Jacksonville, Fla. — During those two electric Novembers, the chance to elect a black president, and then keep him in office, seized Regenia Motley’s neighborhood.
Nightclubs were registering voters. Churches held fish fries after loading buses that ferried parishioners to the polls. A truck hoisted a big sign that said “Obama.” And residents waited in long lines at precincts across the community.
But as Motley and some friends sought shade recently under a mulberry tree and looked across the landscape of empty lots and abandoned houses that has persisted here, they wondered whether they would ever bother voting again.
“What was the point?” asked Motley, 23, a grocery store clerk. “We made history, but I don’t see change.”
On Jacksonville’s north side and in other struggling urban neighborhoods across the country, where Barack Obama mobilized large numbers of new African American voters who were inspired partly by the emotional draw of his biography, high hopes have turned to frustration: Even a black president was unable to heal places still gripped by violence, drugs and joblessness.
The dynamic, made prominent in recent months after unrest in Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo., sets up a stark challenge for Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Democratic presidential front-runner.
While supporting Obama became a cause for many here rather than a typical campaign, Clinton faces a higher bar in making a case that she, too, can be a transformative figure.
Her campaign is planning to build on the multiethnic coalition that turned out to support Obama. Running to be the first female president, Clinton will also try to generate Obama-like enthusiasm among new voters — those who were too young to turn out for Obama or have not previously been engaged with politics.
Yet as her allies prepare to register voters and expand the black electorate, her candidacy presents residents here with a question: If Obama’s presidency didn’t do more to help African Americans, then how could hers?
“She is focusing on exactly the right issues,” said the Rev. Lee Harris of Mount Olive Primitive Baptist Church on the north side. “But here in Jacksonville, the issues won’t be enough.”
Clinton has shown in recent weeks that she intends to put high-priority issues for African Americans, particularly those who live in impoverished urban areas, at the top of her campaign agenda.
In her first major policy speech, in April, amid the Baltimore protests that followed the death of Freddie Gray, Clinton lamented how the incarcerations of hundreds of thousands of black men affected communities. She vowed to “deliver real reforms that can be felt on our streets, in our courthouses, and our jails and prisons, in communities too long neglected.”
And last week, she called for universal voter registration, tapping into frustration among many minority advocates who say that Republican-backed voter-ID laws have served to squelch black and Hispanic voting.
Clinton’s early moves are designed to signal that she can speak out and act more boldly than Obama, who felt political pressure as a candidate to tread lightly around race issues. Her campaign officials say she has enlisted a number of African Americans in top positions and plans on finding local leaders in cities who will advocate for her.
Still, polls show a gap between the positive feelings black voters have for Clinton and those they hold for Obama.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll released last week found that 75 percent of African Americans thought that Clinton understood the problems of “people like you,” as opposed to 91 percent who felt that way about Obama in a survey last fall.
“At least with Obama, he gave pride to our young men and was a good role model,” said Daniel “Happy Jack” Cobb Jr., 73, the owner of Happy Jack’s Grocery and Market on Jacksonville’s north side. “Hillary needs to prove to us that she’s genuine and really true. And I’m not even sure that would help. We’ve been snakebitten too many times before.”
Far from the palm-tree-lined, trendy corridors of this sprawling city in the northeast corner of Florida, some roads on the north side have no sidewalks. The major thoroughfares are home to Family Dollar stores and bail bondsmen and crab shacks that sit between large, fenced-in lots full of shaggy grass. In one area, contaminated soil from a trash incinerator put off plans for a redevelopment project.
Before 2008, many here felt singed by the contentious 2000 presidential election, when thousands of votes cast in the city’s black neighborhoods were among those nullified amid the legal battle that led to Republican George W. Bush’s narrow victory in the state.
Obama campaign aides studied the numbers and saw that tens of thousands of eligible black voters here had not turned out in 2004, when Republicans again won Florida. While Obama’s team knew that winning the majority in Duval County was unlikely — Bush won the county, whose seat is Jacksonville, by 61,000 votes in 2004 — strategists concluded that aggressively targeting black voters here could narrow the gap and boost statewide totals.
So the Obama team hit the north side hard. It signed up hundreds of volunteers, made thousands of phone calls and animated voters who had never before trusted the political process.
And there was so much swag. Residents kept buttons and door hangers as keepsakes — even squares of toilet paper with Obama’s face on them.
At the end of the 2008 campaign, Jacksonville was one of the last places Obama visited. When the voting was done, that 61,000-vote gap between the Democratic and Republican nominees in Duval County had been reduced to 8,000 — and Obama had won Florida.
“It became more about a personal duty to elect Obama than a civic duty to vote,” said Mone Holder, the northern Florida regional director for Florida New Majority, a liberal voting rights group. “There’s been a lot of talk in the state about how to transform that enthusiasm into a black and brown agenda. No one has fully figured it out yet.”
There was a newfound fascination with politics on the north side, a sense that black officials could be elected to jobs that were once unfathomable. The community that once felt disenfranchised had become a political force, making a statement to the country and to themselves.
That feeling carried over into 2011, when the city elected its first black mayor, Alvin Brown, who won with support from an energized black community as well as backing from whites and parts of the business establishment. Obama cinched Florida again in 2012, in part by once again mobilizing blacks and keeping the margins low in Duval County.
But now, as the Obama era draws to a close, that excitement has dimmed.
On the north side, gang violence and drug use have surged. In April, 33 Jacksonville residents were shot, including seven who were killed. A group of pastors held a news conference and declared the city a “war zone.”
For the friends who gathered recently to hang out in the shade of the mulberry tree, it will be hard to justify the effort of turning out and voting next year when so little has changed — and some things feel worse.
“We got the president his job,” Motley said. “But did he help us get any good jobs? I still need a raise.”
“It’s not his fault,” interrupted Louis Wilson, 65, a retired airport maintenance worker. “We did all the work to get him in, but when it came time to vote in people to support him, all the [black people] stayed home. That’s what happens when you don’t vote.”
The conversation became heated. Another said he’d love to vote but could not because of his felony conviction. Another complained that she couldn’t get a raise in eight years.
“We all struggling,” said another. One man became so uncomfortable, he removed his T-shirt, wrapped it around his head and walked away. The shirt read “Obama ’08.”
Last month, when Mayor Brown was up for reelection, pastors and voting advocates considered the race a test of whether Jacksonville’s black electorate remained politically engaged. Republicans rallied around a former state party chairman, Lenny Curry, as their candidate. GOP presidential hopefuls Marco Rubio and Rick Perry visited, and Jeb Bush made a video in support of Curry.
On the night of the election, after the pastor at St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church on the north side encouraged his flock to trust God’s plans, a group of young black parishioners reminisced about the wonders of the past two presidential elections. And they wondered about the next one.
“It’s not just because Obama was black, but it was because you knew he had a sense of empathy with your struggle,” said Sherrod Brown, a 26-year-old gospel singer. “The people of Jacksonville are fair. We’d vote for Hillary, but she has to prove she’s down.”
Simia Richardson, 31, a teacher, said she was unsure whom to support. “I’m all about [Clinton] being a woman, but it will be a problem for a lot of people,” she said. “And there are some other people who might be interesting. Ben Carson, he’s running.”
The mention of Carson, the famous black neurosurgeon running as a Republican, caused some to perk up.
“The ‘Gifted Hands’ dude?” asked James Sneed, 18, referring to Carson’s popular autobiography.
“Yeah, and he’s a Republican,” Richardson said. “And there’s another one who thinks he can get black votes. Rand Paul?”
Then Brown’s cellphone buzzed.
“Alvin Brown is going to lose the election,” he announced.
There was a pause. Richardson tried to reassure the group, but soon shook her head and expressed disbelief.
“I know, right?” Sherrod Brown replied. “Just when we thought things were about to change.”
Sneed, who remembered voting for the winning candidate in every major election since a mock vote for Obama in middle school, pulled out his phone to read the news. He encountered a word that was unfamiliar to his political life. He looked up and asked:
“What does concede mean?”