Conceding no demographic

For the crowded field of Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate, no place is too small, remote or novel for a campaign appearance. Blair Hull has taken Illinois residents on three bus trips to Canada to buy cheaper prescription drugs. Maria Pappas has sought out voters in bowling alleys, while Joyce Washington went to shake hands at a Gladys Knight and Smokey Robinson concert in Merrillville, Ind. And the battles for even small voting blocs are intense–anything that could yield a few decisive percentage points.

Schedules include events in the gay and lesbian community, visits to mosques and college campuses and speeches to ethnic police associations.

Several candidates are hoping to turn out Asian backers. Asians make up 4.9 percent of Chicago’s population and 3.8 percent of the state’s–modest compared with other groups, but potentially, enough to swing the election.

On the evening of Jan. 13, a dozen Asian American volunteers gathered for a strategy session in a meeting room at Barack Obama’s headquarters. Obama staffer Madhuri Kommareddi, a slender Indian woman in her 20s, welcomed people and handed out meeting agendas, and the others–including people of Indian, Filipino, Chinese, Vietnamese and Afghan ancestry, some born abroad, others lifelong Midwesterners–took seats around a small table. Kommareddi said Obama would join them shortly.

The group set about planning a fundraiser, trying to find a date that wouldn’t conflict with holidays or events in any of their communities. When one man suggested holding the gathering at an Indian restaurant, Selma D’Souza, president of the Indo-American Democratic Organization, shook her head. “It’s better not to have any Asian ethnic foods, because there are so many different groups there,” she said.

The discussion soon turned to setting up voter registration drives and door-to-door campaigning. Ward maps, colored to show the concentration of Asian residents by precinct, moved around the circle. Volunteers made plans to sift through address lists and organize outings to the most heavily populated areas.

Salman Aftab, a journalist for the Afghan News Network, said he would drum up support among Muslim store owners on West Devon Street and on South Kedzie Avenue. And he would try to get Obama onto ethnic cable access programs. “Last week Dan Hynes was on a Pakistani talk show,” he said.

Obama then stepped into the room, and it went silent; the volunteers eagerly waited for him to speak. Obama is tall and thin, with a slightly stiff manner of walking that some people close to him suspect is an affectation of John F. Kennedy. At this point in the day his tie was loose. “Sorry, I just got tied up with a reporter, but I wanted to say thanks.” Everyone waited, and Obama looked around the quiet circle. “Did I interrupt something?” he joked, and everyone started cracking up.

“Thanks,” he said again. “I don’t have a long speech planned or anything. We really hope you take ownership in this process. I have some ideas, but you know your communities better than I do. We’re going to need all of you as our eyes and ears. We won’t have $15 million to spend.”

He asked them what they thought about President Bush’s recent proposal to grant work visas to some undocumented immigrants. The reviews came back quickly, and they were lukewarm at best. He nodded. “I know my instincts, but in a debate they’re going to ask me, ‘Well, doesn’t that reward illegal activity? Doesn’t it favor Latinos?’ When you get down to the nitty gritties, it becomes a tougher set of questions.” People were nodding. “So why don’t you all go to work on answering those for me?”

Everyone laughed again, and made plans for the next meeting.

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