Chicagoans Left Their Mark on Iowa

January 4, 2008

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When the US Senator from Illinois took Iowa last night, it meant a personal best for the contender, Barack Obama, not to mention the first time since 1988 that a black man won a white state in a Presidential campaign. That double victory is due in no small part to the organization Obama has built right here in Illinois. From headquarters in the loop, Chicagoans have been making calls to Iowa voters throughout the contest. And others traveled to the Hawkeye state to convince people that their Senator would make a good president. Chicago Public Radio's Robert Wildeboer is in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and has this report.

Until yesterday, Akwi Nji Dawson never bothered caucusing.

NJI-DAWSON: For me this was the first year that people involved in the campaign made me feel like this little step did make a big difference you know, and in the past I've never really felt that way.

This year she and her husband packed up their two pink clad daughters, one a toddler and the other an infant, and made their way to an elementary school near their house.

NJI-DAWSON: I've gotten emails probably four times a week and people coming to the door at least two times a week and they seem like they're passionate about the fact that they're making a difference and that makes me feel like you know, I could make a difference too.

Many of the people who came to Nji-Dawson's door were Obama volunteers from Chicago. And rather than be annoyed by all the interuptions, Nji-Dawson's husband Armand spent time on the porch talking with the volunteers. He was impressed with their dedication.

DAWSON: To take part in leaving their homes, leaving where they're comfortable at, to come out and talk to people that they're not familiar with, it comes down to what he probably did in their community and how they're just trying to give back to him and help support him in his efforts to become president someday.

The Dawsons stood with more than 200 other people in Obama's corner of the Johnson elementary school gym last night. And the gym was packed. Four years ago, 95 people showed up to caucus in this precinct. This year, more than 300 came, many of them for the first time.

Obama's strong showing in this precinct was mirrored across the state. Campaign workers and volunteers celebrated the victory at a party on the top floor of the Crown Plaza hotel downtown Cedar Rapids. And they watched Obama's speech, many clapping, crying, and giving standing ovations to the candidate who was more than a hundred miles away.

OBAMA: And so, I'd especially like to thank the organizers and the precinct captains.

That line got the biggest response from this room full of organizers and precinct captains. Many are Chicagoans, like Kay Phillips. She and two friends spent the last week and half knocking on doors here in Cedar Rapids.

PHILLIPS: We got invited into people's houses for fudge or cookies or, you know, see their new baby it was great we've had the most fun here and people were wonderful.

WILDEBOER: Was it worth it coming out here?

PHILLIPS: Oh absolutely. Just getting out and meeting the people in America was just amazing. It was amazing. I gave people rides tonight you know to the caucus locations, people that had never caucused before, they didn't even know what it was.

WILDEBOER: How many people did you pick up and get out to the polls?

PHILLIPS: I took six people and I had originally only was going to pick up two but then when I got to their house there were more friends there who live in the same complex and so they all came with.

Phillips says she would consider volunteering in another state but that's not an option for everybody. Take Mike Jordan. Since April, he's been using his weekends to drive the four hours from Chicago's South Suburbs where he lives, to volunteer for Obama in Iowa. Sometimes he'd stay in Iowa for the night, and other times he'd do the whole trip in one day.

JORDAN: Leave at 4 in the morning, 5 in the morning, and be out here at 6, 7, 8, and then walk for however long you could, turn around and be back home.

WILDEBOER: Why would you do that?

JORDAN: Well, I think you have to look at a special friend that he is. So what we saw 10 years ago, what Illinoisans saw him as a U-S Senator, 5, 6 years ago now, he's now on a stage that the country gets to see this and the message.

Jordan won't be making weekend trips to New Hampshire and Nevada but he and other volunteers say they plan to be at Obama's headquarters in the loop making phone calls to voters in states with upcoming primaries.

In Cedar Rapids Iowa, I'm Robert Wildeboer, Chicago Public Radio