Three political newcomers from the Seattle area will be in the crowd gathered in Washington, D.C., next Tuesday to witness the historic inauguration of Barack Obama.
A year ago, Teresa Pelayo, Sam Song and Tabetha Thomas were strangers and didn’t care about politics.
Next week, they’ll be in Washington, D.C., together to watch Barack Obama be sworn in as president.
The Seattle-area trio were brought together last year by chance when, like thousands of others, they competed to be Obama delegates to the Democratic National Convention. Introduced at a bookstore last April, they bonded during the campaign.
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Now the trio plan to celebrate their victory back in the District of Columbia, even if it’s on a shoestring budget that won’t allow them to attend many marquee events.
“If Obama had never run, we would have never met,” Pelayo said. “Obama has given us the gift of friendship.”
They’ll be among the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, gathered in Washington Jan. 20 to witness the inauguration of the nation’s first African-American president.
Attendance at the inauguration is likely to top the previous record set in 1965, when 1.2 million turned out for the swearing-in of President Lyndon Johnson.
Big names from Washington state will be there, such as glass artist Dale Chihuly and RealNetworks CEO Rob Glaser, both of whom are donating tens of thousands of dollars to the Presidential Inaugural Committee.
And the Department of Homeland Security, worried hospitals could be overwhelmed, have called up doctors and nurses to help, including Dr. Chris Sanford, co-director of the travel clinic at the University of Washington.
But campaign volunteers, Obama supporters and others who simply want to be part of history say this inauguration really belongs to them.
So they are coming by plane, by train, by bus — even cruise ship. They are staying in hotels and friends’ homes. Some are paying residents a small fortune to lease their homes for the holiday weekend leading up to the big day.
Bertha McDaniel, 78, of Seattle, who participated in 1960s civil-rights marches, plans to attend the ceremony with her nephew and his wife.
She usually avoids big crowds and parties, but for the inauguration she is making an exception. She plans to buy a new dress — purple or black — and go to a ball.
“I’m an old, old black lady,” said McDaniel, who grew up in Topeka, Kan., and moved to Seattle in 1953. “I never thought I would live to see this.”
Nicole Wicks, 26, of Seattle, said this will be the positive, defining moment of her generation.
An event planner, Wicks said she had “zero involvement” in politics until last year. That changed when she ran as an Obama delegate at her precinct caucus in February. Later she became a volunteer organizer at the campaign’s Renton office.
“Between having friends in Iraq, a mother with a brain tumor who will lose her health care if anything happens to my father’s job, and after being treated like crap on trips overseas because I was American, I finally cared about an election,” Wicks said.
“And I want to be there to see it.”
When Obama came to Seattle’s KeyArena last February, he was trailing Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic nomination.
He asked the 18,000 people inside the arena — and some 3,000 outside — to go to their caucuses the next day.
Thomas, a homemaker originally from Chicago, was inside KeyArena. Song, an attorney, listened to Obama speak on the radio. Pelayo, a dental assistant, heard about the speech from a co-worker.
When they arrived at their separate precinct caucuses, each felt lost. But as caucus leaders asked for volunteers to be delegates for Obama at the legislative district level, Thomas raised her hand. So did Song and Pelayo.
“I was inspired by him [Obama],” Thomas said.
Pelayo, Song and Thomas didn’t get to know one other until the 1st Legislative District Democrats organized a meeting in mid-April at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park. There, each polished the speeches they would give in their bids to win delegate slots to the national convention in Denver.
The odds were against them. Chris Roberts, a doctoral candidate in political science at the UW, sized it up like this: “You either had to be well known or had to have a very compelling story.”
Week after week, the group gathered at the bookstore to practice their speeches and get feedback. Sometimes they brought their spouses and kids.
Though shy at first, Song became the group’s go-to guy and coordinated events. Pelayo, funny and friendly, would make lists of reasons to be happy — “You don’t look like McCain,” or “You don’t smell like a chicken.”
About 10 people became regulars. They were a diverse bunch that included African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans, a lesbian, students and white women.
“I would always joke we were a mini-United Nations,” Pelayo said.
They called themselves the Third Place Obama Democrats, or TPOD.
They held fundraising events to raise money to help a student in their group, Kendall Hamilton from Lewis & Clark College in Portland, go to the national convention. She won a delegate seat after speaking about her dream of running for president someday.
“We want her to be president so we can party in the Lincoln Bedroom,” quipped Pelayo.
One of their members dropped out after her husband died in a car accident in July, just before the state Democratic convention in Spokane. Members of the group went to the memorial service.
Trio went to Denver
Though Pelayo, Song and Thomas lost their bids to become delegates, they all flew to Denver anyway and managed to get into some events.
“I actually saw Hillary Clinton walk down the aisle and deliver her concession speech,” Song said.
They all plan on staying involved in community affairs. Song, for example, is working with a group trying to establish a human-rights commission in Snohomish County.
Thomas left a week ago to volunteer for the Presidential Inaugural Committee, and is making arrangements for Song and Pelayo to stay at her sister’s home in a District of Columbia suburb. Song is flying to Boston and then taking a bus; Pelayo is flying to Baltimore.
Because tickets to most events are expensive, the trio is choosing carefully. Song plans to attend an Asian-American gala and take his sister to the swearing-in ceremony.
As an inaugural volunteer, Thomas isn’t sure where she’ll be deployed. (She got a surprise last Thursday, when Obama visited the committee’s offices and shook the hands of more than 100 volunteers, including her hand.)
And Pelayo, who is selling 600 homemade Obama buttons for $1 to finance her trip, figures begging may get her into the hottest ticket of all — the Illinois ball.
She bought a red gown to wear in honor of President Lincoln’s wife, Mary.
“I’m hoping if I stand outside and cry they’ll let me in,” she said. “I’m going to try and work it.”
Sanjay Bhatt: 206-464-3103 or firstname.lastname@example.org