Support for Obama more an act of faith

By Anne Penketh

Obama became the first Democrat in four decades to carry Virginia, but the lives of many of its black inhabitants have certainly not improved over the past four years.

President Barack Obama waves to supporters as he arrives for a campaign event at Elm Street Middle School in New Hampshire. Photo / AP
President Barack Obama waves to supporters as he arrives for a campaign event at Elm Street Middle School in New Hampshire. Photo / AP

In the toss-up state of Virginia where Democrats and Republicans are in a dead heat, President Barack Obama knows that every black vote counts as his pathway towards a second term in the White House.

Ida Edwards, a 74-year-old retired nurse, aims to deliver another record turnout from among the black community which ensured that in the 2008 election Obama became the first Democrat in four decades to carry the state.

Petersburg's glory days as one of the oldest cities in America are long gone. Although Steven Spielberg gave a nod to its historic past by filming his new movie Lincoln in Petersburg's old town, the city today shows all the signs of economic depression.

Storefronts are boarded up on the main street and broken glass lies uncollected on the pavement. Unemployment is at 11 per cent, higher than the national average which is now under 8 per cent, and one in four people lives in poverty.

The lives of Petersburg's mainly black inhabitants have certainly not improved over the past four years.

Edwards, who is a volunteer for the Obama campaign leading a neighbourhood team of activists in Petersburg, says that some black voters she canvasses "don't understand what he's done for them. They say, what has he done for me?"

But black residents interviewed in the city, 38km from Richmond, don't blame the President for the economic crisis and say they are prepared to give him a second chance. "I'm planning on voting for him," said Andre Pettiford, a security officer. "We should give him a chance to turn things around."

"He's leading us in the right direction," said forklift truck driver David Fisher, as he took his two young daughters home after work. "It's been a little rough, but things are going to get better."

Asked whether his vote would be pro-Obama or against Mitt Romney, the Republican challenger who denigrated the black community by speaking about the "47 per cent" living on handouts, Fisher replied, "it's definitely pro-Obama".

One Democratic activist said the race in the swing state is so tight that "the result could depend on the weather on voting day".

Romney sent his wife Ann to Richmond on Saturday, and Obama, who has visited Virginia several times, spoke to a rally of 15,000 on Friday. Romney was intending to address three Virginia venues yesterday but switched his visit to another swing state, Ohio, because of the threatening advance of Hurricane Sandy.

But one of the challenges for Democratic organisers in the state is to make sure that voters are aware of their rights amid a coordinated attempt by some Republican legislatures to bring in voter ID regulations requiring state ID or drivers licences. Although the Republicans say that the change was motivated by voter fraud, it appeared to specifically aim to deprive African Americans of a vote.

"We've put a lot of effort into registering and educating people," said Marvin Randolph, senior vice-president for campaigns of the non-partisan National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP). He said that in Virginia, as a result of the Democratic resistance to the Republicans' move, voters can now bring along utility bills as proof of identity.

He dismissed the Republicans' argument about voter fraud, noting that President George W. Bush's Attorney- General, John Ashcroft had investigated voter fraud after the cliffhanger 2000 presidential election, and found only 24 incidents.

Both Randolph and Edwards, the local Obama campaign organiser, insisted that the black community in Virginia remains fired up despite the harsh economic climate, and predicted a record turnout. "They are very motivated, people understand what's at stake," said Randolph. "This is the most important election of our lifetime, it's a choice to make in difficult economic times," he said, referring to the Obama healthcare and educational reforms that would be threatened by a Romney victory. "It's our job to make sure that choice is clear."

Edwards, who is old enough to remember the humiliating era of segregation when she had to eat lunch in the basement because of her colour and use a separate bathroom from whites, remains proud that America has elected its first black President.

She remembers the first time she met Obama, who pressed the flesh at a Petersburg restaurant during the 2008 campaign. "He shook my hand, and we talked, and I don't remember a word he said," said Edwards. Since then, she has met the President and his wife Michelle again, and shook Obama's hand as a special guest last Friday during his visit to Richmond.

"My parents and grandparents worked and never had to beg for anything. They never dreamed we would have had a black president," she said. "No one's ever made me feel that we can make a difference until now."

Virginia: the facts

Nickname: "Old Dominion" and "Mother of Presidents"
Population: 8,096,604 (2011)
Electoral votes: 13
Motto: "Thus Always to Tyrants"
Average household income: US$60,665 (in US $50,054)
Governor: Robert McDonnell (R)
Senators: Jim Webb (D) Mark Warner (R)
Voting record: 2008 - Democrat 52.6% 2004 - Republican 53.7%
Race demographics: 64% white, 19% black, 7% Hispanic
Unemployment rate: 6% (June 2012)
Home to: More US Presidents, eight, than any other state including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson.

- NZ Herald

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