Column by Chris Graham
“If I forget everything else when I get old and gray,” a friend told me Tuesday night, “I hope I never forget this feeling.”
I understood completely what he was saying, because I had just had a similar thought myself. CNN and Fox News had just called the presidential race in Virginia for Barack Obama, bringing tears to my eyes and the eyes of many at our party at the Waynesboro Democratic Headquarters because we knew what was coming next.
The big-screen TV was tuned to CNN, which ran a countdown to the close of the polls in Calfornia, a state that was all but certain to go to Obama and push him over the top in the Electoral College.
Five … four … three … two … one …
“Barack Obama has been elected president of the United States.”
I turned my attention from the TV toward the wild celebration around me and saw a sight that I hope is etched in my mind’s eye forever. We had upwards of 200 people at the HQ for our Election Night party, and many were still on hand at 11 for the announcement that we had worked so many thousands of volunteer hours for. And we couldn’t help ourselves but to reach out to the people with whom we had knocked on doors and made phone calls and made the evolution from strangers to fast friends to family over the course of the past year.
“Yes, We Did! Yes, We Did! Yes, We Did!” we chanted together, riffing on the Obama campaign “Yes, We Can!” mantra in our delerium.
But that’s not what I’ll remember most fondly, as fond as that memory itself is. It’s this that I will take to eternity – black and white, young and old, wealthy and middle class, slapping high-fives and bumping fists, bear-hugging and kissing cheeks, lifting each other from chairs and twirling each other in the air.
From the corporate executives to the small-business owners to the church pastors and teachers to the retirees who lived through the Great Depression and World War II to the single mother with two kids, we were all there for the same reason. For us, The Change We Need is more than a catchphrase. It’s about getting our country back on the right track again, about rebuilding our economy on the backs of middle-class families, about restoring America’s standing in the world, about extending the benefits of the greatest health-care system in the world to the millions of Americans who have trouble accessing it, about living better today and building for a better tomorrow, and doing it the right way, without tearing at each other through ideology and partisanship so that we emphasize that which divides us as opposed to that which unites.
We started on this mission together under the most humbling of circumstances. We had trouble getting a quorum of our Democratic committee together in May for the meeting called to consider the matter of my election as the new chairman. And then being the new chairman, I had to figure some things out on the fly, like how to raise money to get campaign yard signs and bumper stickers and buttons to put into a headquarters that we also needed to pay for and then staff.
My thinking at the beginning was pollyanna-ish, to say the least, borrowing from the line in the movie “Field of Dreams” that offers that “if you build it, they will come.” Come they did, drawn in by Barack Obama and Mark Warner and our local congressional candidate, Sam Rasoul, fulfilling my attempt at prophecy in a conversation with my wife, Crystal, back in May before I assumed the duties as the new chair at that meeting where we barely made our quorum. “Remember this,” I said to her, looking around at the tiny gathering that could have been held in a closet, if we had been trying to prove a point. “In two years, we’ll have 200 people in this committee.”
We’re a year and a half ahead of schedule on that end, and we’re already seeing some important success in our efforts at the polls. Though we fell short of our goal of winning a majority in Waynesboro for Obama, we did get 44.1 percent of the vote for him on Tuesday, improving nearly 10 percentage points over what John Kerry did in Waynesboro in 2004 and achieving a net gain of 1,400 votes in the Democratic column from ’04 to ’08. We also achieved a significant victory in the U.S. Senate race for Mark Warner, who picked up 58 percent of the vote in Waynesboro in his race with Republican Jim Gilmore, who had taken 60 percent of the vote in Waynesboro in his last campaign, the 1997 governor’s race.
And as far as I’m concerned, we’re just getting started with what we’re aiming to achieve. Much hard work lies ahead as we set ourselves on a course toward bringing some of that Change We Need to Waynesboro and the Valley. Unemployment is at a recent high here in our city, our school system is not graduating 20 percent of its students on schedule, nearly half of the students in our schools qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches, and our economy is based on a retail sector that doesn’t provide sustainable living wages for those who work in it.
Can we get things turned around and get our Waynesboro back on the right track again? The answer to that question is one that we’ve been using to motivate us here for the past few months.
“Yes, We Can!”