Letter From North Carolina

A journalist gets off the sidelines and into the action in an unlikely swing state.


On a recent Saturday morning in the heart of North Carolina, it was threatening rain, and I was standing in line with thousands of others in downtown Greensboro to do something I'd never done before—be part of the cheering crowd at a Barack Obama rally.

Until just weeks ago, my engagement with politics had always been from the other side—as an observer, a journalist, not a backer. But even as I've reported or editorialized on elections in the past, simultaneously standing up close and at a distance, I've sometimes felt disappointed and disaffected by the process.

Being a part of and not just witness to an Obama-Biden rally in my town was something new and different for me—there was an excitement, urgency and a sense of solidarity that I could never quite claim before. I can participate now in a way that I couldn't during my years in daily journalism. I left my last journalism job in 2007 and am now working to parlay my freelance writing and editing into a self-sustaining business. But beyond my own political liberation, my presence at the Obama rally linked me to millions of other Americans across the country.

Hollywood writers couldn't have come up with a sexier script: What started as a historic contest contoured along race and gender must directly confront an economy increasingly tilted toward disaster. And for some people, that combination of circumstances has turned apathy into action: the act of registering to vote.

According to the Associated Press, State Board of Elections records in North Carolina show overall registration rates on the rise—up 7 percent for Democrats this year, 1 percent for Republicans and an impressive 11 percent among those all-important voters unaffiliated with any party. By Election Day, state officials expect to have registered more than 800,000 new voters, reports Raleigh's News & Observer.

Call me sentimental and idealistic (I'll admit to bouts of both), but I knew I was in the right place that Saturday when I looked at the faces around me to join the line, winding all the way through downtown Greensboro. This was a crowd that really did look like America. I watched babies in strollers alongside elders taking halting steps, mixed up with baby boomers and college kids, African Americans and whites, Asians and Latinos and all the variations in between.

One of the people in the crowd, Brien Sevier, told the News & Observer: "That's something this country hasn't seen in 30 years." No doubt, the nation's intense interest in this election, which only heightens as Nov. 4 draws nearer, is unprecedented in my lifetime.

Obama's candidacy has sparked something remarkable: a transformation of residents into citizens. People like me have always paid attention, but we have preferred staying in the stands. We've never missed voting in a presidential election and have faithfully cast ballots in most state and local contests, even when we've moved to new regions, states or neighborhoods. We read endorsement editorials in our local papers (and in my case, have written more than few) and try our best to read up on candidates, their positions on the issues and their records before we make up our minds and go out to the polls.

All that considered, it just makes sense that this year's presidential campaign has been a tipping point for me and my brethren. We were upstanding citizens; now we are fired up!

I made my decision to vote for Obama months ago, before North Carolina's May primary. And since I got my first phone call from a local campaign organizer back in August, I've volunteered a few Saturday and weeknight hours, registering voters and canvassing neighborhoods. One post-rally canvass in the rain introduced me to Cynthia L. Anthony, a Greensboro landscape designer who shares some of my reasons for stepping up and signing on to support the campaign. In an e-mail, she mentioned being impressed by Obama's early opposition to the Iraq war, then inspired by his combination of biography, policy and elegant prose in The Audacity of Hope. It was Dreams From My Father that captured my imagination while giving me a sense of the man.