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Obama’s support: beyond young and black

Jane Freeman
Photo by Lisa Miller
Jane Freeman speaks at the big February Obama rally at Target Center.

Barack Obama’s Feb. 2 rally at the Target Center was remarkable for the obvious reasons — 20,000 people from all walks of life waiting for hours to hear a political speech, the electrifying oratory itself, and the eventual trouncing of Hillary Clinton by Obama in the Minnesota caucuses three days later.

But it was notable in a more subtle way as well, in that Jane Freeman was one of the people who introduced Obama before he spoke. To much of the public Freeman may be forgotten by now, but her endorsement of any candidate can make waves in DFL circles.

She was the first lady of Minnesota at the end of the 1950s, when her husband, the late Orville Freeman, was governor. In 1961, the couple moved to Washington, D.C., while Orville served as secretary of agriculture under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.

Though she’ll be 87 years old in May, Freeman is still engaged behind the scenes in local and national politics, sometimes being named an honorary chair in various campaigns. And there she was a month ago, eagerly telling the Target Center crowd how she came around to Obama.

“Two years ago at the Humphrey Day dinner, I heard the junior senator from Illinois speak,” Freeman said of Obama appearing at an annual political tribute to the late Hubert. She recounted that because of his “straight talking and careful thinking” she bought and devoured Obama’s two books. The whole experience, she said, “thrilled me.”

So even with Tuesday’s results, which can be spun either that Hillary Clinton triumphed or that Obama hung in there in states where just weeks ago he was far behind, there’s still a movement afoot around Barack Obama. The senator, even if he doesn’t win the Democratic nomination or go on to the general election, has roused something among voters that few, if any, saw coming.

No one is going to argue that the endorsement of a white octogenarian with firsthand knowledge of the far ago days of Camelot makes Obama’s candidacy a slam dunk, last night’s results in Texas, Ohio, Vermont and Rhode Island notwithstanding. But it does dispel one notion from this campaign season: that all elderly women are in Hillary’s camp.

More important, when contrasted with other Obama supporters, Freeman’s backing takes on a salient status: While it’s obvious that the once-underdog-now-frontrunner is no niche candidate, he’s still capable of gaining even broader support that could very well carry him to the Oval Office, if he can get past what is now a street fight with Hillary Clinton.

Take another prominent local Obama backer, Ralph Remington. Remington, roughly half Freeman’s age, is black, originally from Philadelphia; he is serving his first term on the Minneapolis City Council. Not a shock that he’d get behind Barack, but Remington canvassed for the senator in Iowa, where he found rural, white Iowans pondering and accepting the notion of a black president.

Ralph Remington
Ralph Remington

At least by appearance and on paper, Remington and Freeman couldn’t come from more disparate backgrounds. But they are united in their belief in Obama.

“If Obama didn’t pass the smell test, I wouldn’t be behind him just because he’s black,” Remington noted Monday, saying that he didn’t exactly warm to Al Sharpton last election cycle.

“I became increasingly worried last fall about the election,” Freeman said, also on Monday. “I thought, I gotta help this young man do it.”

A mayor’s early backing

The list of Minnesota DFLers supporting Obama is long and impressive, especially as the campaign grinds on. But one notable early bandwagon jumper, a man who according to Obama’s own telling told the senator he should run for president, is Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak.

Rybak’s early enthusiasm is telling. Much has been made about Obama’s ascendancy signaling a “post-racial” era in American politics, but Remington doesn’t quite see it that way. Instead, it signals a change in the black candidates.

“He’s the Jackie Robinson of presidential politics, a palatable black man,” Remington surmised. “He’s got that Sidney Poitier grace and élan.”

More importantly, Remington sees the Obama phenomenon (“Obama-non,” anyone?) as a much grander extension of the politics that ushered Remington into office representing the predominantly white 10th Ward in Minneapolis, the land of Lake Calhoun and Uptown. He further points to Keith Ellison’s win last year in the state’s 5th Congressional District. (Remington also noted the election of Cory Booker, another new-school black, as mayor of Newark.)

“It’s not something that happens overnight, but it started to happen on a local level,” Remington said. “My race, Keith Ellison’s race, they were not race-based. But there was a largely white electorate who had never voted for a black before or any person of color. Not because we were so great, but because we were plugged into the politics of the age.”

The politics of the age are likely quite messy, but Remington noted that “change” is not just an empty verbal tic when it comes to the age of Obama. “We’re all products of a new society,” Remington said, continuing on his and Ellison’s victory, as well as Obama’s candidacy. “We blacks can drink latte and eat sushi and drive Volvos or Camrys or whatever.”

If the Obama success makes sense to Remington, it’s no less astonishing in many regards. “I was born and raised in North Carolina, and this is nothing short of remarkable to see this in my lifetime,” Freeman said. “He’s not doing that old song and dance about fighting for our rights and compensation that Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton did. No sir. Barack is all about looking at what we all have to do together.”

Though that contrast has to do with Obama’s natural demeanor, it’s also quite effective as a strategy, as Remington surely agrees. Acutely aware of sounding like a black elite, Remington pointed out the paths that Jackson and others blazed on the post-civil-rights front, but that Obama — “a viable African-American candidate” — goes a long way toward fighting the polarization so many politicians of any color have used on race issues.

“He’s not going to get in your face at a cocktail party and make you feel all guilty,” Remington said, chuckling. “I might.”

Beyond politics as usual

Democrats are fond of saying they’ll be happy with whoever gets their party’s nomination this year, but make no mistake: Obama’s supporters want their man to win in a way that goes beyond the realm of politics as usual.

That’s not to say there isn’t some ambivalence. Remington said he admires Clinton. “Hillary had too much baggage,” he said, sounding a familiar refrain. “I used to love Hillary. The Clinton age was another age, and that has passed.”

The thought of another go-round with the Clintons weighs heavily on many minds, perhaps none more so that Jane Freeman’s. Freeman recalls her first encounter with Clinton, when Clinton was first lady, at another Humphrey Day dinner years ago, and she came away extremely impressed, and even befriended Clinton.

“I am so disappointed in Hillary’s campaign,” Freeman said, pointing out her distaste for and distrust of Terry McAuliffe, the former head of the Democratic National committee who is Clinton’s campaign chairman. “It’s the same old retreads. Running a campaign nowadays, you have to have current and future generations. I haven’t seen one new face with her, not a one. They’re going to fight the same old battles.”

And Freeman said she feels a sense of gender betrayal. “It’s very hard for me not to be for a woman; my goodness, I’ve worked for women and girls all my life,” Freeman said. “My friends say, ‘We’ve fought so hard for a woman president, we have to have a woman president.’ But with some of the tactics she’s using, it makes it impossible for a woman to get elected. She’s nice, then she’s screaming, really screaming, at how bad Obama is. I can hear every man in America say, ‘Well, there’s a woman for you.’

“I think about her campaign and I cry, and I cry, and I cry.”

For that matter, Freeman points to Michelle Obama as a particularly key figure in her husband’s candidacy. “This is the big leagues now, and let’s see how he does,” Freeman said. “I see the support of his family.”

More than that, Freeman is displeased with the tone of the latest Clinton attack ad, the already infamous “3 a.m.” spot, which wonders who  would be better equipped to handle an emergency when the phone rings in the wee hours at the White House — the implication being that Obama has no clue.

‘In a street fight’
Of course, the most recent important Tuesday slows Obama’s momentum. While he has succeeded in attracting voters and garnering delegates in a manner that perhaps no one saw coming, Clinton winning Texas and Ohio is a major victory, and throws the race in flux.

“You’re bound to lose a couple,” is how Remington put it Wednesday morning. “He was predicted to lose both of those states by wide margins … and he didn’t.”

Remington’s candidate, as he pointed out, is now “getting bloodied from all sides,” with Clinton, Sen. John McCain, and even Rush Limbaugh taking shots at him. This will, no doubt, affect his ability to keep drawing voters into his ranks — he’s bound to alienate some folks as his battles with Clinton peaks.

“I don’t think it hurts him so much,” Remington said, in what might be a bit of wishful thinking. “But it sure lets him know he’s in a street fight now.”

In other words, Obama’s peaceful-warrior routine might be a thing of the past if he wants to secure the nomination. “Grace has followed him in previous elections,” Remington said. “He’s going to have to demand to see her tax records. He’s going to have to see her schedule as a first lady, which for some reason, they don’t want to release … and a street fight will hurt him in a general election. Hillary has already given the Republicans some sound bites.”

More important, as Remington noted, a defeat for Obama within his own ranks would be a blow for the Democratic party in general — “Howard Dean needs to man up and explain to Hillary that mathematically, it’s impossible” — alienating many Obama believers at a crucial time. The Obama backers see a revolution happening, and if it’s quashed, they might never come back. They take this personally.

It’s true that, as Remington says, we’ve never been here before: a woman and a black man both running for president. But because there’s no precedent, there’s much on the line, and for all that’s new, the old guard might win out again.

“Welcome to a real campaign,” Remington said, adding that Clinton has likely just begun to fight. “But if there’s an attempt to give [the nomination] to her, there will be a bolt from this party like they’ve never seen before. It might be apathy, it might be a defection to the Republicans, it might be an attempt to start another party. But all that Obama brought will go somewhere else.”

G.R. Anderson Jr., a former reporter and senior editor for City Pages, covers politics, the state Capitol and issues related to public safety.

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