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Black vote kicks into gear

Zucchino is a Times staff writer.

One measure of Barack Obama’s grass-roots organization was the line of cars jamming the street outside his headquarters here on election day.

Deborah Iden pulled up in her silver Honda with a “celebrate diversity” bumper sticker. Julie Woodmansee arrived in a Dodge Caravan and Marsha Silver in a Ford Focus, both with Obama bumper stickers. All three had volunteered to drive voters to the polls.

With rain falling all day, voters flooded the Democratic nominee’s offices with requests for rides. Many of them were responding to door tags left by Obama canvassers.

“It’s so rewarding to help,” said Silver, 60, after driving a young man who had no car. “Not being able to get to the polling place is a horrible reason not to vote.”

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Registering new voters, many of them young or African Americans, and getting them to the polls has been a focus of the Obama campaign -- helping make the Illinois senator competitive in a state that has not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1976.

North Carolina is 22% black, but African Americans made up 31% of the 967,000 newly registered voters this year. Newly registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 2 to 1.

On Tuesday, 4,900 volunteers turned out for the early morning shift at the 50 Obama field offices across the state, communications director Susan Lagana said. At the cramped downtown Durham office, 50 to 150 showed up.

Scores of volunteers -- most of them white and middle class -- also swarmed the home of Gunther Peck, a Duke University professor who said he formed “Durham for Obama” online earlier this year, starting with 150 volunteers. By election day, the group reported having 10,800 members.

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Peck said “Durham for Obama” helped register most of the 18,000 new voters in the county, at least half of whom are African Americans.

As volunteers in the living room fielded calls from low-income and elderly voters seeking rides, Peck sent two vans and a pickup truck out to cruise rain-slicked neighborhoods with a bullhorn to extend the offer.

Alixander Roper, 26, a janitor who does not own a car, said he considered the opportunity to vote for a black presidential candidate “historic.” But, he said, he voted for Obama because of the senator’s positions on the economy and healthcare, not because of his race.

“A good president is a good president -- whether he’s white, black or Chinese,” said Roper, whom Silver drove to the polls. “Obama is all about helping out people who are going through hard times.”

Lawrence Allen, a 37-year-old cook, said he voted for Obama after Woodmansee, 46, a family lawyer, gave him a ride to the polls. “I never thought I’d see this day,” Allen said of the opportunity to vote for a black president. “This feels great.”

Woodmansee, who had never volunteered for a political campaign before, said she spent 90 minutes Saturday driving a 65-year-old man to register to vote for the first time.

“Obama talks about things that are very important to me: people working together for a common goal, and his emphasis on helping regular people,” Woodmansee said.

Iden, a clinical researcher, drove to the home of an elderly woman in downtown Durham who had requested a ride, only to be informed that the would-be voter was cooking lunch and would not be ready for another two hours.

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“That’s OK,” Iden assured her. “I’ll come back. The most important thing is that you vote.”

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david.zucchino@latimes.com


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