Tuesday, February 05, 2008

"Electoral Bonanza: Obama right on key in California"

David Horsey (Seattle P-I):
LOS ANGELES -- As Mama Laura waited patiently, I fumbled through my wallet to find the correct bills to pay the cover charge at the door of Babe's and Ricky's Inn, Home of the Blues.

"I think that's the right president," I told her as I handed her two fives.

"Better than the one we have," Mama Laura replied, laughing.

Mama Laura has seen plenty of presidents. Balloons left over from her 87th birthday party still decorate her cozy nightclub in Leimert Park, an enclave of black-owned businesses that many consider the soul of the African-American community in South Central Los Angeles.

Mama Laura moved her club here after life got too rough in Watts. On almost every night of the 50 years she has been in the blues business, the woman has sat at the door and greeted her clientele. These days, the customers are as often Anglo or Asian as African-American. On Friday night, the local musicians on the stage were a mix of races -- black, white, Latino -- but the music was an easy blend. Earl "the Duke" Williams sang lead vocals and made the blues seem bright.

"I've reached a turning point in my life," he sang. "I've changed."

Changed, like Leimert Park, like California, like America.

Horsey cartoon

Jewel, a younger friend sitting with Mama Laura, told me everything seems different this election year.

"There are a lot of firsts," Jewel said. "The first woman, the first black who could be president. ... Since I am a woman and an African American, it's a little confusing."

In the competition for the mother lode of delegates in the nation's biggest state, much attention is being aimed at California's ethnic communities. Bill Clinton visited three black churches on Sunday. Later in the day, Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey and Caroline Kennedy led a big multiracial rally at UCLA.

The surprise guest at that event was Maria Shriver, Kennedy cousin and wife of Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Though her husband endorsed John McCain last week, Shriver had made a last-minute decision to come to the rally and endorse Obama.

"If Barack Obama was a state, he'd be California," Shriver told the huge crowd. "Diverse. Open. Smart. Independent. Bucks tradition. Innovative. Inspirational. Dreamer. Leader."

To this list, California's first lady might have added one more Obama attribute: mixed race. To many of the young voters who have been energized by Obama's candidacy, he is less the black candidate than the embodiment of the multiracial world in which they have grown up.

I saw that world on Saturday night at McMurphy's, a sports pub and dance club coincidentally located just a block from the San Gabriel Valley Obama headquarters in Pasadena. McMurphy's was packed with 20-somethings -- some black, some white, some Hispanic, and many who could not be easily categorized. In one room, hip-hop music drove the dancing. Outside on the patio, the beat was Latin. Downstairs it was David Bowie. The young crowd moved easily between them.

Twenty-five-year-old Sharra Ainsley was out on the dance floor. Shaara is a graduate student at Cal State Monterey Bay. Three of her four grandparents were immigrants -- one from Japan, one from Egypt and one from England. When people guess, they think she's Hawaiian.

Shaara said she's grown up in a new America in which there have been, as yet, no glass ceilings for girls of her generation. To her cohort, the idea of electing Hillary Clinton seems not so much revolutionary as it seems a return to the 1990s. Obama -- with his African father, white mother and childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia -- seems a far more contemporary choice.

"I think youth is going to come out huge for Obama," Shaara predicted.

We will see. Younger voters may or may not make a difference on Super Tuesday, but a day will come when a racial and generational transformation will rock our political world. Culturally, all of the country is becoming more like California and less like Iowa, and America's young citizens -- even the evangelical young people of Colorado Springs and the young cowboys in Wyoming -- are much more comfortable with that change than their elders.

Around the block from Babe's and Ricky's, between the Zambezi Bazaar and the Kumasi Gift Shop, there is a new jazz club called Papa West. The proprietor is Harold Weston, a Vietnam War veteran who came home messed up, found God, got his act together and now is trying his hand at the cabaret business.

"When I came up," he said, talking of his childhood, "we didn't have nothing but food and love." His father, though, was a hard-working role model. Obama, he said, would be a good role model for today's young black men.

"He's innovative, he's young," Weston said. "He wants to change the way it is."

Dante, a young man in a red and black zoot suit and a wide-brimmed hat, was singing Jazz standards in the dining room. In the middle of his set, Dante called up a woman he said was a trailblazer in the local jazz scene, Mickey Champion.

"If there was no her," Dante said, "there wouldn't be no me."

He handed a cordless microphone to Miss Champion, a small, ancient black woman in a little fur hat. She walked among the tables, belting out a tune in a voice as young as today.

Before the song was finished, she motioned Dante over and gave him a wide smile of blessing. Mickey Champion was done and she passed the microphone to the next generation.



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