During the 100 days leading up to the election of 2008, I was in D.C. working long hours for an ally of Barack Obama, crafting graphics and websites in rapid response to every twist and turn in the election. As part of this work, our team went to the Democratic Convention in Denver, where I watched Obama accept the party’s nomination at Mile High Stadium. The Republican convention was in St. Paul, so I also had the chance to come home to Minnesota to support an outreach effort with bloggers covering the protests there.
In the last weeks, my employer wanted everyone out of the D.C. office and knocking on doors in key states. I had begun dating a coworker around that time and joined her to knock on doors in the suburbs of Pittsburgh. Her background in film, culture, and social justice had put her in charge of escorting two actors who had volunteered to help the campaign. Fans of quirky TV and horror movies might have known them, but on the side of the road in a Pittsburgh subdivision under overcast skies they were just two more earnest young men in Obama t-shirts trying to make a difference.
The campaign had planned our routes well. They had data on who was likely to vote for Obama, which voters always or rarely voted, and which voters had been hard to get ahold of. Our walk sheet listed houses with likely Obama voters who the campaign hadn’t been able to reach. Often nobody was home, or if they were home, they were not answering the door. They were hard to reach for a reason. If someone answered, we did not engage in political debate, we just confirmed they were voting for Obama, made sure they knew that Tuesday was election day, and that their polling place was the elementary school across from the SuperFresh on such-and-such road. Ideally, we’d also get them to say what their plan was for getting to the polls. It turns out you are more likely to vote if you make a plan and tell it to someone else, so we said things like, “it seems like most of your neighbors plan on voting in the morning. A few after work.” If they said one or the other is what they planned on doing, the campaign could follow up on election day before the polls closed to make sure they did.
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On election night, I was on standby, working from home — I was renting a room in a rowhouse in D.C.’s Eckington neighborhood. Across town, colleagues crowded in to a “war room” at the office to watch the results, prepared to launch one contingency or another should news warrant it. I’d already sent in graphics that could be used on website win or lose, but my boss asked me to stay near my computer in case something unexpected happened.
My roommate was away at a watch party. My girlfriend had met up with her college friends at a bar in Cleveland Park. I sat on the porch alone, watching the neighborhood. My laptop was open to a Google chat with my boss, tabs were open to a half dozen news websites, and the sound of MSNBC played through the open window. A city bus rolled through, empty. A pizza delivery car. Everyone was home watching TV.
Eckington is less than two miles north of the U.S. Capitol building. But it is hilly terrain cut off from the city by train tracks and two busy routes out of town. This gave it the feeling in 2008 of an industrial town that had lost all its factories and seen better days: tall grass around vacant lots, boarded-up buildings. A street a few blocks north had a reputation as a McDonalds-style drive-through for street drugs. It was poor and Black for many decades, only then seeing expensive developments sprout up and real estate bought by whites like my roommate. After dark, I preferred to glide home silently on my bike rather than walking the desolate sidewalks.
Eventually, enough information came in to the office that my boss cut me loose. He had seen enough to be confident in a win. It was going to happen. Obama was going to win. I walked the empty streets, leaving the historically Black neighborhood to board an empty train at New York Avenue towards white Cleveland Park. Not long after I had my first beer in hand, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer came on the bar’s giant floor-to-ceiling TV projection to declare Barack Obama the winner. A Black president-elect. It was real. Even though we’d worked for it, it seemed like a dream. It seemed impossible to believe what we were seeing. We hugged and teared up. Phones blew up with texts from distant friends. On smaller screens, the local D.C. stations showed scenes of joy on U Street, the strip once known as “Black Broadway.” It was halfway between Cleveland Park and Eckington and it was where we had to be.
Our taxi got stuck in traffic long before we reached 14th and U, so we got out and walked. Strangers — Black, white, old, young — offered shouts, exchanged handshakes, hugs, and tears.
I live just off U Street today. Every time I leave the apartment, I think for at least a moment about that night.
Twelve blocks south, a crowd gathered in front of George W. Bush’s White House to mark the end of the 2000 and 2004 stories with a round of late night chants and taunts.