After nearly two hours of hobnobbing, sampling gourmet dishes and listening to reasoned speeches, the group of several hundred African American Democrats charged into a chant that got right to the point of their get-together yesterday: "Hey, ho! Bush has got to go!"
The cry expressed the feelings seemingly of everyone at a rally sponsored by the Virginia Congressional Black Caucus in Alexandria. Whether they were college students, Democratic Party leaders or residents and politicians from Northern Virginia, the crowd was united in its desire to elect Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) president and to work as hard as possible the next nine days to make that happen.
President Bush "is like a bug on the floor who needs to be stepped on and squashed," Alexandria resident Vannessa Anderson said, explaining why she has been pounding on doors, passing out pamphlets and trying to sway neighbors to oppose the president. "He's not interested in low-income people, and he doesn't recognize minorities."
Organizers said yesterday's rally was designed to stir passions among African Americans and young voters in Virginia for this year's presidential election, one in which state leaders think Virginia can turn Democratic for the first time since 1964 despite minimal attention from the Kerry campaign.
"We are a swing state if we can get much of the African American vote," said Alexandria Mayor William D. Euille (D), adding that it is just as critical to get black voters to the polls.
Both parties believe that African Americans could be pivotal on Election Day, and Democrats have targeted the traditionally left-leaning group as key to helping Kerry in such closely contested states as Ohio and Pennsylvania. Republicans have tried to sway some black voters by suggesting that Democrats take them for granted, while others agree with the president's positions regarding gay marriage.
A national survey released last week found that 18 percent of black voters were willing to vote for Bush, 10 percentage points higher than Bush's total in exit polling in 2000. The national opinion survey -- released by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, an African American think tank -- also found that 69 percent of blacks planned to vote for Kerry.
African Americans who attended the rally at the Hilton Alexandria Mark Center cited jobs, health care, the Iraq war and sensitivity to minority issues as their main concerns.
Davon Gray, a former candidate for state and local office from Prince William County, said Kerry's support among Virginians is "surprising. This is not always a state that would be friendly to a Massachusetts senator, but people are just ticked off with what's going on with the war and the economy."
The rally lasted through the afternoon and included speeches from Virginia Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), who plans to run for governor next year; Kerry J. Donley, chairman of the Virginia Democratic Party; Euille; and a handful of other local leaders and office-seekers.
The event was also meant to appeal to young voters, another group Republicans and Democrats say could turn the election. Maurice Franklin, a senior at Hampton University, said he found the affair appealing. Franklin plans to graduate in the spring, and in addition to the war in Iraq, he is worried that the investment banking job he covets will be outsourced.
And if things don't work out his way in this election, he's got a political plan for the future. "I'd like to be a senator some day," he said with a shy grin. "Everybody has dreams."