No, the star himself - Barack Obama - wasn't in town, but several of the Democratic candidate's surrogates were on hand at Eastgate Shopping Center Thursday night to inaugurate the Illinois senator's local headquarters - first such headquarters opening by a 2008 presidential candidate in Memphis.
A hundred or so people filled up the room, ate some
barbecue, and schmoozed. A few perfunctory speeches were made - by such people
as local Democratic chairman Keith
Norman, who pointedly noted his neutrality and said he was there as an official welcomer, and Nika Jackson, an engaging young activist who is decidedly not neutral and will be in charge of the office.
Among the other attendees were such politically influential types as state Senator Reginald Tate, former city council member (and current mayoral aide) TaJuan Stout-Mitchell, and recent council candidate Desi Franklin. A number of members of the Shelby County Democrats' executive committee turned out, too - some, like longtime activist Nancy Kuhn, eager to profess their loyalty to the newest star in national politics.
"I like the others, too," said Kuhn, referring to Obama rivals Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, "but Obama is the one who's got something extra."
The candidate's HQ wasn't exactly teeming with mainstream politicians - most of whom will likely take a little time before choosing between Obama, New York Senator Clinton, and former North Carolina senator Edwards. The imminence of Tennessee's presidential-primary vote - on "Super Tuesday," February 5th -- may speed that process up a bit, however.
The crowd Thursday night ran more to African Americans than was characteristic of the mainly white and mainly youthful throngs that recently supported Obama in Iowa, the first caucus state, and New Hampshire, where the first national primary was held last week. One obvious reason for that is the proportionately larger number of blacks in Democratic ranks locally. But another could be that, since New Hampshire, racial issues - whetted both by the media and by the candidates themselves - have come more to the fore, and Obama's status as an African-American contender has received more emphasis.
There seemed also to be relatively high number of political dissidents in the mix - blogger Thaddeus Matthews, radio talk-show host Jennings Bernard, and activist Jerry Hall, among others -- though many of these may merely have attended out of curiosity.
There was no indication at the headquarters opening as to whether any Memphians have been asked to serve formally in Obama's statewide organization, nor has any such information been released by state or national headquarters as of yet. But it would be hard for the Obama campaign to do any worse in that respect than the Clinton campaign, which numbers only three Memphians on its state steering committee (as compared to 38 Nashvillians) and none on a newly released women's council.
Granted, the three Clinton steering-committee members from Memphis - state Senator Beverly Marrero, Shelby County Commissioner Sidney Chism, and state party secretary Gale Jones Carson - all have political standing. But the apparent inattention to Memphis politics evinced by the Clinton campaign, coupled with the symbolism of Obama's beating Clinton to the punch in establishing a local headquarters could turn out to be factors on February 5th.