Local and state politicians descended on the Washington Convention Center last week, along with the nation's African American power elite, to celebrate with the Congressional Black Caucus at the awards dinner that closed the organization's 34th annual legislative conference.

Among the leaders who attended were County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D), U.S. Rep. Albert R. Wynn (D-Maryland) and former governor Parris N. Glendening.

State officials at the conference included Del. Herman L. Taylor II (D-Montgomery), Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) and State Sen. Ulysses Currie (D-Forestville). The event's welcoming address was delivered by the caucus's chairman, Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.)

National figures included the Rev. Al Sharpton, a former presidential contender; the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, who sat with his son, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Illinois); and rising Democratic star Barack Obama, a U.S. Senate candidate from Illinois who delivered the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention.

"This is a critical election," Wynn said, citing economic development, jobs and education as the key issues for black Americans in the next four years. "Minority communities need jobs and job development. The other thing, of course, is education."

The keynote address at the conference was delivered by Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry (D). "We've been partners on the legislative battlefield for a long time now," Kerry told the audience. "Long before this president showed up, we've been fighting to bring hope and opportunity to those who for too long have been left out."

Despite Kerry's pleas for support, many blacks are still not excited about him, black leaders said.

"Everywhere I have gone, people have not felt connected," Sharpton said. "There must be a connection and it must be on a grass-roots level. People want Bush out, but there has to be a connection and a glue between the people and the campaign."

Tom Joyner, a nationally syndicated radio host and the emcee for the night, said, "I am really worried that our people are not fired up to go and vote. . . . We have to give people a reason to go vote. We have to fire them up."

Johnson criticized Kerry for not outlining his stand on issues.

"I think they have been weak to allow Bush to take the defense issue away from them," he said. "It is not about whether you supported the war in Iraq or not. It is about President Bush going before a joint session of Congress and saying 'I want to go to war for these reasons,' and the reasons do not exist. That's the issue, and no one is talking about that."

But Taylor said he had been impressed with Kerry's effort.

"It is very important that we are here united to show that as African Americans we are behind John Kerry," Taylor said. "I don't know how George Bush can win an election without black folks. This is the most important election that we have ever had, especially in light of what we have seen over the last four years with the George Bush administration."

The three-hour event featured entertainment by keyboardist George Duke and singer Regina Bell. But the undisputed crowd pleaser was Obama, who escorted his wife, Michelle, a hit in her own right.

"It has been very exciting. We have had a lot of wonderful opportunities to meet people," Michelle Obama said. "We are just trying to keep things in perspective and keep our heads on straight and stay focused in the race because Barack hasn't won anything yet, and he has got to take this thing seriously and not take anything for granted."

When asked about Alan Keyes, the Maryland resident who is running against Obama for the Illinois seat, Michelle Obama said, "I think it is unfortunate that the Illinois GOP couldn't find anyone credible in the state."