About 10,000 people turned out to the Convention Center, Wednesday, to see President Obama endorse John Kitzhaber for president. The Skanner News Video: Obama's speech.
Outside, well-behaved protesters voiced their opposition. Dudley supporters and Republicans trashed the Democratic agenda with signs railing against 'Obamania' and saying 'Obamanomics doesn't work.' From the left, protesters called for the closing of Guantanamo and an end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Inside, the crowd waiting in the convention center was relaxed – so laid back, in fact, that a press photographer joked that it looked like a crowd of Portland 'stoners.' But that slander was rapidly unmasked.
As news circulated that Air Force One had landed and President Obama was on his way, excitement began to mount. Democrats waving Kitzhaber signs began to chant "Kitz, Kitz, Kitz."
Jefferson Smith, the young state legislator for East Portland and mid-County, came on stage to huge applause.
He responded with an energetic introduction that included a story about a waiter – a reference to a widely reported remark made by Republican candidate Chris Dudley suggesting that restaurant servers might not need minimum wage because of the tips they receive. One after another Democrats came out to pump up the energy: Jennifer Keenan of Planned Parenthood; Meredith Wood Smith, chair of the Democratic Party of Oregon; and, taking the stage together Sen. Ron Wyden, Sen. Jeff Merkley, Rep. Earl Blumenauer and Rep David Woo.
The focus of the night was the upcoming election and the Democratic candidate for Oregon governor, John Kitzhaber. The rally itself was styled as a victory rally. However, recent polls have shown Kitzhaber and Dudley are neck and neck. Kitzhaber himself spoke briefly – after all his campaign video had been showing during lulls in the action.
Talking about his priorities as jobs, education, healthcare, clean air and water, supporting small businesses, he contrasted his experience in government with his opponent's lack of it. He would put families before special interests, Kitzhaber said.
"It's clear our only pathway to a prosperous and sustainable future requires a willingness to challenge the ways we've done business in the past." Then he introduced the president, detailing the work he has done to preserve jobs through the stimulus, to regulate Wall Street, and start bringing troops back from Iraq.
"Two years ago Oregon said 'Yes We can," he said. "President Obama rolled up his sleeves and … we made more progress on healthcare than any time since 1965."
When President Obama finally emerged the crowd went wild.
"I love you back," he said – a trademark Obama response that elicited more cheering.
Despite a head cold, the president gave a strong speech that clearly reached its target. He laid out the difficulties he has faced, crediting the Bush administration for: the worst economy since the Great Depression; the loss of 8 million jobs, most of them before his policies had been put into place; and two wars. Republicans and special interests in Washington had fought the administration's policies every step of the way, he said. They relied upon a politics of "amnesia" that Americans would forget that it was Republican policies that wrecked the economy and reduced the income of millions of middle class families.
"I said change would be hard and some of you didn't believe me," he said, "but change is hard; it's hard and we are grinding it out day by day."
The president touched on the successes of his administration: healthcare, some regulation of Wall Street, saving jobs and bringing a halt to the recession through the stimulus. His biggest cheer of the night -- after his entrance and exit -- was when he talked about bringing home the troops in Iraq.
But the main purpose of the night was to secure a victory for John Kitzhaber in the governor's race. And Obama did the job he had come to do. He praised the former governor's experience saying, "This is not a difficult choice." And he recounted Kitzhaber's success in attracting jobs to the state and passing health care coverage for thousands of Oregon children. All despite a Republican-dominated legislature in Salem.
"Who hasn't voted yet?" he asked. "Show of hands, c'mon Fess up." And he exhorted those who raised their hands to vote and to persuade others to vote too.
For the Democratic crowd who came to the Convention Center for just this sort of rhetoric and reassurance the speech was a resounding success. The question now is whether the enthusiasm will spill out to voters across the state.
Several audience members who spoke to the Skanner News said they definitely planned to vote and would talk to their friends and family about voting. Tiajuana Howard was overjoyed that the president had shaken her hand.
"I'll never wash it again," she joked.
Her uncle, Kevin Howard, said he is skeptical about all politicians, and usually feels, "You usually end up voting for whoever tells you the best stories."
Like many other people, Howard said, he is feeling the economic pressures of the collapsing job market. He has a small plumbing business, he said, but can't afford to buy healthcare in the current economic climate. People are disheartened, he said, but after listening to the president's speech, he realized that change is not going to be easy or fast.
"I think people will vote," he said, "but I also believe people are disgusted with the whole representation thing in politics – because whether it is the Democrats or the Republicans who win it's the big corporations and lobbyists who have the say so.
"I believe Obama is trying but he has been up againsta brick wall. This is something that has been created over a long time, not just with the Bush administration but even before that – and undoing those policies is hard.
"Will it stop me from voting? No."
Qu'Ran Perry said she was inspired by the president's speech. "What Obama said really spoke to us," Perry told the Skanner as people were leaving the event. "Kitzhaber said good things too. I think people will vote."
Mariotta Gary-Smith said she thought the president's speech would remind people that change needs support from the ballot box. "I hope people do understand the importance of voting," she said. "The history of African Americans and voting should be enough to make sure we do."
Miss Opal Strong, 91, said she had grown up during an era when African Americans were prevented from voting -- although conditions were better in her hometown, Tulsa, OK, she thought, than south of the Mason-Dixon line. She was very pleased to see President Obama speak. "He's cute," she said. "He's handsome, and I'm so sorry I didn't get to shake his hand.
Kevin Howard left the event feeling that President Obama is trying to bring about real change, despite facing an uphill battle in Washington. The Convention Center event was special, Howard said, for several reasons. With no advance planning, he bumped into his niece that afternoon and learned that they both planned to attend the Kitzhaber rally. It was the first time ever he and his niece had had an opportunity to spend time doing something as family.
"It was the most exciting this that has ever happened to me, that I got to be that close to the first African American president of the United States," Trevor Howard said. "And to be here with my favorite niece, and for her to get a chance to shake hands with the president."