A thumbnail New Jersey guide to the history of Obamaland, Part II

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The campaign was about to change.

On Oct, 9, 2007, an announcement came down from Chicago regarding New Jersey operations.

Mark Alexander, a Seton Hall University law professor and Obama’s senior policy advisor, would be the campaign’s official state director.

"I am grateful that he is going to carry the fight forward to and through the Feb. 5 contests," Obama said of Alexander. "He is a valued and trusted advisor, and at the same time has deep ties in his home of New Jersey that will be invaluable to our efforts.

"I am proud of the policy work we have done on this campaign and through Mark’s leadership we have built a team of key advisors from the ground up that will continue to offer new and innovative approaches to the challenges this country faces," added the presidential candidate.

A personal friend of Barack and Michelle Obama’s going back a dozen years, Alexander as a child worked on the 1974 Washington, D.C. mayoral campaign of his father, Clifford Alexander, former chairman of the Equal Opportunity Commission. Later, he ran Sen. Bill Bradley’s 2000 presidential campaign and served as counsel to Cory Booker.

The state director began rolling out more elected official endorsements.

State Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer) and Assemblywomen Linda Greenstein, Cleopatra Tucker, and L. Grace Spencer followed up on aSeptember endorsement of Obama made by veteran anti-establishment Democrat, state Sen. Loretta Weinberg of Bergen.

"Sen. Barack Obama is the person to work for the kinds of issues that we women are interested in," Weinberg said at a Trenton press conference with her colleagues. "Mostly these issues are about our families. They are about bringing our kids home from Iraq. They are about the healthcare of people that we love and take care of. They are about our kids’ education, and they are about our environment."

Meanwhile, Alexander interfaced with those grassroots guerillas who had been in the field for months.

In the autumn lead-up to the Nov. 4th, 2007 general election, NJ for Obama leader Keith Hovey held a rally for the Illinois senator in Princeton’s Palmer Square.

"This is a candidate who had the internal fortitude to stand up when most would not, and say that this war is wrong," Hovey told the cheering crowd.

Princeton anti-war activist William Strong still liked New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, mostly based on experience. But most people in the crowd backed Obama.

"Before this event, I walked around Princeton for two hours," said Phil Blackwood, an engineer from Lincroft, who continued to pass out Obama ’08 stickers at the rally.

During the first week of December ’07, the Obama campaign opened its main headquarters in West Orange. A week later, the new state director joined his old friends, Newark Mayor Cory Booker and West Ward Councilman Ronald Rice, at a rally in Newark’s Masonic Temple.

A lot of people in the crowd were NJ for Obama volunteers.

"We’re going to start making some change," Alexander told the crowd of organizers, including Julie Diaz of Perth Amboy, who with her boyfriend Peter Brown was among NJ for Obama’s founding members.

"Change has been a long time coming," Alexander said. "We’re trying to organize ourselves in New Jersey. It’s not going to come easy. No one’s going to give this up. There are a lot of people who want this prize. You’re going to have to walk the streets, you’re going to have to call your friends."

Most of the fatalism about Obama’s campaign was absent now, with new polling numbers not only bolstering morale but filling volunteers with a sense of coming victory.

Michelle Obama said her husband had to win Iowa or it was over, and when she said it some of her New Jersey supporters cringed with the thought that their man could lose in the first contest.

But now the sense of inevitability about Clinton was gone.

"I looked around this last week and sure enough, Barack Obama was up by five points in Iowa," said Rice. "I look around again, and he’s cut Clinton’s lead in New Hampshire to 5% when it was 20% two weeks before then. I looked up again, and black folk are voting for Barack Obama, all over this nation. I looked up one more time, and the race is dead even in South Carolina.

"Newarkers," the councilman told the cheering crowd, "we not only got the best candidate with the best message. We’ve got the best candidate with the best chance of winning not only the Democratic nomination, but winning the presidency next November."

Booker started refining a speech incorporating New Jersey Revolutionary War history that he would use later in the campaign season, in Jersey City. But he also spoke specifically to his candidate’s knowledge of urban issues.

"Our cities should not be places that are charity cases, our cities should be engines of economic prosperity for our nation and I think that’s something Barack Obama understands," said Booker, as organizers registered voters in the Masonic Temple.

On January 3, the day of the Iowa caucuses, Alexander was calmly confident in West Orange headquarters.

"People will have concrete evidence that Barack Obama has real support in a state where there is a large white rural population," the state director said of the African American presidential candidate. "We’ve got to do well in these early states and carry the momentum to the Feb. 5th states, like New Jersey."

Obama won Iowa with 38%, followed by former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) with 30% and Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) with 29%.

That shook the foundations of power.

"It’s not good news for Iowa," admitted State Party Chair Joseph Cryan, an ardent Clinton supporter. "But it’s good news for New Jersey. The message from this is, ‘Let’s wake up and get to work.’ The real start of the campaign is tonight."

Partying with other Obama revelers and CNN’s broadcast on in the background at the bar in Newark’s Robert Treat Hotel, U.S. Rep. Steve Rothman (D-9), northeast regional co-chair of the Obama campaign, said of his candidate, "He is an authentic agent of change. If he were elected, the message he would present to the world is that America gets it.

"We understand that the last seven years under Bush have been a disaster," Rothman added. "People around the world would see that America, the land of such idealism and hope, is back, and that the callous and cynical George Bush era is over."

Coming out of Iowa and in the days leading up to the New Hampshire primaries, it looked as though Obama could romp to a blowout victory over Clinton.

Edison Mayor Jun Choi, Assemblyman Neil Cohen (D-Union), and Alexander rallied the troops at a diner in Choi’s hometown.

"Bring it home, New Hampshire," volunteers cried happily.

Hyped for months as a likely battleground, maybe New Jersey wasn’t going to matter in the end. Maybe Clinton would melt down in New Hampshire and the Democratic Primary would be over.

"We saw something happen on Thursday night that was truly remarkable," Alexander told the crowd of Obama supporters. "There are different ways to think about it: a snowball rolling downhill, gathering that momentum; that drop, that little drop in the pond that starts to ripple out; you can think about it as an earthquake perhaps in Iowa."

But on Jan. 8, to the chagrin of NJ for Obama founder Damian Bednarz, who helped collect the numbers in the campaign’s Manchester, N.H. war room, Clinton staged a comeback, beating Obama, 39-36%, with Edwards trailing at 17% and starting what appeared to be an irreversible capsize.

A day later, Obama appeared before an overflow crowd at St. Peter’s College in Jersey City. The local troops had hoped to welcome him as the winner of the Granite State and maybe of the primary entire, but there was little disappointment in the room.

His improbable victory in Iowa still inspired awe and anyway he had not lost to Clinton by a sizable margin in New Hampshire.

"Obama isn’t a person anymore, he’s a movie," said Hoboken councilman Michael Russo.

Bunched along the rope line in the gym and waiting for Obama were Brown, Diaz and Hovey, Cohen and Rice, Newark Council President Mildred Crump, Ocean County organizer Stacy Lubrecht, Jersey City Mayor Jerramiah Healy and Booker and Jersey City Deputy Mayor Kibili Tayari. Among them stood other grassroots and local elected officials who supported Obama.

A veteran of the Civil Rights movement, Tayari said his work registering Jersey City voters and manning GOTV ops. before the Feb. 5th primary would be the most important work of his life.

"A new president in the White House who doesn't simply come out of the Washington establishment will restore a sense of integrity to our Democratic republic," Tayari said.

Another Civil Rights-era Obama backer, Cohen, who had been with the campaign almost from the beginning, watched Obama pass at close range on the runway to the podium.

"He may have belonged to us in the beginning," said the assemblyman. "There was the sense that now he belongs to the country."

But New Jersey still had New Jersey, and the dogfight Alexander came in to wage was unfolding now and in even more dramatic fashion than anticipated with the score tightened between Obama and Clinton.

With less than a month to go before the primary, Booker invoked the Battle of Trenton.

"We are the great state of New Jersey," he said. "Our democracy started right here, in a pivotal fight. But the cause of justice goes on. We now have a chance to make real on the boldest dreams for America."

A thumbnail New Jersey guide to the history of Obamaland, Part II