Campaign Crawlers

Cheetos for Change

The nutritionally challenged and other useful yo-yos come out to celebrate an Obama grand opening in Florida.

By 7.18.08

Send to Kindle

TAMPA -- "A diverse and enthusiastic crowd," the St. Petersburg Times called it. And perhaps it was. I certainly saw some diverse tattoos (and this is if you only include the women).

We're speaking of the crowd that showed up for the grand opening of Obama's Florida campaign headquarters in Ybor City Wednesday. (Ybor used to be a thriving Cuban-American community hard by downtown Tampa until the Democrats under LBJ urban-renewed the place nearly out of existence by tearing down the homes and driving out the residents. Now it's Saloon City, and visitors are far more likely to run into roving bands of drunk twenty-somethings or bikers on something harder than beer than they are to spot a Cuban-American cigar maker.)

More than 300 souls turned out at 4:30 of a weekday afternoon to mill about in the dank, open, high-ceilinged, second floor of an oldish office building and talk about change. The theme was everywhere in evidence. Hand-lettered signs festooned the otherwise blank walls with such uplifting messages as "Campaign for change," "Change we can believe in," "Yes we can," and, of course, "Si, se puede."

When journalists, like the Times writer, say a crowd was "diverse," they usually just mean there were some black people on hand, which was the case Wednesday. But not as large a percentage of the whole as you might expect at an Obama event.

The biggest faction appeared to be white college students, some of them strapped to back packs containing God-knows-what, who clearly preferred hanging out with people yearning for change to writing term papers or studying for exams. One youngster, who looked like he might have to start shaving any day now, wore a T-shirt that said, "I smile because I have no idea what's going on." Truth in advertising. If we get change, how will this kid know?

There were a few grown-ups, even a lawyer or two wearing suits (no picnic in the under-air-conditioned space), and a dusting of 60+ types like me. One cheerful old gent told me he first got enthusiastic about and involved in presidential campaigns when Adlai Stevenson ran, twice, against Ike. And, some of us can recall, with this man's help Adlai was able to carry dozens of precincts across the land. The old guy may have better luck with Obama, who is neither as sarcastic nor as ironic (at least intentionally) as Adlai was.

THERE WAS A SMALL contingent of burn-outs, too, including a richly-tattooed 20-something white guy dressed all in black whose T-shirt carried the legend, "Hard Case," in gothic print with a skull in the middle of the a. He was trying hard to look tough, but it wasn't easy with his long, stringy black hair that looked to be home for various small rodents. And the steely-eyed look doesn't impress when you have the musculature of the average high school cheerleader. This guy really needs change.

The crowd, Hard Case notwithstanding, was mostly a friendly and approachable bunch. So before the music (if such it was) got too loud for conversation, I managed to question several people about what it was about Obama that fetched them in. Most of the answers I got were variations on the theme of, "He touched my heart." No one said a single specific thing about a single public policy, but crooned that because of Obama's charisma and manifest goodness, he would be the one to make everything right in the areas of energy, education, war and peace, and the country's economic problems. Clearly the heart rather than the cerebral cortex is the proper organ through which to reach this bunch.

And as for organs, you can forget about the stomach too. Most of us have read of the trendy, earth-friendly (though perhaps not palate-friendly) menus that will greet Democratic delegates to the Denver convention. Seventy percent of ingredients of the food for the Democratic faithful are to be organic or grown locally to minimize emissions from fuel burned in transporting the food. ("Would you like a nice Colorado red with your tofu and yard clippings, madam?")

There's to be no fried foods at the Denver bash. And each meal should have red, green, yellow foods on the theory that colorful foods are healthier. It's not mentioned in any of the stories I've read, but doubtless local Democrats will open their yards for vegan delegates to graze on. (Personal note: I'm convinced that if you avoid fried foods, eat no red meat or sweets, and don't drink beer, you don't live any longer. But it will certainly seem longer.)

Wow. Try to feed normal people like this for a week and see what they nominate just to get back at you. I'd nominate a large, medium rare prime rib with hot rolls and butter. Add a slab of cheesecake for VP.

But apparently the ascetic menu notion hasn't made it all the way to Tampa. The refreshment table for the fans of change Wednesday included, and was limited to, two bowls of potato chips, two bowls of mixed nuts (no mixed nut jokes please -- though I have to point out that these went very fast), and one bowl of cheese doodles.

Cheetos for change.

There was liquid refreshment too, but nothing stronger than Mountain Dew (not the kind my Alabama relations used to make). Obama may be bringing in money hand over fist, but he's not wasting much on wining and dining the troops. In my several decades as a reporter, I've seen crowds turn surly on better fare than Obama sprung for Wednesday. And this in honor of the grand opening of the state HQ in a state with 27 electoral votes. It makes a body wonder just how hard Obama plans to compete for Florida.

WHEN THE SPEAKING GOT started, the various Obama campaign officials and local elected what-nots said what you'd expect them to say, that they have a great candidate and a great team and together they'll win Florida in November.

Swinging for the fences, Obama Florida campaign director Steve Schale boasted, "We will have the largest and most comprehensive political operation this state has ever seen."

Well, it's politics. And maybe the cheese doodles were backing up on Schale. He may also have a carburetor that gets 200 miles per gallon.

Florida state senator Arthenia Joyner, whose district includes a big chunk of Tampa, surprised no one by saying that Obama supporters main goal was "to change America."

In a quieter venue Thursday morning, Joyner told me the Obama Florida campaign will be large and serious and will concede nothing to Florida's reputation as a red state.

"We're going to have a massive turnout," Joyner said. "There's a lot of interest in being part of this historic election from people across all lines -- white, black, old, young. They're all excited by our candidate. We have thousands of energized volunteers. They want to be on the change train with Obama. If you win here (Florida), you win."

We'll see. We're still months out from the election.

There will be more openings of Obama headquarters across the state. But if Team Obama hopes to beat the old fighter jock in Florida, it will have to do better than cheese doodles and volunteers enlisted from the motley I visited with at the Wednesday bash, energized or no.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.