They gathered by the hundreds, some who had spent the night in tents or curled up on lawn chairs on the hard asphalt of the Orange County Fairgrounds for a chance to see President Obama.
The crowd of more than 1,000 showed the enthusiasm of a campaign rally or even the inauguration, with vendors hawking Obama T-shirts, hats and posters, people doing “the wave” and some dressed in St. Patrick’s Day green.
But under the celebratory mood lay a current of anxiety and anger about the country’s condition that could color the president’s reception on his first official trip to California.
Many in the crowd hoped for the chance to ask him tough questions: About the jobs they’ve lost. About deteriorating healthcare. Some wanted to hear the president’s plan for helping small businesses. Still more seethed with anger about the government’s bailout of Wall Street banks and insurance giant AIG.
Others just wanted to see the person they hope will somehow set the nation right.
“We want to see our president because we believe in him,” said Ontario retiree Miguel Garcia Verdin, 72, an immigrant from Mexico. “We have faith that he’s not going to defraud us.”
Verdin, wearing a cowboy hat, sat in a camping chair overnight with his wife, 4-year-old granddaughter and two adult sons, waiting more than 12 hours before he got tickets to today’s town hall-style meeting in Costa Mesa.
West Coast swing
The event, scheduled for 4 p.m., is part of the president’s two-day tour through Southern California, which also includes a town hall meeting in Los Angeles at the Miguel Contreras Learning Complex, an appearance on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” and a visit to an electric vehicle plant in Pomona.
Like many who waited in Costa Mesa, Verdin’s son, Jose Garcia, 38, said he was eager to hear the president’s plans for the ailing economy.
Garcia’s small, family-owned chain of chicken restaurants is hurting, he said, and has had to slash prices to hold onto customers and cut employee hours to avoid laying off workers. He said he wanted to know Obama’s plan to bail out small businesses like his, not just troubled Wall Street firms. He would like better access to loans so he can expand.
“What about us? What about the small guys?” he asked.
Stephen Mallen, an unemployed Vietnam War veteran from Hollywood, was so upset he taped a sign to his chest that read “AIG is stealing my $$$.”
“Bank owned,” another man’s sign read.
Mallen, a stagehand, has been out of work since a stage collapsed on him on the job several years ago and fractured his back. Now he said he lives in a motor home and struggles to get basic medical care while taxpayer money is being used to help bail out AIG and the other slumping titans of Wall Street.
“I’m no economist, but I know that it’s not working for me,” he said.
While those in the long, snaking line didn’t all share the same political ideology, they quickly formed a makeshift community as they waited together for a chance to see the president, dancing to keep warm overnight and lending one another sleeping bags and blankets.
Weary-eyed campers shared coffee at the break of day, some nearly breaking into tears as they told complete strangers next to them how much they wanted to see the new president and what they wanted to ask him.
“Even if they have a beef with him, it’s good to see everyone out here,” said Stephanie Gallegos, 31, of Santa Ana, who was lucky enough to get a ticket along with her husband, Joseph, a Republican who had a change of heart when he watched Obama’s televised speech at the Iowa caucuses last year.
“I saw an articulate man, and I looked down at my son and told him ‘I’m voting for that man,’ ” he said.
On Tuesday, the commercial pilot wore a shirt with Obama’s portrait and the phrase “Commander in Chief.”
Even so, he said he wants Obama to hold to his campaign promise of bipartisanship.
Pleas for tickets
As people were let through a gate five at a time to a well-guarded booth to receive their tickets, Costa Mesa City Councilwoman Katrina Foley stood by, saying she’d been barraged with thousands of calls, e-mails and text messages over the last day or two pleading for tickets.
Hannah Butler, 17, a senior at Estancia High School in Costa Mesa, bubbled with excitement after she and two classmates picked up her two tickets bearing the presidential seal. She plans to take her sister to the forum today.
“She’s been texting me constantly: ‘Did you get ‘em? Did you get ‘em?’ ” she said. “It’s the chance of a lifetime.”
In a county still stuck with the stereotype of being unyieldingly conservative, the festive gathering for a Democratic president was seen by some as a reminder that Orange County has changed.
Though he did not win Orange County in November’s election, Obama did garner nearly 48% to John McCain’s 50% and won the majority of votes in previous Republican strongholds like Irvine and Costa Mesa.
“It’s exciting to see so much support for him in Orange County, since it’s normally so conservative,” said Kim Payne, 51, of Santa Ana, who said she thought only former President George W. Bush could have mustered such a crowd in years past.
“I just hope he says things that are going to help calm people down about the economy,” she said. “That’s the most important thing.”
By midday, all the tickets to the town hall were gone, and hundreds had signed a waiting list in hopes of being called in case more seats opened up. Hundreds more didn’t even make the waiting list. Finally, Orange County Sheriff’s Department deputies told the crowd of people to go home.
“Oh well,” said Barbara Martin, a retired middle school teacher from Altadena who wore her white Obama baseball cap and made the trip to Orange County to try to get a ticket, to no avail.
“I know it’s going to take time for him to undo all that has happened,” she said. “But I’m patient.”