On the last Saturday in October, the president of the Laborers’ International Union took the stage in a packed labor hall in Cleveland and rattled off the ways Barack Obama was just like all the white guys in the room.
“He looks like us, he thinks like us and he works like us,” Terry O’Sullivan shouted. “And he’s going to fight for us. That’s why we’re going to elect Barack Obama.”
The crowd cheered, many of them laughing as they clapped. It was an audacious, maybe even outrageous, declaration of support–and it was exactly what many of them needed to hear. O’Sullivan was a middle-aged working stiff with a face redder than a beet as he assured his fellow laborers that not only could they vote for an African-American, they could pick up their campaign packets and canvass their own neighborhoods, too.
“You didn’t join a labor union for social issues,” he said. “You joined a labor union because you care about workers, and so does Barack Obama.”
O’Sullivan knew exactly what he was doing, and why. For months, pundits had been insisting that these were the men who would abandon the Democratic candidate in droves because Obama was too different, too not-like-them. Increasingly, Ohio was a battleground not just in the presidential race but in kitchens and job sites across the state. Families were divided, often along generational lines, and longtime friendships were fraying. As one union activist in his 70s told me in July, “I’m hearing things come out of brothers’ mouths that are breaking my heart.” His blue eyes pooled as he added, “We did an internal poll of our union, and the results were so bad we didn’t release them.”
What O’Sullivan did, loudly and publicly, was the same thing an increasing number of private citizens had been doing quietly for months, one difficult conversation at a time. As the campaign progressed and it became clear that race was a lingering problem in some pockets of Ohio, brand-new activists were being born. Outrage begot courage in even the most timid of hearts. An uncle used a racial epithet, a best friend insisted Obama was a Muslim, a co-worker forwarded one of the endless loops of e-mail challenging his patriotism, and on the receiving end, patience snapped.
In the past four months, I heard from many readers in Ohio who wanted to let me know they were initiating some of the hardest conversations they’d ever had with people they love.
One woman with a nervous voice called me in September at my desk in the newsroom just to say that she had finally told her father, “Stop.”
“He said he wouldn’t vote for a black man,” she told me. “And I held up my hand and said, Daddy, stop.”
She said it was the first time in her forty-six years that she had stood up to her father, and that her knees were trembling after she did it. When I asked her what happened next, she laughed.
“Well, after he got over the shock, we talked. And we’re still talking. I don’t know if he’s going to vote for Obama, but at least he understands now why I will.”
That might strike some as a small victory, but one day after the election, it appears that there were enough of these little conquests to move the needle. The country’s sudden economic crisis certainly helped Obama in a region already reeling from the downturn, but that alone could not deliver the state of Ohio. The groundwork had already been laid by ordinary people determined to deliver extraordinary change, one tough talk at a time.
In a nation hungry for heroes, Ohio delivered.