Surveying the scene: Before starting his speech, Democrat Barack Obama looks over the thousands of cheering supporters who turned out for his “Women’s Rally for the Change We Need” event.
Obama Electrifies
Crowd at UM’s BankUnited Center

By Robert C. Jones Jr.

The line stretched down Walsh Avenue and then wrapped around Merrick Street as far as the eye could see.

Twenty-one-year-old Nene Kamate, a University of Miami senior from Queens, New York, and a 100-meter hurdler on the women’s track team, stood patiently for more than an hour-and-a-half, waiting to enter the arena where she would get the chance to see and hear the man whose childhood, she says, “was like mine in many respects.”
“My parents fought hard, too, to raise us,” said Kamate, who has two brothers and three sisters. “My dad drove a cab and my mother cooked meals out of the house and sold them. They did everything they could to make sure we had everything we needed.”

Kamate was talking about U.S. Senator Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential candidate who, during his speeches across the nation, often refers to being raised by a single mother who struggled to make ends meet.

At the podium: In addition to the Obama rally, UM President Donna E. Shalala has helped bring many other events to campus as part of the school’s Dialogue for Democracy series.

The first African-American to accept a major-party presidential nomination, Obama brought his campaign to the University of Miami campus on Friday, delivering a message of hope for women and touting his plans for economic recovery and universal health care.

His appearance at UM’s BankUnited Center, dubbed a “Women’s Rally for the Change We Need,” was part of A Dialogue for Democracy, a University-wide series of events focusing on key issues surrounding the presidential campaign.

“We all know how important women will be in determining the outcome of this election,” Obama said during his opening remarks. “But as I stand here with all of you, I know that this isn’t just about politics for me. This is personal. I come here today not just as a candidate for president. I come here as a son and a grandson, as a husband and a father who has seen firsthand throughout my life the challenges so many women face every day in this country.”

He recalled seeing his mother struggle to put herself through school while working and raising two children. “She once had to turn to food stamps to make sure we had enough to eat,” Obama said.

“I think women like her who work hard and pour everything they’ve got into their kids should be able to pay the bill and get ahead. And that’s why I’m running for president of the United States.”

He said women like his grandmother, who worked her way up to middle management at a bank and saw men no more qualified than her move above her in the corporate ladder, “should be paid fairly and have the same chances to succeed as everyone else.

“I know how hard the women of this country are working … as we stand in the midst of the most serious financial crisis in generations,” Obama said. But he noted that challenges that women face, including equal pay, childcare, and balancing work and family life, aren’t just issues for women. “When a job doesn’t offer family leave, that also hurts men who want to help care for a new baby or a sick parent,” he said.

Meeting the senator: Obama meets with students, from left, Brandon Gross, president of UM Student Government; Jason Stevens, president of the UM Young and College Democrats; and Amanda Sussex, president of the UM organization Students for a Better America.

Meeting with UM Students

Before the senator took the stage, he met privately with three University of Miami students who play an active role in politics at the institution.

“He told us he should take tips from us on how to win an election, and he stressed the importance of swing states, particularly voting in Florida,” Amanda Sussex, a senior majoring in psychology who is an Obama campaign campus intern and president of the UM organization Students for a Better America, said of her encounter with the senator.

UM Student Government President Brandon Gross, one of the three students who met Obama, said the senator talked about the importance of getting young people to vote. President of UM’s Young and College Democrats Jason Stevens was the third student to meet the senator.

UM President Donna E. Shalala stressed that the upcoming election is a “particularly important election for the young people of our country. It will determine their future,” she said.

Obama’s Message

During his speech, which was often interrupted by applause from the audience, Obama said the country could steer itself out of the current economic crisis. “Our nation has faced difficult times before, and in each one of those moments, we’ve always risen to the challenge, because we’ve never forgotten that fundamental truth: that here in America, our destiny is written not for us, but by us.”

He said he supports the bipartisan efforts of U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke to work with members of Congress to find a solution to the country’s economic downturn, and that he would ask Republicans to join him in supporting an emergency economic plan for working families.

He echoed the “Change We Need” theme that has characterized his campaign, calling for an end to pay discrimination, and saying he favors affordable and acceptable health care for Americans and an expansion of the family medical leave act.

At the rally: Obama’s rally featured prominent women politicians, including U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri, left, and U.S. Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida.

The senator promised to raise the minimum wage, address early childhood education, and push for a $4,000 tuition credit to make college affordable for everyone. He also touted his tax plan, which he said would give 95 percent of all working families a tax credit and would provide tax breaks to companies that invest in the United States.

Florida Swing

Obama’s UM stop, which occurred with just 45 days before the nation’s voters head to the polls to elect a new commander in chief, was part of a Florida campaign swing that includes scheduled rallies in Daytona Beach and Jacksonville on Saturday.

The University was contacted on Sunday about the possibility of hosting Obama’s rally, and by Tuesday the deal had been finalized, according to Rudy Fernandez, UM’s vice president for government affairs.

Noting that UM President Donna E. Shalala is committed to bringing events to campus this semester as part of the institution’s Dialogue for Democracy series, Fernandez said she reached out to the Obama and McCain camps months ago, inviting both candidates to visit the campus at some point during the campaign cycle.

“We’ve invited McCain to also have a rally here,” Fernandez said, “and we’re hoping that he will accept our invitation before the election.”

Watch Locations

Nearly every seat in the arena was filled, and a large crowd gathered around the stage where Obama spoke. Mothers came with their young daughters. Students, retirees, schoolteachers, stay-at-home moms, war veterans, and people representing a cross-section of nationalities packed the arena, waving sings that said “Change We Can Believe In” and “Women for Obama.”

Those who weren’t lucky enough to get tickets to the event watched the rally at different locations on the Coral Gables campus. UMTV broadcast the rally, which was shown at the Cosford Cinema, where it was projected onto the venue’s big screen, and the School of Communication’s Shoma Hall.

Energized audience: UM’s BankUnited Center was filled to capacity for Obama’s rally.

Busy at the BUC

UM’s BankUnited Center, which hosted the first presidential debate of 2004 and two historic Spanish-language forums last year in which Democratic and Republican candidates addressed issues of importance to Hispanics, had to overcome a logistical challenge to prepare the venue in time for Obama’s visit.

On Wednesday it hosted a career fair for UM students, and a day later workers installed the new basketball floor

“The planning and execution of this event was incredibly intense,” said George J. Aiello, the center’s director of marketing, noting that many employees worked around the clock to prepare the venue.

Inspirational Moment [subhead]
Kamate, who will be voting in her first presidential election, said seeing Obama in person inspired her.

“I’ve seen him on TV a lot,” she said after the rally, which she attended with her close friend and teammate Krista Simkins. “Getting a chance to see him in person has made me want to pay closer attention to women’s issues and the political process.”

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