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Election Day at Obama HQ

At a Loop diner on November 2, second-year Andrew Hammond and third-year Amrit Mehra discussed Illinois state senator and Law School senior lecturer Barack Obama, every so often pausing to look up at the diner’s television, broadcasting live election coverage. Both students began volunteering for Obama’s U.S. Senate campaign in January 2004 and worked as policy interns over the summer. Now they were watching the results of their efforts play out.

photo:  Undergrads Amrit Mehra, Quinn Bernier, and Kristen Love cheer for early pro-Kerry returns.
Lloyd DeGrane

Undergrads Amrit Mehra, Quinn Bernier, and Kristen Love cheer for early pro-Kerry returns.

Not that they were too on edge. Pre-election polls showed Obama leading Republican Alan Keyes by as many as 50 points. Still, they labored to the last day. Hammond woke up early to vote before class and distribute literature outside his 56th Street polling place. He and Mehra spent the afternoon at the campaign’s South Michigan Avenue headquarters, where they organized materials for volunteers to hand out at El and Metra stops, fielded phone calls, and watched CNN.

At 6 p.m. they took an hour for dinner, where Hammond’s enthusiasm for Dr. Pepper rivaled his passion for Obama. Both undergrads had met the half-Kenyan, half-Kansan, first African American president of the Harvard Law Review, Mehra on his first volunteer day. He’s “the real thing,” Mehra said. “Incredibly friendly,” Hammond concurred, recalling that Obama had asked his major (considering political science).

Though Mehra is from Georgia and Hammond from New Jersey, they saw the Obama campaign as a chance to try out their expressed interests in politics. They both discussed moving to Washington, D.C., after graduation, Mehra mulling a speech-writing career and Hammond perhaps running for office.

After dinner the two headed back to campaign headquarters, where they watched the East Coast presidential returns come in. Around 8 p.m., an hour after Illinois polls had closed, they walked less than a mile north to the Hyatt Regency Chicago, where the campaign had rented the grand ballroom to—they hoped—celebrate a victory. At the hotel supporters in suits or “Vote or Die” T-shirts were already buzzing in the ballroom, where “Obama: Yes We Can” signs, Kerry-Edwards buttons, and big-screen televisions broadcasting election results abounded. Snack tables offered fruits and cheeses, and enthusiasts drank wine, beer, cocktails, or soda as they cheered for Kerry and booed Bush when the media called states for either candidate. At that point the Kerry vibe was strong. “I’m pretty optimistic,” Mehra said.

Such hope was echoed by Law School student Sarah Walker, who had come to the Hyatt—the event was open to the public—as an Obama supporter, along with fellow second-years Kameron Matthews and Annette Moore. Though they had just missed a chance to enroll in his class because Obama took the year off to campaign, they felt a kinship nonetheless. Gushed Moore, “We’re just so proud of Barack.”

By 9 p.m. Obama’s victory was effectively assured (the final totals gave him 70 percent, Keyes 27 percent). Although the presidential contest was still in question, the crowd—by then 2,000 people filled the room—turned off the TVs. A campaign official pled with the supporters: “Please step back!” Then Obama, wearing a dark suit, give an enthusiastic victory speech.

After much applause the admirers streamed out of the Hyatt, anxious to get back home to watch the presidential results. Even before they heard that George W. Bush and his fellow Republicans had won most of the country, some cries of “Obama 2008” could be heard in the background.—Phoebe Maltz, ’05


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