From Dana's Guests

dawnt - Chatting With the Guy from Illinois with the Funny Name

Barack Obama

It was during the rough part of his campaign last year; in mid-March, just days before he delivered the now historic Race Speech, that I came across this blog post from dawnt of Illinois. I was riveted by her recollection, moved to tears as her words revealed truth and scared to death of the prospect that we might not elect this man, the man with the vision for restoring and rebuilding America.

Sun Mar 16, 2008 at 11:36:21 PM PDT

Way back in 2004, I was working for a union. Part of my job was to create and manage a handful of websites. One of the websites was an online election center where we graded the policy positions of candidates running for state and national offices. We sent out probably 5,000 emails to candidates, and when they responded, I copy/pasted them into the database and gave them a grade. Usually some staffer sent us some boilerplate text that they didn't even bother to customize to our questions or our audience.

Once in a while, though, someone would call. Usually it was some crackpot who had no resources, no staff, no money, and no chance of winning whichever office he was running for (I say he only because I don't remember any of the crackpots being women).

One day, a guy in Illinois running for U.S. Senate called. Based on the fact that he picked up the phone to call me, I assumed he didn't have enough resources to hire any staff that could call me or send me an email. I assumed (like the fool I am) that he was a nobody on a fast train going nowhere. I was basing this assumption, of course, on the fact that everyone else who called was definitely on a fast train to nowhere.

Before you read further, this is my disclaimer: This is my take on a conversation that happened four years ago. I am writing this based on notes and memory. Any errors or misinterpretations are mine, and I take full responsibility.

This man from Illinois with the funny name understood labor issues better than any candidate I'd talked to. He understood these issues as well as any labor leader or activist I'd talked to. And what's more, even though I was doing the interview, I look back and realize that he controlled the conversation. We spent the entire 45-60ish minutes going through my questions, but he brought everything back to his key issue: reuniting the country.

The issues that I was dealing with were difficult, complex issues. Both sides were represented by entrenched groups that have shown no signs of budging for years. I'm in a unique position to judge these entrenched groups because I've worked for organizations on both sides. I literally understand both sides of these particular issues from the inside out. And these are my issues, the issues that I truly hold dear to my heart. So when I say that Barack Obama understood how to bring these entrenched groups together for a solution, I'm actually somewhat qualified to say so.

The first question on the survey did not ask about the issues. It merely asked, "What's most important to you?" I think his answer will look familiar to you:

Uniting a polarized America. There are those who are preparing to divide us. I say to them, there is not a liberal America, and a conservative America, there is the United States of America.

That's a direct quote from the man himself. When I read these words now, I have heard them so many times that I can hear his voice as I read them. But something became clear to me when I saw these words in my notes. This is not something his speech writers wrote for him. These are his words. These are words that Barack Obama said. The guy from Illinois with the funny name said these words, word for word, back in 2004 to a person that thought he was nobody.

I don't remember, but I'm really afraid that I might have even commented sometime during the phone call that I was sorry he didn't have more support. I definitely remember thinking it.

Who would have thought that a man who was truly on his way to the U.S. Senate would care enough about labor issues to call a labor activist, personally, to talk about labor issues. And I don't think it's because we were posting them onto a public website. If that was it, I would have gotten calls from other viable candidates. Barack Obama was the only viable candidate that called. I'm not saying he's the only one who cared, but he is the only one who cared enough to call.

To be honest, I was feeling a little intimidated about hitting the 'Post' button on this diary. I mean, he really was just some guy from Illinois with a funny name to me... I didn't think he was anybody or that he would get anywhere. There was a part of me that kept thinking, what if there was some other guy from Illinois with a funny name, and I just think it was Obama, or what if there was some guy named Boartla Onala from Iowa or something, and I just got them confused? To prove it to myself, I dug up his answers. It really was Barack Obama. It was (I said it twice to convince myself). And his answered impressed me even more today than they did then.

He talked about how the difference between the lowest paid employee at a company and the highest paid employee at a company has grown so extraordinarily over the years and how the disparity will only become greater if ordinary people aren't willing to work for change. Those words are in italic because that's what I wrote down. Word for word. If ordinary people aren't willing to work for change.

Regarding trade agreements, he said:

any trade agreement must have real, tangible benefits for U.S. businesses and workers

I put "and workers" in italic because in my notes I underlined those words twice. And workers. I remember having the feeling when I talked to him that he really meant what he said. He was sincere.

He had a plan, the "Real USA Corporation" plan. He had a litany of things that we should reward: companies that keep 90% of their production in the USA, companies that keep 90% of their employees in the USA, companies that keep 50% of their research and development in the USA, and companies that provide healthcare to their employees. He said right now companies are being rewarded for not doing those things. Companies ship jobs overseas and get tax breaks.

I remember sometime during the conversation thinking that he sounded academic, but it was his realism and candor that pulled me in. I wish he had told me he was a viable candidate. Maybe he thought I knew -- or should know. Maybe he thought I was following all of the Senate elections because I was doing the surveying. One thing is for sure, though. I may have thought he was going nowhere, but if he had been in my state, I might have gone along for the ride.

He said that people who work hard should not struggle for survival. Not anywhere, but especially not in America. Healthcare was not even an issue that we asked about, but it's interspersed throughout his answers. He brought up working poor and healthcare again and again.

This is a man on his way to the U.S. Senate who picked up the phone to call a labor activist who was creating a small website that few people would probably see. This is a man who talked about America's working poor and the plight of people without healthcare even when the questions didn't require those answers. This is a man who had real, specific answers to complex and difficult issues that other candidates simply could not talk about in detail.

Before I looked at my notes, I was convinced that this is a man who is truly sincere. A man who cares about ordinary people. After looking at my notes, I'm even more convinced than ever. For the first time in my life, a presidential candidate has convinced me. For a cynic like myself, that is extraordinary.

Sure, it's kind of cool that I can say I talked to Barack Obama before he was somebody. But what's really important here, what's really important for America, is that:

Barack Obama was willing to talk to me when I was nobody. That's something special.

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