Obama win hits home in black L.A.

Times Staff Writer

Not long after Barack Obama clinched the Democratic presidential nomination and topped it off with a rousing speech Tuesday night in a St. Paul, Minn., sports arena, Michael Lawson popped open a bottle of champagne and savored the moment with a group of friends at his home in Hancock Park.

“I got goose bumps -- a great speech,” he said. “Now there’s time to bask a little before the next phase . . . this is like round 12 of a 15-round match.”

Lawson, a corporate attorney and a member of Los Angeles Airport Commission, has supported Obama since he first campaigned for his U.S. Senate seat. He raised more than $300,000 at a fundraiser last year at his house -- once owned by boxing legend Muhammad Ali. He is among a cadre of black lawyers who are Harvard Law School graduates that support the presumptive presidential nominee.

Obama backers in L.A.'s black community run the gamut; they include professors, ministers, attorneys, and a retired county data processor.

Some plunked down $2,300 a pop to meet the candidate at Oprah Winfrey’s estate in Montecito last September, or forked over $500 to have breakfast last week with Michelle Obama in a downtown L.A. law office. But others joined at the grass-roots level -- using their cellphones on the weekends to make calls around the nation to get out the vote before state caucuses and primaries.


Supporters cite Obama’s commitment to personal responsibility and his positive message as reasons they joined his campaign at a time when many blacks were still supporting Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Because of its large black professional community, Los Angeles for the last 60 years has been a stopping-off point for politicians and civil rights leaders seeking to raise funds. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. routinely visited L.A. to preach in its churches and help fill the coffers of the movement to promote racial equality. Jesse Jackson’s presidential movement was fueled by volunteers from L.A. Former President Clinton has been a regular speaker at black churches in L.A. And Obama became a frequent visitor, beginning in 2003.

Kerman Maddox, a political consultant and college professor, joined the Obama campaign more than a year ago when most prominent local black leaders -- political heavyweights including Reps. Maxine Waters and Diane Watson -- were throwing their support behind Clinton. (Waters is now supporting Obama.)

“We finally have a candidate who is qualified, capable and can win, and he speaks to issues that are close to us,” Maddox said. “When he talks about personal responsibility, that resonates with a lot of people.

“He says ‘Turn off the TV and read to your nieces and nephews.’ When I grew up, the idea of academic excellence was ingrained in our community,” Maddox continued. “He talks about the need to reclaim that part of our culture that we’ve lost, move away from glamorizing the thug life and glamorize academics.”

Besides, Maddox said, “With Obama, there was an opportunity to get in on the ground floor.”

Lawson said Obama’s “overall positive message” had won over many whom he had introduced to the candidate.

“He has said that Hillary will do a good job, but I can do a better job, " Lawson said. “He says he doesn’t like to trash-talk his opponent. He set that tone from the beginning.”

Jackie Hawthorne followed a different path as an Obama supporter. The 72-year-old retired data processor and caregiver for her elderly father was first attracted to the candidate because of that message.

“It’s almost like a personal relationship,” said Hawthorne, who has never spoken with Obama. “When he says, ‘I’m not asking you to believe in my ability to change Washington; I’m asking you to believe in yours,’ I say, ‘That’s right.’ That is what I believe.”

Hawthorne’s dream was to become an Obama delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Denver in August. To earn that spot -- one of four delegates from her congressional district -- she had to run against 84 candidates. She convinced 50 registered Democrats from a nearby court-ordered transitional-living house to support her candidacy, and was elected in a statewide caucus at USC in April.

“The people here are disenfranchised,” said Henry Zackary, who directs the Los Angeles Transition Center. “They have been told they don’t have power. When they heard her speak, they had an opportunity to make a difference, and they did.”

Hawthorne, who is president of the Los Angeles African American Women PAC and is now raising money for her trip to Denver, told the transition residents and her other supporters that she would give them blow-by-blow details of the convention through a blog.

Donald D. Walton, an attorney and a precinct captain in his Baldwin Hills neighborhood, joined the Obama camp after taking his daughter to meet the candidate at a small fundraiser in Park City, Utah.

A week later, Walton tracked Obama down at an L.A. fundraiser to ask the candidate to sign a picture he had taken with his 8-year-old daughter. “I would have been impressed if he asked: ‘How was your daughter?’ ” the single father recalled. “But he sees me and said: ‘So how’s Sarah?’ I was blown away.”

Walton sees racism, rather than sexism, as the biggest obstacle in his daughter’s future.

“I want my daughter to have every chance as a little black girl,” he said, adding that electing a black president would help to ensure that goal.

Clyde W. Oden, Jr., pastor at Bryant Temple African Methodist Episcopal Church, became a fan in 2004 after Obama spoke at the Democratic convention in New York.

He called his friend, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., and asked him about Obama. Wright said Obama belonged to his church in Chicago, Trinity United Church of Christ.

Oden, who had invited Wright to preach at his church, said the controversy surrounding the minister’s more fiery sermons has taught a lesson.

“We have to reexamine our language and our behavior,” Oden said. " . . . We have to be more conscious of what we say and how we say it. We’re no longer talking just to ourselves or just in the family.”