Photo: Rocker John Mellencamp Warms Up Indiana for Obama
By Brian A. Howey
Howey Politics Indiana
EVANSVILLE - In the very toe of the Hoosier State, which was rocked and rattled by an earthquake the previous week, Barack Obama was preparing to descend to the stage at Roberts Stadium. His move came in a state that in its 192-year history has elected only three African-American mayors (all in Gary), three African-American members of Congress, two black sheriffs, and two Hispanic mayors. None served much south of I-70.
Indiana House Majority Floor Leader Russ Stilwell of Boonville looked at the gathering crowd on this Tuesday night and softly said, "There’s an undercurrent out there. I’m not sure if people realize what’s going on." In about an hour, more than 8,000 Hoosiers - black, white, young, old - stood in a huge line that wrapped around the stadium, and for most, another two hours waiting for a transformational figure in American history to appear.
Around 10:45 p.m. on this balmy night, Obama took the dais in Evansville to thunderous cheers. "Evansville is going to be so important," Obama said a few moments after Hoosier rocker John Mellencamp sang "Small Town" … "All my friends are so small town. My parents live in the same small town. My job is so small town. Provides little opportunity. Educated in a small town. Taught the fear of Jesus in a small town. Used to daydream in that small town …"
The crowd itself seemed to state that another era had dawned in Indiana.
Rep. Stilwell questioned if Obama could fill the stadium. What if he couldn’t? By now, the question was moot.
What followed was Obama’s now familiar soaring rhetoric and questions from the Eastern Seaboard about the Hoosier state of mind. "We’re not here to talk about change for change’s sake, but because our families, our communities, and our country desperately need it," Obama said. "We’re here because we can’t afford to keep doing what we’ve been doing for another four years. We can’t afford to play the same Washington games with the same Washington players and expect a different result. Not this time. Not now."
In fact, there has been great change here in Indiana. In the three election cycles since 2004, Hoosier voters have tossed out a sitting governor, the Senate president pro tempore, the Senate finance chairman, four members of Congress, more than 40 percent of our mayors including incumbents in Indianapolis, Kokomo, Terre Haute, New Albany, Jeffersonville and East Chicago. Control of the Indiana House has changed hands. Gov. Mitch Daniels has forged and even apologized for change; acknowledging some of it may have come too fast for some Hoosiers.
There have been other changes. At a time when Obama makes a call for building infrastructure, many Hoosier Democrats have lined up as vociferous opponents of Gov. Mitch Daniels’ Major Moves toll road privatization (based, in part, on Chicago Mayor Daley’s similar move on the Chicago Skyway). One of the party’s gubernatorial candidates has based a campaign on rolling back many of the changes Daniels has made that are akin to the type of changes Obama says America desperately needs. Even though Obama and Daniels occupy diverse ends of the ideological spectrum, they seem to feed off the same idea of being change agents.
And now here at Roberts Stadium was Barack Obama taking the clarion call of change in deep Southern Indiana. "We can be a party that says and does whatever it takes to win the next election," Obama explained. "We can calculate and poll-test our positions and tell everyone exactly what they want to hear. Or we can be the party that doesn’t just focus on how to win, but why we should. We can tell everyone what they need to hear about the challenges we face. We can seek to regain not just an office, but the trust of the American people that their leaders in Washington will tell them the truth. That’s the choice in this election."
Obama continued, "We can build on the movement we’ve started in this campaign – a movement that’s united Democrats, Independents, and Republicans. We’re not as divided as our politics suggests. We may have different stories and different backgrounds, but we hold common hopes for the future of this country."
There are 100,000 new Hoosier voters taking all of this in. Hoosier Democrats will vote for a female or African-American for the first time on May 6.
Stilwell joined several southern Indiana legislators such as Dave Crooks and Lindel Hume, and Evansville Mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel, in endorsing Obama. But he was quick to note, "Clinton will win Southern Indiana, but I don’t think they realize what’s really going on here."
There are Democrats who won’t vote for a black man, just as there were in Pennsylvania. In past elections, we’ve speculated on how much a Jewish candidate for governor (Stephen Goldsmith in 1996) might lose in such intolerant proclivities (my answer was 1 to 3 percent). Sadly, numbers like that might exist today.
Barack Obama walked into a city that produced one of Indiana’s worst characters: Ku Klux Klan leader D.C. Stephenson who took over the state eight decades ago. On Tuesday he found a huge crowd and ears willing to listen to what he had to say. How they vote in less than two weeks could alter the course of American history.
Howey is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at www.howeypolitics.com.