Monday, Dec. 15, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Across the Las Vegas Valley over the weekend, supporters of Barack Obama gathered to chart the post-November direction of a grass-roots movement that elected the Illinois senator president and swung Nevada blue.
What emerged — over coffee and cookies, wine and cheese — was a consensus that this group of activists, many new to the political process, would focus their excitement and enthusiasm on the Nevada Legislature, holding lawmakers accountable on a variety of issues. The top concerns, banged out in boisterous debate in some living rooms and quiet conversation in others: health care, education and energy.
“The state government has operated in an undisclosed location for too long,” said Teresa Crawford, a registered nurse who hosted a party in Henderson. “Not anymore.”
Moreover, Obama supporters discovered a sense of community that Las Vegas itself had failed to provide. People from all walks of life — educators, lawyers, social workers, plumbers, students, real estate agents, retirees — found relief and solace, politically and emotionally, in the campaign. Their energy could now be corralled and nurtured in the wake of the election, adding to Obama’s legacy in Nevada. Indeed, some said they felt a shared sense of ownership of Obama’s agenda and would hold the president-elect accountable in pursuing it.
A retiree at Crawford’s house said she thought she knew her neighbor, only to be told during a recent visit that “Democrats are too touchy-feely.”
She said she preferred to see it as being engaged — and this day gave her the chance to do so.
It was clear that post-election enthusiasm is still hot, with attendees debating topics such as the Detroit bailout and, at one party, delighting in an Iraqi journalist’s hurling a pair of shoes at President George W. Bush.
Some participants did not want their names used in print, concerned that they were politicking against their bosses’ interests.
Hosts did their best to keep the discussions on track, careful to keep detailed notes to send back to Chicago.
But more important, supporters were told to tap into existing groups, to think locally, whether that takes the form of a political rally in Carson City or a toy drive in Las Vegas. “People have lost track of the fact that we are the ones who bring change,” said Julianna Elias, another host.
Here are snapshots from five gatherings:
Yvette Williams’ house, in a well-appointed enclave on the city’s west side, still has Obama signs posted around it.
The election is finished, didn’t she know?
“Look,” she says excitedly, “I Obama-ized my tree,” pointing to Christmas ornaments with Obama’s visage, and another of Terrence Tolbert, the campaign’s state director, who died suddenly just days before the Obama victory.
Williams is the campaign’s supervolunteer; she hosted Obama at her home in August 2007. She was a delegate to the national convention, and now she’s chairwoman of the Clark County Democratic Black Caucus, among other things.
You can tell she’s done this before.
By 2:30 p.m. Sunday, 40 or 50 people have filtered in, a diverse mix. She asks them to introduce themselves, tell why they’re here.
“I made the mistake two years ago of walking into a field office,” one says, which is followed by knowing laughter, the inside joke being that the campaign worked its volunteers hard.
A few are a Republican nightmare: They say they’d never been involved in politics before, but now, they can’t imagine not being engaged — Obama is like the Democratic Ronald Reagan.
Williams launches a discussion about key issues, and without being dictatorial, she gently glides them past irrelevancies and gets them to focus: Jobs and the economy, energy and the environment, education, health care, and ending the Iraq War.
They split into groups, to strategize on how they can have an effect on those issues, looking for expertise or political or business connections in those areas.
Williams also encourages them to sign up as unpaid lobbyists at the Legislature.
Also on the agenda is a community service project for completion before the inaugural.
Rafael Rivera Community Center (Eastern Avenue and U.S. 95)
Sunlight tumbles through large windows into a white-walled classroom where 13 people sit at desks arranged in a large circle.
“What’s so special about the Barack Obama campaign is that it doesn’t end on the election day,” Gaby Baca, the 22-year-old host, tells the group.
Weeks after the election, this one-time paid Obama organizer still brims with enthusiasm and idealism.
She is not alone. The crowd assembled this Saturday afternoon is a motley bunch that grows to 18 as the two-hour session continues. Former Obama precinct captains in their 60s sit across from a 26-year-old videographer and photographer and teenagers from Rancho High School.
Most are wondering, after the euphoria of the election, what comes next.
It’s a question they will answer together.
With Baca leading, the activists discuss education, health care, green energy and the economy.
The young folks remain largely silent. But this meeting is about giving everyone a voice.
Heidi Plonski, 48, a Clark County School District teacher and environmental activist, makes a motion to vote on what issue will be the group’s main focus.
“Any seconds?” Baca asks.
And they were launched.
Northern Las Vegas
“There’s too much talking going on, and not enough work,” declares Stacey Chambers, owner of EMG Talent.
One of eight people clustered in the upstairs lounge of Diane Butner’s home, Chambers wants to know what this newly minted team can accomplish.
Two hours into the conversation, group members have aired grievances about issues including education, the economy and energy.
Now, Butner wants her fellow Obama-ites to speak up about how they can improve their community.
Despite the heavy talk, the gathering is festive. Guests sip on refreshments including eggnog and hot chocolate, munching on popcorn from a holiday tin.
Voices drift up from the floor below, where a second band of activists is engaged in heated discussion in the living room they’re sharing with Butner’s Christmas tree.
Vibrant, chartreuse walls encourage an upbeat mood. But this meeting is for business, too.
Butner, 50, a honcho for a local event planning company, distributed an agenda earlier that included creating concepts for events calling attention to worthy causes.
Turning to a group member who called the state of education in Nevada deplorable, Chambers says, “Let’s take that. Let’s turn it around. Because we have the power.”
Cars line both sides of Hidden Garden Place in a quiet section of Henderson.
The action is at Teresa Crawford’s place. Twenty people are sitting in a circle in Crawford’s living room, and still more are on the way. Pizza, cookies, cheese and fruit await in the kitchen.
Crawford, a registered nurse working in the intensive care unit at St. Rose Dominican Hospitals’ De Lima campus, opens with a pitch to focus on health care, to force state lawmakers to rescind cuts to some of the state’s medical programs. “I’m tired of making Mississippi look good,” she says. “We need to do a little better on these quality of life indicators.”
She gets knowing nods and laughter.
And the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada is there to harness the frustration. Launce Rake, the alliance’s spokesman, calls on the group to join his activist network and lobby legislators when they begin their biennial session in February. Now more than ever, he tells the gathering, your help is needed. “After this huge triumph on a national scale, we, as a state, are looking at a catastrophic situation,” Rake says. “Push has really come to shove.”
That lobbying will involve the dreaded t-word, he says: taxes. And raising them or introducing them, Crawford adds, is possible if citizens like them give politicians political cover.
“We have to make sure the electeds are not going with the normal assumptions about how Nevada operates,” one woman says.
The group focuses on energy, education and health care — and makes it a goal to push those issues on the local level.
Another woman expresses relief. After President Bush’s reelection, she says, she felt alone, in total despair. Now, “It’s so good to see this finally happening.”
Julianna Elias’ living room is bursting with 17 people. Her partner, Paul Lowe, goes outside to fetch patio furniture.
The group is gathered around the couple’s Christmas tree, munching on popcorn. Elias opens with a flashback to her childhood, saying her father once told her, “We are the government.” She continues: “That’s why I’ve always been more mad at the voters than the politicians. Elected officials need to feel our full force behind them.”
And this group, mostly middle-aged and elderly, wants universal health care.
A few cancer survivors ask the group to imagine going through such an ordeal without insurance. One survivor isn’t interested in compromise, either. “I think there’s momentum in this country for health care,” she says. “I want totally comprehensive health care, not something to satisfy the big interests.”
Person after person shares personal stories of health care woe, until a small-business owner drives home his point: “We can all complain. But what’s more important is finding solutions.”
And to achieve that means talking to the 58 million people who voted for John McCain, he says. Indeed, one woman says, “The 28 percent of the people who still support George Bush — they’re my family. I know them.”
The Clintons lost the health care fight in the 1990s because “big corporations and powerful interests convinced people it was not the way to go,” says an unemployed commercial artist.
Perhaps this campaign can change that dynamic, Elias says.
One woman has a final question before the attendees split into smaller discussion groups: “Who’s going to read all this stuff?”
“I don’t know,” Elias says. “But I have total trust in the campaign.”