Hassling the locals

by Brian Clarey

When Obama comes to town, the cops and the media get put on notice — city, county and state police cars clogged the roads leading to the Ragsdale YMCA, where the president spoke last week, and hulking satellite trucks from every TV station for 100 miles took up the parking lot like an idle herd of elephants.

In the gymnasium, hours before the president spoke, media types filled the risers and milled about an enclosed space on the fringes. Some leaned over the rail to gather string from ticketed attendees; others noted the presence of local politicos: state reps Pricey Harrison, Maggie Jeffus and Alma Adams; NC Sen. Don Vaughan; US Rep Mel Watt; Jamestown Mayor Keith Volz; Greensboro City Council members Zack Matheny and Jim Kee; former Greensboro mayors Yvonne Johnson and Keith Holliday; Guilford County Commissioner Skip Alston. Neither Robbie Perkins or Bill Knight, the current mayoral candidates, were there.

Johnson was the only one able to work her way onto the riser behind the podium, the one that would be on TV, and before Obama took the stage three of his staff carefully arranged the people up there to maximize diversity in the frame.

All the best seats in the press area and posts on the risers were reserved for the national press, as was the weight room adjacent to the staging area, stocked with coffee and bagels and such. The local press, second-class citizens though we were, may not have had access to coffee, or even to chairs, but at least we recognized the players in the room.

Obama, in rolled up shirtsleeves, took the podium right on time and dove in with obligatory references to barbecue and sweet tea, but really he came to talk about his jobs bill, which was soundly defeated in the Senate more than a week ago, making me think he was actually here to drum up support for his re-election campaign in a state that he narrowly won in 2008, and which figures so prominently in his 2012 strategy that his party is holding its national convention just a piece down the road in Charlotte next year.

But maybe that’s just me. After he softened up the crowd, Obama hit the notes he hopes will resonate with more than half the voters: bipartisan lawmaking, putting cops and teachers back to work, tapping the top 2 percent for tax increases to pay for it all.

We’ve heard it all before, but reinforcement is key when you’re making the big pitch.

It’s been a few years since I last saw Obama speak in person — the last time was during his 2008 campaign stop in Greensboro, when he enthralled the entire War Memorial Auditorium with his message of hope and change. He looks older now. Tired, even in this room full of friendly faces. But he still can turn it on when the crowd is on his side.

As the pageant wound down, Obama got caught in a scrum of wellwishers and glad-handers — off limits to the local press, natch, and those of us who made our way out to the parking lot were detained in the hot sun as the national press corps were allowed to leave first.

It was a different story that evening in downtown Greensboro, when Face to Face held its Show of Hands event in the parking lot at Hamburger Square. It was one of those get-out-the-vote deals, with sponsors working their tents and local beer on the cheap, while a solid line-up of talent held down the stage.

Here, even as the rain began to fall, candidates running for Greensboro City Council circulated freely among the crowd — I spotted at-large candidates Wayne Abraham, Marikay Abuzuaiter, Chris Lawyer and Yvonne Johnson; District 4 challenger Nancy Hoffman; District 3 challenger Jay Ovittore; and Jorge Cornell, who may be tilting at the District 5 windmill but still works it like he’s got a shot.

Here they made their cases directly to voters, some of them coming into politics for the very first time, without the benefit of handlers, strict itineraries, a press corps or theme music. Their profiles played across the brick wall of the parking lot as they spoke of their ideas, their strategies, their chances, all while mingling with their constituencies in the light, cool rain.

Tip O’Neil said it the first time: All politics is local, and this event held in the city streets of Greensboro illustrates the sentiment neatly.

So while it’s okay to get caught up in the 2012 presidential election — an even, I remind you, that is more than a year away and will involve at least a dozen more plot twists and turns — it’s more important to focus on the election we have right now, happening in just a couple weeks, which will affect day-to-day affairs in the city of Greensboro for all who work, live and play here.

Every candidate’s chance, with a couple exceptions, hinges on voter turnout — that’s where the people come in. And when the votes are counted, we will be left with the government we deserve.