I just got back from the Obama town hall in St. Petersburg
I just got back home from Obama’s town hall at Gibbs High School today. I was one of the 1500 who was lucky enough to get a ticket to see him speak (the demand for the tickets was enormous). This town hall turned out not just to be another town hall, but quite a memorable one. It included new major policy proposals, protests from an African socialist group, and a wide ranging Q&A session. And most important of all, it had Senator Obama on the top of his game.
I have to say that IMO, Senator Obama is even better in town hall format than he is giving big speeches. I got to see him live when he came to Tampa in May to deliver a speech to 15,000 people, and it wasn’t nearly as good as this town hall. This event reaffirmed everything I believe about Senator Obama’s candidacy, and why I think he is the best presidential candidate the Democratic party has had in a long time.
Join me below the fold for the full (and fairly lengthy) recap of the event and all of the madness that ensued.
Before Senator Obama showed up, we sat through a basic introduction program. The principal of the high school that the town hall was being held at came out to welcome everyone to the high school. After that, the invocation was read (something I’m not sure I believe is entirely appropriate at a political event, but that’s a different conversation for a different day). A young man (who I assumed was a student at the school) came out and led the crowd in the recitation of the pledge of allegiance.
Alex Sink, the Chief Financial Officer of Florida (and the highest ranking Democrat at the statewide level) came out to speak to the crowd. She primarily focused on the National Insurance Fund, and how Senator Obama would help out Florida home owners with their insurance premiums, while Senator McCain would not.
The actual introduction of Senator Obama was not done by a high ranking elected official, but by Jeff Blake a volunteer with the Tampa Bay O-Train, which I thought was a nice idea. He came out and talked about the economic hardship that he and other families are facing, before leaving for a brief while, and then coming back to introduce the Senator.
After a rousing introduction (Obama does have extremely dedicated supporters in Central Florida), Obama got into his remarks. Since this town hall was about the economy, he focused his remarks almost exclusively on economic issues. The beginning of his speech was his fairly standard economic pitch, talking about his tax cut plan for people making less than $150,000 a year, and talking about how John McCain offers the continuation of George Bush’s economic policy. Early on, it became clear that the new talking point the campaign was rolling out was that “the McCain campaign knows they don’t have any new idea, which is why they keep talking about me”. It’s a very effective talking point that I hope the campaign drills home more often. He even made a joke about how this election needs to be discussion of the issues, and that we shouldn’t spend time “talking about Britney, talking about Paris”.
As he continued with his prepared remarks, he let us know that he would be introducing a new two part economic stimulus plan. This piqued my interest as I realized that we were actually going to hear a major policy speech, and not just the normal stump speech. Senator Obama started out by introducing his plan for $1000 energy rebate to help families start to offset the increasing cost of energy. He got a raucous applause from the crowd, when he introduced this, as well as when he spoke about paying for the tax rebates with windfall taxes on the record profits that oil companies are bringing in.
Everything went smoothly up until this point, but then some of the chaos set in. As Senator Obama was about to move on to the second part of his plan, he was disrupted by three posters who were sitting directly behind him. They had a banner with them that read “What about the black community Obama?” and started yelling until they disrupted his speech (it was hard to make out exactly what they said). I’m not exactly sure how they pulled it off, but the protesters managed to both sneak a banner into the auditorium, and get a hold of VIP tickets, with allowed them to sit directly behind Senator Obama, which allowed them to be in front of the camera.
As soon as the protesters started speaking, they were immediately booed down by the entire crowd, who then stopped the booing and replaced it with chants of “Yes We Can” to drown out the protesters.
This went on for a minute of two, until Senator Obama quieted the crowd down. Senator Obama, being the class act that he is, told the young men who were protesting that there was a question and answer question after his speech, and if they had a question for him, they could ask it for him then. Eventually they calmed down enough to let him continue his speech.
I’ve read comments by some people who believe that the protesters might have been GOP plants, but from the whole incident, I didn’t get that sense at all. Based on their protest and the question they asked later on in the event (I’ll get to that later), they seemed to be genuine protesters who were misinformed, but actually believed what they said. They were attacking him from the left, and not the right, and I think the protest ended up being a big positive to Obama (I’ll also elaborate more on this later).
After the protesters settled down, Senator Obama went into the second part of his speech, which was about $50 billion in new economic stimulus for job creation. Everyone was still a bit riled up from the whole protestor incident and the acoustics weren’t great, so I wasn’t really able to hear what he was saying in this section.
I was able to tune in again when he started hitting John McCain on his economic policy. He talked about how McCain’s “gas tax holiday” would take $9 billion away from funding our roads and cause the country to lose 300,000 jobs.
After he wrapped up his prepared remarks, he continued onto the question and answer session. Back when the protesters first interrupted him and he told them they could ask a question in the Q&A portion of the event, I assumed that he was just quieting down the protesters with the intention to blow them off later. I was shocked that they even let the protesters stay in the auditorium. But the events that happened next reminded me of why I’ve devoted so much of my time to this candidate, and why I truly believe he can be a transformational figure in politics.
For the second question in the Q&A section, he turned around and spoke to the crowd first. I am paraphrasing here, but he said something to the effect of “Now I am going to call on the young men from earlier in the speech. I made them a promise that they were going to get to ask their question so I’ll let one of you ask your question. I want the audience to be respectful and let these men ask their question”. One of the members from the group than asked Senator Obama why he wasn’t spending more time speaking out on the injustices committed against black Americans, such as predatory lending practices, Hurricane Katrina, the Sean Bell shooting, etc.
Obama listened closely to the question, and the crowd for the most part behaved themselves and let the speaker for the group ask their question. After they asked the question, he spent a lot of time answering their question in a respectful and thoughtful manner that showed his ability to communicate those that don’t agree with him while sticking true to his principles.
He told the group that he believes that they were misinformed on his stance on some of those issues. He talked about taking on predatory lending practices in the Illinois State Senate, and his work to pass laws against racial profiling and death penalty reform. After he listed some of his accomplishments related to these issues, he told the protesters that he may not speak on these issues the way they would like him to speak on these issues, and if that’s the case, they have several options available to them. He let them know that they could make a decision to vote for someone else, or to run for elected office. At that point, the Senator was drowned out by massive cheering from the audience (his audience reception had been fantastic the whole day). He finished his answer to the question by saying that the issues that this country faces requires the cooperation of all Americans; Black, White, Latino, Asian, etc.
This whole exchange reminded me that we are truly looking at a new brand of politics. When Senator Obama is confronted by people who vocally disagree with them, he doesn’t get them removed as Senator McCain would have done (Minor Update: dansac makes a fair point over at Daily Kos that Senator McCain has been better than Bush with regards to listening to dissent, so he probably wouldn’t have had them removed. I still don’t believe he would have handled the situation nearly as well as Senator Obama). He treats them with respect, listens to what they have to say, and engages in an open and honest conversation on the issues, even if they are ones he would not choose to be talking about otherwise. That’s the new type of leadership this country needs. They don’t need a candidate who just surrounds himself with yes men and yes women.
After he answered their question, Senator Obama moved on to the rest of the question and answer session. There was a number of good questions asked on a wide range of topics (from the national debt to the budget deficit to his education policy to how we will care for our veterans), and Senator Obama gave thoughtful and detailed answers on all the questions. One of the more amusing exchanges in the Q&A session came when he was asked a question from a girl wearing a vegan outreach shirt. She asked him about what we could do to get our country away from such a factory farm culture that is one of the leading causes climate change and greenhouse gas emissions.
Senator Obama started off his answer by letting the questioner know that in the interest of full disclosure, he enjoys the occasional steak and likes a good barbeque. He then went to answer her question seriously, and talked about how we really can’t legislate people’s eating habits, we can start to encourage a healthier lifestyle, which would help to lower levels of obesity and healthcare costs. He talked about the need to provide support to farmers who grow healthy crops and to put a healthier menu in our school system.
After Senator Obama wrapped up the question and answer session, he apologized to anyone who didn’t get to ask their question, and thanked the audience for engaging with him in a good discussion. He then spent some time working the crowd and shaking the hand of everyone who waited around the barrier.
Overall, the town hall was a great success. I think Obama will get a lot of good press, both for his new economic initiatives as well as his response to the protesters. I think it will help combat both the race card and the short on substance myth, and help show voters that he is the candidate they want if they want to see actual progress get made in the economy.