lessons from America

The man behind the news

Hunter and Tyler are cool guys and great hosts.  When I was in Denver in August, I was invited to have dinner with Tyler’s parents.  This time it was Hunter who suggested we have dinner with his folks.  I had briefly met them in a bar the previous night, but the loud music prevented real conversation.  So I was excited to get the opportunity to chat properly to them.  Doubly excited because Hunter’s dad is Ernie Bjorkman, a very well known and highly respected local TV news anchor in Denver.

The hospitality and the conversation were both fantastic last Sunday, and I learnt a lot.  Amongst the many things we talked about, two points that Ernie mentioned that really stood were:

1) This parallels between Jimmy Carter’s candidacy in 1976 and Obama’s now: the outsider status; the running outside / against Washington to the same extent; the optimism of the message; the calmness from the candidate; and the heights of passion and energy of the activists.  Certainly, ordinary people hadn’t been as fired up since the 1976 campaign.

2) The difficulty in keeping journalists reporting the presidential race in as completely balanced and fair way as possible.  This wasn’t necessarily because of any inherent bias or sloppy reporting. Instead – as Ernie described it in his news room – the younger journalists especially were more likely to get swept up in the rhetoric and huge crowds of the Obama campaign and so lose their objectivity.  He was the one who had to sometimes rein them back in and ensure the balanced reporting that was expected of the news team.

October 31, 2008 Posted by | On the Campaign Trail | , , , | Leave a comment

An early vote for Obama

When I was in Denver, I fulfilled a long-held ambition …..

Sadly – and to clarify – no, I did not vote.  This isn’t my ballot paper and nor did I get to fill it in (despite asking very nicely).  This Denver ballor paper belongs to Hunter, who showed it to me over the weekend; before he completed it and early voted in a polling station near his work. 

My ambition though had been to see an actual ballot paper close-up and just get a sense of it.  You can read the instructions as to how to fill it out, and also the beginning of the list of presidential candidates in the state of Colorado, by clicking on each of the photos below.


The ballot paper starts with the presidential race, then the Senate, then the local Congressional one.  And then the countless local council races and locally elected positions, like judge.  And that’s just on the first ballot paper ….

As modelled by Hunter below, there are in fact two large ballot papers for the voter to fill in.  

The second ballot paper is for the ballot initiatives – the referendum on specific measures amending the local/state constitution or mandating the local authority in charge to do something or spend money in a certain way. 

Despite the fact that I am about to stump for one of these ballot initiatives, I have my scepticisms.  Especially in a presidential race as hard fought and epoch-making as this one, local issues rarely get any kind of prominence or generate wide debate.  Voters often will not know much about what the candidates stand for; or even who they are.  And these initiatives often (and the Cincinnati one is a happy exception) end up being exceedingly negative; with the campaigns trading negative adverts and mud being flown everywhichway.  It doens’t have to be like this.  But as things stand I’m not sure what good it might do to export this ballot paper featue – and the strand of greater direct democracy it entails – to the UK.

October 31, 2008 Posted by | counting votes, On the Campaign Trail | , , , , | 3 Comments

Gunning for the same side

Here in Cincinnati, the first political ad that came on the TV was an anti-Obama one about gun ownership / control.  It was paid for by the National Rifle Association – the organisation headed until recently by Charlton “you can wrench this gun from me over my cold, dead body” Heston.  It shows the fascinating prioritisation of issues in Ohio rather than the more liberal big cities of Denver and Minneapolis I’ve been to. 

However, there is a danger – as Obama found out to his cost with a remark in the primaries of “guns and bibles” that was spun and taken out of context – that you can unfairly stereotype based on views of gun ownership.

The first house I went to after arriving in Denver was of Stephen, a friend of Tyler’s, who comes from Maine and recently moved out west.  Stephen is a proud gun owner.  So proud he showed the guns off to me over dinner.   He has a rifle and a small gun (don’t ask me what type).

I felt quite uncomfortable with the closeness of these weapons and the way they were being so nonchalently handled.  I thankfully avoided having to do my own pose with them.  It just isn’t part of my culture.  But I do have to admit there at the same time I was a tiny bit fascinated by the guns. 

For Stephen, it is all very different.  He grew up in Maine hunting and using guns. And he sees having a gun in his home as a necessary element of personal protection, without having to rely on the cops who might not get there in time (his rationale). 

However, both of us are Obama supporters and on the progressive side of politics.  We share other values and political beliefs too.  Just not the gun thing.  An instructive lesson for me, and one that will no doubt be useful in my interactions with people in Ohio.

October 31, 2008 Posted by | lessons from America | , , | 1 Comment

A volunteer’s view of an Obama rally

Lightening does strike twice.  Denver has now been the venue for two record-breaking Obama events: the first the nomination acceptance at Inveso stadium, and now Sunday’s campaign rally which attracted a staggering 100,000 people.  And I have been there both times.   For the Convention I was part of the audience.  This time I was that, plus – along with a thousand others – an event volunteer as well.

We gathered in our designated group at 8am and were given our final instructions.  We were tasked with being some of the first points of contact rally-goers would have, as the made their way towards the park and the back of the queue to get in.  


The aim was to give everyone “sign in slips” to complete as their ‘ticket’ to get in.  But this wasn’t just a passive data gathering exercise, though it served that purpose too.  But it went further.  The idea was to engage people in a conversation and encourage them to sign up as volunteers for the campaign: willing to door knock and phone bank in the final week of the election, and – preferably – to take some or all of election day off to help with the crucial Get-Out-The-Vote activities. 

That wasn’t even the end of the key messages we were asked to get across.  For this event was primarily a push for people to early vote.  Colorado opens up certain designated polling stations the week before election day, and allows its citizens to vote in any of these locations in their county.  We had lists of early voting places in Denver County to give out to locals.  Moreover – and this is the really clever bit – a government office (the William Webb building) was open that Sunday, including the hours after the rally, just one block from the civic park where Obama was speaking.  So it was also a case of letting people know they could early vote straight after the rally, when they were all fired up.


So those were my tasks from 8am til about 11am.  I did have a short break and wandered along some of the ever-growing lines of people waiting expectantly and excitedly to get in to the rally site. 


And along with the crowds of supporters, inevitably there were people trying to promote various local / state ballot initiatives and also a handful of anti-Obama protestors. 


By 10.30am capacity had already been reached and so people were spilling over into any available spots. I took the chance to walk up to the State Capitol building, which was the highest point nearby and offered a great view of the crowds gathered below.  Numbers of people were taking advantage of its position and were viewing the rally from there, even if Obama must have only been a tiny dot to them.


At 11.30am all the volunteers gathered again at our original meeting spot and made our way over to a special entrance where we could still get access to the event.  Security was tight, with airport-style scanners and even things like apples and other items that could potentially be lobbed at Obama were conviscated on entry.   On the plus side, it gave me ample opportunity to chat with fellow volunteers in the queue – including one woman who was really putting her heart and soul (and virtually every waking minute) into the campaign; and a veteran who was proudly wearing a ‘Republicans for Obama’ t-shirt and happily defied sterotyping.


It was taking so long to get us through, that the last groups of volunteers – myself included – only just made it into the park in time for Obama’s entrance.  And for the first few minutes of his speech I was stuck miles from the main stage, unable to make my way through to the area reserved for campaign volunteers.  Some of the other volunteers were cursing the disorganisation of the campaign at that point and it was very frustrating. 

Thankfully, though, everything worked out and we were able to make our way much closer to where Obama was speaking.  So I ended up having a much better view of proceedings than I had done that night in the stadium at the Convention.


Obama’s speech itself was – by his standards – fairly perfunctory.  There were some longer segments on the economy, but otherwise it was a standard stump speech.  I guess I had the luxury of having heard him live at the Convention.  My favourites parts of his speech at this rally were his riff on “there are no red states or blue states, only the united states of america” and an emotional bit towards the end giving some historical context to Obama’s candidacy and welcoming new generations and new immigrants to these shores.  And he gave his useful powerful closing lines, rallying the army of footsoldiers and voters stretched out before him. 

(NB. You can see the short clips I took of parts of his speech here)

As to be expected, there was plenty of cheering and shouting both during Obama’s speech, and immediately afterwards … which was all happily lapped up by the media.


As the crowds started dispersing, I wanted my own mementos of the day; of having been there for another historic occasion.  So cue some cheesy shots:


My thanks goes to the two girls who took some of those photos of me, and whose placard I borrowed.

Exiting the park, my duties done, there were other more energetic and hard-working volunteers who were doing that all important task: signing the way to the early voting polling station and encouraging people to make that few minute detour to do vote there and then.  I gave the sign-holders a deeply felt “keep up the good work” type comment, as I was impressed at their stamina and enthusiasm after such an early start to our volunteering day.  


October 30, 2008 Posted by | On the Campaign Trail | , , , , | 2 Comments

A flavour of the Obama rally

I’ve uploaded some of my photos to flickr, so you can get a sense of the size of the rally.  Here are some video clips I took.

1) The view of the rally from the steps of the Capitol building, one hour before Obama’s speech. 

2) Audience chants of ‘yes we can’ during Obama’s speech.

3) Uplifting segment of Obama’s speech about unity and the ‘united states’ of america.

4) Closing lines of Obama’s speech and the applause afterwards

October 28, 2008 Posted by | On the Campaign Trail | , , | 3 Comments

Preparing for an Obama rally

This is no ordinary election campaign, that is for certain.  In case I needed any reminders about this, I’ve experienced it first hand these past 36 hours.  And it is the level and intensity of support for Obama that I am talking about.  Today another record fell: that of largest campaign rally.  100,000 people (including me) turned up in and around Denver Civic Park to hear Obama speak.  But just as symbolic and humbling was the fact that over 800 people turned up on a Saturday evening to sign up as volunteers for the rally and take part in a 90min training and briefing session. 

I’d heard from Amalie about the opportunity to become an event volunteer and decided to join her and a couple of other swing semester folk in attendiing the session.  Everyone was taken aback, impressed and inspired by the size and diversity of people who come to be volunteers.   


There were various pep talks, putting our efforts in the context of the wider race(s) to be won, and also information on early voting and other related advice that we were meant to pass on to others at the rally.   We were then split off into two – one half who would be doing the staffing inside the venue and at the entrance; the other half (which I was in) would be encouraging people to sign up for volunteering over the final week of the campaign and also to early vote.  We were then split off into small teams of 20-30 people, each of whom were headed by a ‘precinct captain’, an Obama staffer.  My team leader was called John Manners and he was the guy who would we would find on the Sunday morning to give us our final instructions and the sign-up forms to hand out.


October 27, 2008 Posted by | On the Campaign Trail | , , , | Leave a comment

On the bus

I wasted no time in getting stuck into campaigning.  On Saturday morning I accompanied Amalie and Julia, the organisers of Swing Semester, to Boulder, to join in New Era Colorado’s famous ‘bus project’ – a group of young people going out canvassing, travelling to a targeted area in an old-style bus.

There were about twenty-odd of us in total, mainly 18-30 year olds and a couple of older folk as well. 



On the bus we got a short briefing about the politics of the area we were going to (Longmount) and the state of the races there.

Then, the clipboards and papers were handed out, for us to familiarise ourselves with how to fill out the canvass sheets, read the literature we were handing out and other briefing documents.

When we got to our destination, there were further briefings; include this reminder (complete with singing accompaniment to lighten the mood) of how to behave and get the most out of canvassing

And so work….  My patch was within a wealthy neighbourhood, some streets if which backed onto a gold course.  Not the most fertile canvassing territory.  There were more houses which had the McCain yard signs than the Obama ones.


I did 2.5 hours of walking the streets, trying to find the right houses, delivering literature, knocking on doors, sometimes finding someone in and on occasion even willing to have a conversation with on the elections.  I think my final figures were 29 houses visited and 11 ‘contacts’ (actual communication).  Then  it was back to the bus for the journey back to Boulder … and plates of sushi at a local restaurant.

October 27, 2008 Posted by | On the Campaign Trail | , , , , , | 2 Comments

6 weeks is a very long time in politics

6 weeks ago the Obama convention bounce – and the Democratic activist high from those scenes at Invesco stadium – were thought to be at their peak.  And Obama had a bare lead in the electoral college vote, according to the polls. 

6 weeks ago Sarah Palin had just been unveiled to the world as McCain’s running mate …. and the media thought it a masterstroke.

6 weeks ago the Dow was as high as 11500 and the FTSE 100 stood at 5600.  And a mattress was what what you slept on, rather than a safer place than banks to store your money.

And 6 weeks ago I left Denver, after an amazing experience at the Convention, in the city and with my hosts Hunter and Tyler.  

Tyler and Malcolm Hunter, Malcolm and Tyler

…. my tan has definitely now gone, despite the Indian Summer we’ve experienced here. Since departing Denver on such a high, I’ve been to 5 political conferences: the Greens, Trade Union Congress, Liberal Democrats, Labour and the Conservatives.  I’ve watched my godson take his first steps, first aided and now on his own.  I’ve celebrated my birthday, and my twin brother’s!  And I’ve continued to talk, watch, read, blog and breathe the US elections. 

But lotts has changed in the past 6 weeks.  That’s a bland understatement of the highest order.  The financial, economic and political landscape in the US, the UK and to a lesser extent across the world has radically altered. 

Here in the UK, Gordon Brown is now seen (at least for the moment) as a leader fit for these times, rather than a pathetic character about to prematurely ousted from a job he seemed ill-suited for.  The Conservative lead in the polls has diminished from its historic highs.  The Conservative leader David Cameron is now having to not only back regulation and nationalisation, but he is calling for even tighter curb on boardroom pay and perks than the Labour Prime Minister.   We have revived our old enmity with Iceland, this time over banking rather than fish.  And many people – councils, charities and businesses included – have discovered to their cost that when something looks too good to be true (in this case high interest rates on their savings offered by Icelandic banks without any risk), it probably is.

In the States, “the tectonic plates have shifted” (as John Prescott’s catchphrase aptly puts) to an even bigger degree.   Perhaps the best way of visualising what has happened, is through this fantastic graph, posted by State of the Union (h/t  Look at the way McCain’s fall in popularity almost exactly mirrors the collapse in confidence on Wall Street.

And if yesterday – ‘Black Friday’ – wasn’t bad enough for McCain, we had the ‘Troopergate’ verdict giving further credence to Sarah Palin’s lack of suitability for the V-P job, and criticisms of McCain’s decision-making.  I’m not sure though, in electoral terms, it does anything more than confirm and harden the ‘love her or loathe her’ responses to her.  It’s a lot of passion on both sides she’s managed to stir up these past 6 weeks.
Unbelievably, from the close race 6 weeks ago we are now looking, certainly if the election was held today, at an electoral college landslide for Obama, a possibility of the Democrats getting near to that filibuster-proof 60 seats in the Senate, and a large House majority.  Only the most optimistic would have predicted this situation.   But now we are here, we don’t want to let it slip back.  I absolutely love this rousing, tour de force of a post by Markos which sets out the motivation for the final 4 weeks of the campaign:

“The day after the election, I want to see an electoral battlefield littered with defeated Republicans, their ranks demoralized, their treasury in heavy debt, and no real leadership to take the helm. I want a vacuum so complete, that a bloody leadership battle between the neocons, theocons, and corporate cons shakes the GOP to its core, and leaves it fractured and ill-equipped to stymie the progressive agenda, much less ramp up for an even bleaker (for them) 2010.”

“Guys, that’s why I don’t worry about complacency. We’re not out to win this thing. We’re out to crush them. And that’s going to require a level of engagement beyond anything you’ve ever done before. It’ll mean more phone banking, more canvassing, more donating. … We’ve all got something to offer, whether it’s time or money, and now’s the time to offer what we can.”

Given I can’t offer money (foreign donations are illegal), I am going to be offering my time.  My time in the States.  Campaigning for Obama.  More shortly ….

October 11, 2008 Posted by | global perspective | , , , , , | 1 Comment

An ode to burritos

My staple food whilst in Denver was burritos: chicken, beef, vegetable, any variety.  Had them for breakfast, lunch and dinner – not everyday, not every meal, but many times.  And I loved them. 


I wouldn’t have survived a night of drinking post Obama’s speech if it hadn’t been for their ubiquity as roadside snacks.  Much tastier than a kebab.  But my favourite was ‘the breakfast burrito’ – stuffed full of good things and an energy-packed way to start the day.  They were about the first thing I missed when from my trip when I returned home. Breakfast burritos are hard to come by east of the Mississippi! But as Hunter has just emailed me, “green chilli is the secret, but eggs, bacon, cheese, and some salsa wrapped in a flour tortilla might get you through!”  So I may just have to try that one morning.

September 3, 2008 Posted by | lessons from America, Uncategorized | , | 1 Comment

I was there – Obama @ Invesco stadium

I was there.

I was there to witness history being made.
I was there to celebrate Obama’s nomination with 70,000 Democrats (and a lot of media).
I was there to stand up for change.

I was lucky enough at the last minute to get a pass inside Invesco Field at Mile High, to give the stadium its full name.  Due to the hassles in getting in, I had missed some of the early entertainment and warm-up acts. In fact I heard but not saw the first few speeches whilst in another queue: for hot dogs – one of the ‘healthier’ food options available from the stadium’s catering outlets. Bill Richardson impressed more for his speaking in both English and Spanish than for his content. 

There I found myself inside, only two hours before Obama was due to go stage and officially accept the Democratic party’s nomination as presidential candidate – America’s first black nominee. This was about to the moment I’d been hoping and waiting for. And, even with the hassles of getting in, it was just amazing to actually be there. 

If Denver is the Mile High City, then my seat felt it was located 1.5 miles high. Up in the ‘nose-bleed section’ as someone put it, maybe ten rows from the very top of this 75,0000 capacity stadium. Certainly a wow factor when I first emerged: all those rows of seats, all those people, all that noise. Incredible.

This view directly down to the stage / podium doesn’t do justice to the steep banks of seating all around the stadium or the sheer numbers of people here. But you can see the platforms that each of the TV networks had set up to use as their studios, housing their teams of commentators and analysts covering proceedings live (and probably often talking over the speeches!)

I took my seat just in time to see Stevie Wonder … and one of the big crescendos of excitement within the stadium. “Signed, sealed and delivered” was Barack’s signature tune during the primaries, played immediately after he finished his speeches. Very moving seeing it performed live, and a cue for lots of dancing and flag-waving.

Al Gore took to the podium to thunderous applause. He seemed genuinely touched and pleased with his reception. Like Kerry the night before, here was a Democrat presidential candidate who is more popular and better at delivering speeches at this Convention than in the one in which he was nominated.

As the sun set behind the stadium …

Veep candidate Joe Biden stepped out. He is loving this Convention; and people here are loving him back. Quite a short speech by Biden, more putting in an appearance and pushing home a few well crafted attacks on Bush-McCain then anything more substantial. But he’d done the heavy-lifting on Wednesday.


Interestingly, there seemed to be many more African-Americans in the audience than I’d seen at events and in crowds in the preceding days.

August 30, 2008 Posted by | Denver Diary | , , , , , , , | 3 Comments