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Oakland groups gather to watch Wednesday’s presidential debate

on October 4, 2012

In Jack London Square, a smiling cardboard President Obama was taped to the wall to greet debate-watchers at Everett and Jones. Downtown, immigrants from across Africa wore “Africans for Obama” t-shirts as they laughed uproariously at Obama’s remarks towards Mitt Romney. Not far away, a group of eager-eyed comedians in a bar followed the back-and-forth on flatscreens, looking for material and taking thorough notes.

The big event was the Wednesday night presidential debate, when Obama and Romney met both in Denver and on national television to present their conflicting hopes and ideas for the next four years. In Oakland, in a variety of venues, residents gathered in public places to view the debates with like-minded neighbors. At an Obama for America barbecue at Everett and Jones, an African community get-together, and a political roast at the Washington Inn, Oakland voters came together to see the high-stakes debate in good company.

With Obama for America: Superman with an “O”

In the back room of Everett and Jones in Oakland, the cardboard Obama cutout wore a Superman logo grey and black superhero costume, complete with an “O” on the chest, and stared up into the distance, hands on its hips, ready for action. It sported an “Obama 2012” sticker on the side of its stomach, directly above its underwear. It stood next to a flat-screen television, broadcasting the 2012 presidential debates on MSNBC, hosted by Jim Lehrer.

Cheering and applause came from the couches around the large room as Obama defended himself and his attempts to fix the weak economy. The room was silent when Romney accused Obama of doubling the national deficit. People cheered and nodded when Obama said that he entered the Oval Office “with two wars that were paid for on a credit card; two tax cuts that were not paid for; and a whole bunch of programs that were not paid for; and then a massive economic crisis.”

The event, hosted by the Obama for America office in Oakland, was attended by District 1 councilmember Jane Brunner, District 3 councilmember Rebecca Kaplan and many Obama for America volunteers. The restaurant was equipped with a big screen and a handful of smaller televisions so that everyone could have a good view of the two presidential nominees arguing about health care, the economy, unemployment and other domestic issues.

The reaction to Romney’s zingers towards Obama–saying that Obama spent $90 billion on “green” businesses, many of which were owned by campaign contributors–were received with many “Oooooh!’s” and an “Oh my God!” And grand statements from Obama about the future of America and need for better quality education were met with strong, loud applause and some enthusiastic cries of “Yeah!”

Predictably, many people at the event voiced their dissatisfaction over Romney’s responses to questions about Medicare and health care. Shouts of “Tell us your plan!” could be heard throughout the crowd as Romney criticized the Affordable Care Act, apologizing for calling it “Obamacare.” Cheers and laughter swept through the room when Obama responded with “I like it.”

“I would have also been interested to hear discussion about a woman’s right to choose and to control her own body,” said Joel Freid, an attorney at the East Bay Municipal Utility District and a former classmate of Obama’s at Harvard Law School. “I would have liked to hear Romney’s answer to why he’s flipped his position on issues. Why was he pro-choice before, and now he’s anti-choice?”

Amaranth Modacure, a photographer and Obama for America volunteer, sporting red, white and blue ribbons in her hair and an “Obama 2012” pin on her cowboy hat, said that Romney was not specific enough, and she could not relate to him.

“The America that I see and the America that he sees and lives are different. It doesn’t sound like I’m included in there,” she said. “With Obama, I feel like I have someone to vote for.”

With new voters from Africa: “Band together; talk to your friends.”

In a dark upstairs ballroom in downtown Oakland, Africans for Obama, a young organization that seeks to harness the African migrant vote in the upcoming election, gathered about 70 Obama supporters to watch Wednesday’s debate.

American voters from Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa laughed at the President’s jokes and applauded comments he made about education and healthcare reform. Jibes against Romney drew the most noticeable responses from the audience. Roars of laughter echoed around the room after Obama said, “Math, common sense and our history shows you Romney’s plan won’t work.”

Africans for Obama was founded only two weeks ago, and has since attracted about 100 members. But Nigerian founder Kaykay Amamgbo said she hopes the number will rise quickly as the election heats up.

“Right now, all I want you guys to do is band together and talk to your friends,” Amamgbo said to the crowd after the debate was screened.

Amamgbo, who owns the African Caribbean Food Market on 8th Street and Clay in Downtown Oakland, was born in the U.S., but moved as a baby to Nigeria, where she grew up. She returned to Oakland in 1992 and has since voted in four presidential elections.

“I was in Nigeria until I was 18, and even now I keep hearing from my friends and family how corrupt the government is and how things never get better,” she said.

With the build-up to U.S. elections grabbing headlines in newspapers around the world, many in other countries are looking to Obama and Romney to set an example for peaceful democratic transition, Amamgbo said. “People model themselves on a country that has been around for a few hundred years,” she said, referring to the U.S. “It’s not a perfect system, but it’s a system that the rest of the world looks at.”

A slump in sales at her store has frustrated Amamgbo and, like many around the country, she said her primary concern in the election is improving the economy. “As a U.S. voter, what’s important for me is my business,” she said. “If people lose their jobs, of course it affects me, because they buy less and it trickles down.”

Among the comics: “Might as well laugh.”

“Take a small business owner, for instance,” Mitt Romney was saying from the flatscreen TV above the bar. “Say someone wants to open up a bank in their garage…”

For four of the debate-watchers at the Washington Inn in downtown Oakland, this had definite potential. One of the two men on the television Wednesday evening will be the highest authority in America over the next four years. But their talking points were also forming the basis of an improvised comedy set that would kick off at 7:30—as soon as the candidates had finished saying their piece.

“These always just end up sounding like two guys making fun of each other’s ‘small businesses,’” said Dhaya Lakshminarayanan, the organizer of Oakland’s first Presidential Debate + Comedy Show, when the broadcast concluded.

The note-takers were the rapidly-prepping comedians. “These are busy times for comics,” Lakshminarayanan said of the election season. She, along with local comic Samson Koletkar, organized this series of four events around the presidential and vice presidential debates. Featured on Wednesday were Bay Area comedians Sean Keane, Trevor Hill, Marga Gomez and headliner Maureen Langan.

“We just found this election cycle so funny that we had to do something,” Lakshminarayanan said. From Representative Todd Akin’s definition of “legitimate rape” to a Democratic Party totally unwilling to criticize any element of the sitting president’s policy, she said, there’s a lot more than usual to laugh at in 2012.

It was actually the president who got the first laugh of the evening, while the comics were still organizing their notes. After Romney declared that he would sit down with Republican and Democratic leaders on his first day in office, Obama grinned before referring to a previous promise the governor had made in his address. “Governor Romney is going to have a very busy first day,” he said with a chuckle, “because he’ll also be repealing Obamacare.”

Side conversation rose within the relatively youthful crowd as the candidates discussed their stances on Social Security, while attention seemed to sharpen when the focus came on the economy. A small, collective groan was audible when Governor Romney said, “We are a nation that believes we are all children under the same God.”

“I’ve become a lot more cynical,” Martha Alt from Albany said in response, sighing and turning away from the television. “I used to have greater hope.”

When the debate was over the crowd moved into a hotel conference room to hear the berating of the politicians. “Politicians have become pretty laughable,” Alt said. “Might as well laugh.”

“How about Ebenezer Romney?” Trevor Hill told the crowd during his set. “He always looks like the chaperone at an orgy.” Hill went on to complain that CNN’s system of real-time polling of its audience provided data that looked like “the readout on an EKG machine for a guy only being kept alive by shameless pandering.”

“People love Obama, but they don’t know why,” Hill continued, poking fun at the discrepancy between Obama’s stated priorities and his actions. “He won his Nobel Peace Prize, then he rode in on a predator drone to pick it up. People didn’t care.”

Sean Keane, in his set, went after the candidates’ apparent disconnect from normal American life. “I love how Romney’s example of starting a small business is ‘opening a bank in your garage,’” he said, going on to joke that most Americans have trouble thinking of uses for the “hundreds of thousands of dollars lying around the house.”

“I’ve learned a lot about myself as a woman from these men,” Maureen Langan told the crowd. In her set, which was the finale of the evening, she attacked American politics for being superficial, likening them to a beauty contest. “The Republicans are much better looking people,” she said.

A Dutch visitor to the evening named Kate said she had come to the show with a friend because she believes humor gives clarity to complex issues.  She was happy to see both candidates humbled by the comics, she said, although the audience members were clearly Obama partisans. “Comedy tonight made these issues no less serious,” she said. “But it made them more palatable.”

Lakshminarayanan said Oakland had seemed the obvious choice for venue when she and Koletkar were organizing the details of the event. “Oakland has become this epicenter for people who understand that all elections are local,” she said, adding that she’s been impressed by Oakland residents’ involvement in politics.

Lakshminarayanan also said she was impressed by the audience’s endurance, and that the interest they displayed in combing over political rhetoric from what she thought to be a particularly dry debate isn’t something you’ll find in most places. “The people tonight happily sat through an hour and a half of debate, then an hour of comedy,” she said, “which says a lot about the Oakland audience.”


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