richest of the groups looking to tap this potential gusher of democracy -- its budget is a mere $1.5 million a year -- but it is arguably the most visible and its top executives want to stun the political system come Election Day.
"You often hear the phrase 'October surprise,' " says Chavis, calling from the airport yesterday in Miami. "Well, there's going to be a November surprise. There's going to be a great awakening on Tuesday. Our only concern is that the voting officials are ready to handle the scale of the turnout."
If this seems like wishful thinking, listen to Chavis as he describes the network's strategy with the confidence of a man who has a blueprint to the vault. To get into the several dozen summit-concerts hosted by the network over the last two years, attendees were encouraged to register. But they were all but required to fill out a "hip-hop vote card," which asked them to ink their e-mail addresses and cell phone numbers. With the help of some affiliated groups, the network now has a database with the contact information of 2 million eligible voters, few of whom have ever been called or counted by pollsters.
The network will bombard these people with text messages, phone messages and e-mail in the coming days. At the same time, 80 urban radio stations across the country are going to play mix tapes with music by network participants such as Alicia Keys and Missy Elliott, which will be interspliced with go-vote sermonettes by Chavis and others.
"Don't underestimate the power of urban radio," Chavis says. "On Election Day, we're going to be doing shout-outs to specific cities, telling kids in line at the polls to stay in line. Don't get out of line. Don't get frustrated, because in some cases we think those lines could be five hours long."
The network started in 2001 with 10 employees and now has just 25, which is minuscule compared with the army being marshaled by groups such as America Coming Together, a Democratic voter outreach group. But the network isn't intended to be an army, and it hasn't spent a lot of energy doing grass-roots work such as knocking on doors. It's more like an ice cream truck that drives around, blasting music and pushing celebrities instead of playing jingles and selling dessert. Its role is to attract a crowd and then turn the crowd into mobilized voters.
So what would victory look like? About 30 percent of registered voters between the ages of 18 and 24 voted in 2000. The network wants to see that figure doubled. That would translate into millions of votes. Though the network is officially independent when it comes to political parties, you get the sense a Kerry victory is something network leaders would love to see.
Can it happen? Could kids -- in particular, black kids -- swing this election? Jeff Johnson, the field organizer, says nobody knows.
"We don't have any idea if young people are going to vote," he says, sitting in the lobby of the Holiday Inn where he and 11 other road crew members of the network are staying. Johnson is a youth pastor who also has a show on BET, "Rap City," where he's known as Cousin Jeff. At every stop, he makes the celebrities who precede him to the podium seem tongue-tied. A stop Thursday at an atrium at Cleveland State University was typical.
"We are being done in in a big way," warbles model and actress Lauren Hutton, who can barely be heard in the din.
"If you're a young person, everybody needs to vote right now because it's very important," rah-rahs Eightball.
The crowd applauds for Beckford and likes his two-minute spiel, but it's Johnson who gets a couple hundred college students roaring.
"There are people who don't want to see poor people and black people and Latino people go to the polls," he shouts in the cadences of a preacher. "I don't care if you're Democrat or Republican: If you try to block my vote, I'm rolling on you. I don't care what party you belong to: If you try to block my vote, I'm rolling on you."
Bring "a gang" of friends with you on Tuesday, in case someone tries to stop you from voting, he recommends. And don't even let the cops get in your way. Don't trust the cops, he says, not at a polling place, not on Tuesday. No matter what you hear, no matter who is issuing orders, "Do not leave until you vote."
Pulling the Linchpin
You'd think Johnson was talking about a roller derby, not an election. But in Cleveland, and surrounding Cuyahoga County, his rhetoric doesn't sound alarmist. Everyone here fully expects this to be the linchpin county in the linchpin state, and the Republicans have been trying to challenge new voters almost as quickly as groups like the Hip-Hop Action Summit Network have been signing them up.
It's already getting violent. At the Cuyahoga County Republican headquarters in Cleveland on Wednesday , two party employees -- both women -- scuffled with an activist who tried to deliver a protest letter denouncing the GOP for challenging his registration. A couple dozen people watched this mini-melee unfold, and everyone agrees that punches were thrown, though who exactly did the punching is in dispute.
"Do you think a black man could punch a white woman in Cleveland in broad daylight and get away with it?" asks Charlene Sinclair, an executive with ACORN, the group that organized the outing to the Republican headquarters. "It's absurd." She says that a guy named William Bacon was struck a few times as he bent down to pick up his letter, which he'd dropped trying to push it through a rapidly closing door.
The episode sounded different when the other side told their version. "One of the women went home, but I think it was more because she was mentally hurt than physically," says Jeff Flint, who runs the headquarters for the Republicans. He said the second woman involved in the quickie brawl had bruises on her arm. "I think they're keeping the front door locked now."
This office is a modest little place, on the first floor of an august old building near Public Square and it's pretty dull, at least when nobody is barging through the entrance. The action is behind a door that has, for some reason, been painted black. Flint politely declines to let any visitors through.
"It's a bunch of card tables, bunch of guys with laptops," he says. "No color. Not much to see."
Flint, an Ohio native and political consultant, is acutely aware of the coolness gap between his party and the Democrats, though there is nothing he can do about it except laugh. The Dems have Tyson Beckford, the GOP has . . . some guy in an aqua blue suit, who pops by in the middle of this interview. Standing in the doorway, he looks like that dandified rich guy from the Monopoly board game. He does everything but twirl his mustache.
"The market has spoken," he gleefully announces to everyone, "and it likes Bush."
"That guy is cool," says Flint.
Who is he?
"I don't know," he says. "I've never seen him before."
A New Trend
The same day that Monopoly man dropped by the GOP headquarters, P. Diddy, who leads a voter-registration group called Citizen Change, hosts a rally at Case Western Reserve University. The weather is flawless, the crowd mostly African American, and by the time Diddy struts onstage, dozens are waving "Vote or Die" placards and screaming. Mary J. Blige is the first to speak.
"I'm here as example of someone who never voted before," she reads, nervously and solemnly. She then describes her childhood -- the abuse her mother suffered at the hands of her father, a Vietnam veteran who returned from the war in a state of furious derangement. A mother who beat her. A cycle of the neglect and violence that, she argued, voting could go a long way toward ending.
"So many of our parents who are single mothers never told us about the importance of voting. Nobody told them."
Leonardo DiCaprio is next, removing his dark shades to speak about the Supreme Court and the environment. Diddy concludes the show. "We have been the lowest voting bloc to ever turn out," he bellows. "People have died for your right to vote. Treat it like that."
Afterward, a group of college kids is standing on the grass as the balloons and bunting are taken down. They seem won over, but anyone on that lawn in that crowd would have seemed won over. The striking part is what they say about the chatter when the celebrities aren't around.
"Now it's almost like trendy to vote," says Sakeenah Waters, a Case Western student. "Everybody I know is going to call everybody, 'I just got done voting.' It's been like that for months. Instead of saying, 'Did you get that new Louis Vuitton purse?' it's like, 'Did you register?' "