By Caitlin Esch
NAACP volunteer Gayle Akins pitches a table and spreads out voter registration forms at an anti-violence rally outside Oakland City Hall. She’s capitalizing on the support that President Barack Obama inspires locally: many new voters are registering simply to cast a vote for him.
“Sometimes they act like, ‘I don’t know if my vote counts,’ but they know a lot about what’s going on,” Akins says. “If we can convince them — register to vote — and actually get out to vote … it’s a really good thing.”
Still, many African-American voters are frustrated. Four years ago, Oakland resident William Edwards says he was thrilled when Obama won. But Edwards has fallen on hard times; his home is in foreclosure, and he doesn’t think Obama is paying attention to the concerns of his community — things like too few jobs and too many African American men in prison.
“He’s got probably 95 percent of the black vote, but it’s nice to vote and support him,” Edwards says. “But, what are we gonna get for it? Everybody else has an agenda of what they wanna get. So what’s in it for us?”
Oakland Civil rights attorney Eva Paterson has had her own disappointments over the past four years, but she says the black community’s romance with the president has given way to something else.
“It’s almost like dating,” Paterson says. “You date someone and they show their great side, and you get married and it’s like ‘oh, they don’t pick up their socks…’ So, I think we’re in the marriage stage of the relationship –where you still love the person but you see their flaws. You’re not as head over heels as you were. Because he was pretty amazing. And he still is pretty amazing.”
Paterson believes it’s up to black voters to put in the extra work to make the marriage last — calling in support of Obama or working in swing states where votes will be critical.
Volunteers were doing just that in the back room at Everett and Jones Barbecue restaurant in Jack London Square, as part of a recent phone-a-thon to support the president. Owner Dorothy King had brought her family along.
Later in the evening, Obama supporters gathered there to cheer on the president during his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention.
Enthusiasm was high, but local leaders — like Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson — took the stage after to warn the crowd not to get overconfident.
“So while we’re feeling real good about tonight’s speech,” Carson told the crowd, “the work has to be done from this time, until after the election has taken place.”
Carson says four years ago, more Bay Area volunteers were traveling to battleground states to register voters. This time around, he’s worried enthusiasm is waning.
“The energy level is not as high as it was when Obama ran four years ago,” Carson says. “The economy has affected a lot of people, and they thought that he was going to be able to come in and wave a magic wand and make things much better.”
But others in Oakland, like Reverend Daniel Buford, say the president has exceeded expectations. Buford isn’t shy about preaching for Obama.
“I think the brother—and I’m gonna call him that—I think the brother has done an outstanding job,” Buford enthused.
This time four years ago, Buford doubted Obama would make a good president.
“I was for Hillary. I had to really climb a hill to support Obama because I thought he was thin in the resume,” Buford said. “But he got the bad guy, Bin Laden. He stopped the hemorrhaging of the economy. And he’s been doing something for health care. That’s been needed to be done for years.”
If Buford is successful in rallying his parishioners to get out and vote, many local leaders are hoping those voters will affect change closer to home. At the polls they’ll also weigh in on Proposition 30, which would raise state sales tax and income tax for the wealthy, largely to fund education and Measure B, which would extend a local half-cent sales tax for public transportation.
Back at her voter registration table, NAACP volunteer Gayle Akins is keen to convince young voters they can make a difference.
“It’s not just about Obama. And it’s not just about Mitt Romney,” she says. “Because if Obama gets in, he’ll have four years and then we’ll have someone else in. So they really need to know the issues and why it’s important to vote.”
Akins says while young people may show up for Obama, she’s hoping to turn them into voters for life.