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Battleground Virginia: A Santa Monican’s Election Night Story:

It is now common wisdom that Barack Obama won the presidential election due to his brilliant campaign strategy, which in large part depended on his organization’s ability to put boots on the ground in key states.  Santa Monica resident Steven Ray is one of many who, due his belief in Obama and a willingness to contribute his own sweat equity, helped the President-Elect prevail on November 4. Affable and gregarious, Mr. Ray sat with the Mirror over coffee and eggs at Jinky’s on 2nd Street to tell his story of the “Two-Day Blitz” that helped Obama win the state of Virginia.

By no means a professional politician, Steven has had a long and successful career in the entertainment business, first working as Quincy Jones’s personal assistant then moving on to stints as an executive at Capitol Records, an independent producer with a deal at Warner Bros. Music, and a music publisher at Windswept Pacific Music Publishing.  He has written, produced, and performed music that has grossed millions of dollars, and he now works as a producer/financier in film and multi-platform digital media. 

When asked what motivated him to work on Obama’s behalf, Steven explained that he had met the President-Elect years ago at a fundraiser in Los Angeles when Obama was campaigning for Senator in Illinois.  They spoke one-on-one, and Steven was impressed with, and moved by, Obama’s willingness to engage in dialogue to solve the many problems facing the country, particularly with regard to foreign nations hostile to the U.S.  “You have to spoon-feed people a little bit… you can’t shove democracy down people’s throat, which was the big mistake of the Bush Administration,” Steven observed.

Steven was asked by Kevin Arnold, an executive at 20th Century Fox Films, if he would be willing to spend election day and the preceding 24 hours canvassing for Obama in Loudon County, Virginia, traditionally a Republican stronghold that, like Virginia itself, had not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate in 44 years.  Steven agreed, and took a red-eye flight to Virginia at his own expense to canvass door-to-door in the predominantly upper-middle-class white neighborhoods of Loudon County.  “In any election, in any close county, your last two days are when you need to be the most effective,” said Steven.

Upon arrival, mutual friend Ryan Myers, a Washington D.C. area-based certified financial planner and a key player in Obama’s Virginia campaign, joined Steven and Kevin. Along with the other volunteers, the three of them were given specific instruction in how to conduct themselves, an experience Steven likened to “a crash course in civil rights.”  Topics included handling hostility, anger, and threats.  Steven, Kevin, and Ryan, all of whom are African-American, were particularly sensitized to these issues.  In fact, they were the only African-Americans working in the local Obama headquarters.

Obama workers were also briefed on how to handle potential aggression not only from local residents, but also from McCain staffers who felt the county was their turf.  Some instructions were almost Zen-like in their simplicity – someone gets angry, or in your face?  “We were told to say ‘thank you, and have a nice day’ – you just move on no matter how hostile they are,” Steven explained.   And the information came in handy: on Election Day, an angry citizen looked Mr. Arnold in the face and exclaimed, “F*&k you!”  Another instructed Steven to “kiss my ass,” and yet another simply spat at his feet.  Others asked the three African-Americans why they were in Virginia in the first place, dismissing them by asking, “Why are you even here?  We’re fine.” 

Volunteers were also instructed on how to address undecided voters, and this issue is yet another example of how, in Steven’s opinion, Obama’s organization out-thought, out-planned, and out-gunned the McCain campaign.  Obama’s campaign compiled a detailed list of undecided voters, and their volunteers outnumbered McCain’s by five to one.  Once briefed, the workers hit the bricks.

Then things got interesting.

On the morning of Monday, November 3, the day before the election, Obama’s workers began canvassing various neighborhoods, either handing out or leaving their materials at the doorsteps.  Two hours later, they returned to the same areas and found their stuff had been either removed or destroyed by McCain’s people, who left their own materials behind.  Obama’s army simply replaced their literature, without disturbing McCain’s.

Other dirty tricks Steven observed were far more insidious.  False flyers were distributed that misdirected voters to the wrong polling places, and other flyers stated that local Republicans would vote on Tuesday (the actual election day), and Democrats on Wednesday. Not surprisingly, the Democrats, with memories of the 2000 and 2004 elections still lingering, had legal representation at every polling place, although Steven is quick to point out that nobody is accusing anyone in particular.  (It should be noted that, while neither political party can claim the pristine moral high ground in the rough-and-tumble world of national politics, as of press time, this reporter found no legal evidence in the public record of claims of Democratic malfeasance in Virginia.)

The results? Obama won Loudon County, which was strategically crucial to winning the state, by 53 percent to McCain’s 46 percent.   Obama’s margin of victory was 8,000 of the 120,000 votes cast. 

And then the partying began. 

“Four black guys celebrated Obama’s victory in Loudon County… and we all knew each other,” Steven laughed. After celebrating in Virginia, Steven and his friends drove into D.C., where euphoric people filled the streets, dancing, crying, and hugging total strangers.  “I’ve never been part of anything like it,” Steven said wistfully.

The next day was Steven’s birthday. “Obama winning was the best present I ever got,” he said.  But win or lose, the most important aspect of Obama’s campaign was how the President-Elect galvanized an electorate that had grown understandably cynical and disenfranchised with its leadership.  And one of Santa Monica’s own, like many others, played a small but vital role in re-empowering the American people.

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