Local black leaders say Obama’s success is knocking down racial barriers.
By DAVID SKOLNICK
VINDICATOR POLITICS WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN — While there is a long way to go before the Democratic presidential nomination process ends, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama has established himself as the party’s front-runner.
Just a few weeks ago, victories for Obama, an Illinois senator, in Iowa and New Hampshire were seen as a long shot at best.
But not only did he emerge with victories but with a great deal of momentum.
“It’s crazy how it turns,” said Mahoning County Democratic Chairwoman Lisa Antonini, the county treasurer and a supporter of U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. “At first there was a concern about an African-American or a woman winning the White House. Obama is showing that an African-American can win the White House. Iowa and New Hampshire proved it.”
And with that momentum, the country moves closer to making history — having the first black presidential nominee from one of its two main political parties on the November ballot.
“Being an African-American, there’s a sense of excitement and pride in his candidacy,” said Youngstown Mayor Jay Williams, the city’s first black mayor. “... There’s no denying the momentum he’s built is strong. This country is still one with significant problems with race relations so I’m pleasantly surprised, but not shocked by [the success of] his campaign.”
Voters aren’t “color-blind, but if it’s a genuine authentic message people will be able to look beyond color,” he said.
It would be easy for Obama to become overly confident, but Williams said that hasn’t happened.
“There were many campaigns that were on the rise and ended up losing,” he said. “But getting off to an early start certainly helps. It continues to building credibility in the campaign. The more wins he gets the stronger he gets.”
Voters are attracted to Obama’s oratory skills and his ability to inspire, Williams said.
“He’s seen as an agent of change,” he said.
Obama’s victories in the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary dispel the myth that a black candidate can’t be elected, said the Rev. Lewis Macklin II, pastor of the Holy Trinity Baptist Church in Youngstown.
“He’s being seen as an intelligent candidate first, and being black is secondary,” the pastor said. “The novelty of race is wearing off, and the issues and his character are more important.”
The victories for Obama in two states with very small minority populations also speak a great deal about the voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, he said.
“It’s a great sense of pride to see this happen,” Macklin said.
The Rev. Kenneth Simon, pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church in Youngstown, said he’s dreamed of the day when a black had a legitimate chance to be elected president.
“I always believed it could happen and wanted to see it happen and now is to the time for it to happen,” he said. Obama “appeals to all Americans and not just African-Americans. I’m exuberant and excited about it. It will be a proud day for me to vote for him as president.”
If Obama continues to win, the other Democratic presidential candidates should get out of the race, Antonini said.
By doing so, Democrats wouldn’t be exhausting money and time working to somehow beat Obama, she said. It would also help unify the party behind one candidate, she said.
Why is Obama suddenly the front-runner?
“He has the perception of [being] a fresh face,” Antonini said. “Also, it’s a positive that he doesn’t have the insider D.C. experience.”
As for Clinton, Antonini said there was a perception that the New York senator was a divisive figure in the Democratic Party and that perception has become reality.
State Rep. Thomas Letson, D-64th, an Obama delegate to the Democratic National Convention, said he never had any doubt that his candidate would be successful in Iowa, New Hampshire and nationwide if people listened to his message of change and inclusion.
“The race isn’t over, but this is an indication of what this country is looking toward,” Letson said.
Edwards’ campaign is losing ground and Clinton’s campaign is perhaps done, Letson said.
Though Obama won in Iowa and New Hampshire, the real test is the Feb. 5 Super DuperTuesday that will have 22 states hold Democratic primaries and caucuses, some local political officials say.
“It’s remarkable what Obama is doing,” said Mark Munroe, Mahoning County Republican vice chairman. “Obama is the new guy, a fresh face, a novelty. But we’re in the first round of a 12-round championship fight. Just because someone gets knocked down in Round 1 or Round 2 doesn’t mean they can’t get back up and win the fight.”
Though no fan of Clinton, Munroe said it’s too early to write her off.
State Rep. Ronald V. Gerberry, D-59th, said the Democratic presidential race is far from over. A supporter of ex-U.S. Sen. John Edwards, Gerberry said Super Duper Tuesday will determine who is the party’s presidential nominee.
Gerberry said he doesn’t believe race will play an issue in the election.
“He crossed racial boundaries already and he’s a very strong candidate,” he said of Obama.
Obama, who visited the Mahoning Valley in June for a fundraiser in Boardman, would be well-received in the area, Gerberry said.
“He would be embraced in the Valley,” Gerberry said.
“His message of hope and change will resonate here,” Antonini said. “Folks will get behind him.”
After the June fundraiser, Obama said he expected to return to the area for a rally if he secured the party’s presidential nomination.
That’s what Williams, who’s in contact with the Obama campaign, wants to see: a well-attended rally in downtown Youngstown with Obama talking about how he can help economically distressed urban areas such as this city.