One-thousand miles away from Invesco Field, Chicagoans gathered in a small bar across the street from jangling El tracks to watch their hometown hero make history by accepting the Democratic nomination for president on big-screen TVs.
In the upstairs lounge of a north shore bar in Chicago called The Spot, Northside Democracy for America (DFA) held a convention viewing party centered upon the acceptance speech from Illinois’ Senator, Barack Obama.
At 7 p.m., the official start time of the party, the room was about half full. Jim Ginsburg, on the steering committee of the Northside DFA, walked around the room handing out Obama buttons and fliers, signing attendees up to receive e-mail updates of the group’s events. He urged people to sign in, telling them that “this is how we build the bench.”
I was there with three friends, snagging a table before the place really began to fill up. By 7:30, all the seats were taken by around 50 people in the room. Soon after, management at The Spot opened up an overflow room, and an hour after that the bar was decidedly standing room only.
The sole intrepid waitress in the room encouraged us to try one of the four “signature drinks.” My friend Jen Baddour acquiesced, ordering a “Biden My Time,” described on the fliers as “white and dreamy.” If that weren’t awkward enough, our well-meaning waitress called it “the Bidden” thrice. My friend Eric Cohen was highly disappointed that his pink “Obama Mama” (“tastes like victory!”) came in a girly-drink glass, and ordered a beer as soon as it was socially acceptable.
Though I’m reporting from Obama’s hometown, there’s a measure of staid Midwestern restraint evident in the crowd gathered at The Spot. No one responded to Stevie Wonder’s appearance onstage, even after he said, “I love you.” The sustained shot of downtown Chicago featured in Obama’s bio video received a the predictable amount of “woo hoos” from the audience. Unlike the scene at Invesco field, there was only one brief moment where some in the crowd began to chant, and that was for that cute and clever line from ordinary fellow Barney Smith of Indiana (you know, the one who should come before Smith Barney). But the first real round of applause didn’t come until Al Gore made his way onstage.
Though Gore seemed a bit rushed throughout his speech, and his intro music (The Fifth Dimension’s take on “Let The Sun Shine In”) was somehow archaic, ironic, and inappropriate all at once, the crowd at The Spot clapped and burst out laughing several dozen times during the former Vice President’s appearance. Jeff Smith, on the steering committee at Northside DFA, called the speech “spectacular.” He was glad to hear someone at the convention tackle the environment, an issue which he feels has been near the bottom of the party’s list this week.
“The Obama campaign has a clear theme they want to emphasize,” he said. He hoped he would hear a bold Obama later that night, saying the Senator “didn’t get to be the nominee by playing it safe.”
Heather Olson said she was looking forward to hearing Obama address the situation in Iraq. Her cousin just signed up with the Marines and is heading off to boot camp on Friday. Though she said her cousin felt compelled by God to serve his country, he doesn’t want to go to war.
“He joined for a lack of other options,” Olson said, adding that her cousin lives in an economically depressed area in Michigan.
Though she grew up Republican in a small town in Michigan, Olson says she “saw the light” in college and worked to start Western Michigan Students for Obama at her university, serving the group as both the secretary events coordinator and webmaster. She graduated in December and moved to a suburb just south of Chicago soon after.
Olson is not the only convert from her home town; she said her two Republican parents are also voting for Obama this November.
“They’re very against McCain,” Olson said. “They don’t want McCain at all.”
Rebecca Garnache grew up in a family that was, up until recently, split down the middle politically. Her mother was a life-long Democrat, her father a Republican. Until about four years ago, that is, when he switched sides for largely economic reasons.
“He said that he was too poor to be a Republican,” Garnache said.
Garnache and her mother are from a different breed of conversion. Although both were strong supporters of Sen. Hillary Clinton during the primary, Garnache said that neither of them had second thoughts about supporting Obama and that the idea of former Clinton supporters switching to McCain boggles her mind.
“It was never a thought in our mind that we wouldn’t vote for Obama in the general election,” Garnache said. “I was irritated with the sexism both by the media and other candidates in the primary. It really angered me, but what’s your alternative? John McCain? A warmonger?”
Frustrated by voters who say they’ll eschew pro-choice values to support McCain, she said she hoped Obama would address women’s rights issues in his speech.
The slate of “ordinary people” talking about why they support Obama went over quite well with the crowd. Vice Presidential nominee Joe Biden introduced the group, promising the crowd, “When we’re in the White House, we’ll make sure they’re always heard.”
Perhaps the favorite of that slate was Pam Cash-Roper, of Pittsboro, NC, a former Republican who talked about losing her health care coverage and her confidence in the Bush Administration.
“She was a feisty ol’ broad!” Garnache said approvingly after Cash-Roper’s speech.
But it’s clear who everyone came to see. The musty air of the bar turned instantly electric when the crowd saw Obama onscreen. After a healthy round of applause (and a few nervous giggles as Obama tried in vain to get the Invesco crowd to quiet down so he could begin his address), the bar slid into silence for the first time that evening.
One moment of wordless, spontaneous participation got me early on in the speech. When Obama mentioned Americans’ troubles with mortgages, a few hands were quietly raised in the bar. Credit card bills? More hands went up. By the time Obama got to tuition, it seemed like half the bar was silently declaring their financial woes in solidarity.
The room heated up at the same rate as Invesco Field, though the intensity was decidedly reduced on the north side of Chicago. After the final round of sustained applause died out, the chatter picked up again.
Garnache was pleased with Obama’s performance. She was especially happy to hear him take on issues like equal pay and abortion.
“Finally, it’s like, ‘Oh, feminism isn’t dead,’” she said.
But there was something for the male observers, too, if not nearly as overt. My friend said that, to him, the Democrats’ willingness to attack McCain and Republicans showed political machismo.
“Collectively, they showed they had balls for the first time I can remember,” Cohen said with a grin. “So, the women may be proud of equal pay and abortion rights, but men can be proud because it feels like they got their balls back.”
However, I have to give it to my female friend for summing up the afterglow of the speech best. She said that if anything, Obama’s speech makes apathy impossible.
“How can you not be inspired by that?” Baddour asked. “I’m so proud to be an American and have a leader who aspires to take on this job right now.”
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