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Whidbey watches as Barack Obama becomes 44th president

It’s an election that has forever changed the United States. And many on Whidbey say the election of Barack Obama as the 44th president will not only change us, but the world as well.

“This election has to be one of the most important of our lifetime,” said Grethe Cammermeyer, a retired Army officer and Democratic Party activist.

“Not because we elected a man of color, but because we elected a man with vision, with hope, with a dream which has captured the majority of Americans,” she said. “We want to work and walk with this man to create together the America we used to believe in. We do believe that this is the man to unite a divisive country, a country in economic and emotional bankruptcy.”

A record number of Americans went to the polls Tuesday to elect Obama president, with one estimate putting the total number of voters at 128.5 million. Obama won 364 electoral college votes over Republican candidate John McCain’s 173; 270 were needed to win the White House.

In Washington, Obama won with 57 percent of the vote; McCain earned 40 percent. In Island County, Obama led with 52 percent of the vote; McCain, 45 percent.

Cammermeyer took an active role in getting out the Democratic vote. She hosted numerous phone-bank parties at her Langley home, where volunteers made calls to encourage people to vote for Obama and other Democratic candidates.

“We have lived through eight years of divisiveness, of unjust war, of feeling totally negated and being a laughing stock to the rest of the world. And now we really do believe we’ll be part of change, that we contribute to that change and we are willing to sacrifice for the betterment of the country and thereby the world,” she said.

Cammermeyer, who gained national fame as a fighter against the ban against homosexuals serving in the military, said the election was a defining moment.

“I have never seen such jubilation in the country and in the world as this extraordinary election of Barack Obama,” Cammermeyer said.

“He is the man who will lead us out of our darkness, so we once again feel like a unified country seeking equality and justice for all.”

Diane Jhueck of Langley has worked for the past year and a half to encourage Whidbey voters through her e-mail campaign “WEB,” Whidbey Elects Barack.

On Wednesday morning, Jhueck’s first WEB note read: “First, is anyone else periodically and spontaneously bursting into tears today?”

That pretty much sums up the significance of Obama’s win for Jhueck.

“On one level, it’s pure emotion,” Jhueck said.

“Even though I’ve never been a mother, I think the feeling probably resembles a birth. I feel complete joy.”

Along with those periodic bouts of tears, Jhueck said she also feels a sense of calm.

She talked to her mother who is in her mid-70s, and her mother agreed she has never seen anything so transformative.

“The race issue of this election is a symbol of what kind of change this is,” Jhueck said.

“As Condoleeza Rice just said, Barack’s election is an extraordinary step. Something to be relished and held in our hearts.

And, we all know it does not mean the end of racism and other kinds of disenfranchisement,” she said. “Much of Barack’s acceptance speech was about the ‘enormous task ahead’ for all of us. In electing him, we elected ourselves.”

Jhueck is impressed by how readily Whidbey Island rallied behind Obama.

“I have a sense of awe of what I watched everyone around me do,” she said. “People want this country to be what they want it to be.”

Marty Behr was one of the many who stepped up.

The Langley man said he was excited by Obama early in the primaries, and he still is. Late last month, Behr took a week’s leave from his travel-agency job to canvass for the president-elect in the swing state of Ohio.

“He is really inspirational in what he says, and about what our country can be,” he said.

“It’s a great opportunity for hope and optimism, not fear and pessimism. I think that’s what he represents.”

Behr said Obama’s highly-organized campaign made it easy for him to get involved, “and tens of thousands of people did the same thing. There were hundreds of people just on Whidbey. He energizes people.”

Obama is early pick

That energy was apparent early on.

Thousands of people packed caucuses across Island County in February to support Obama. He beat fellow Democrat Hillary Clinton by winning 68 percent of the caucus vote, then followed up that victory in the non-binding statewide presidential primary with 53 percent.

Henry Pope is an engineer at Boeing and is the South Whidbey High School girls basketball coach. As an African American born in Alabama in 1955 — as a child, he was exposed to some of the worst of the segregation of the South — the election of Obama to the nation’s highest office has special significance.

“I tell you, it was just amazing that he won,” Pope said. “It’s not that he’s an African American, but that he came from the ground up, had parents who kept him out of harm’s way.”

“Never thought I’d see the day; I’m filled with pride and hope for the future,” Pope said.

“For me it felt like a day on which Americans leaped to their feet to take the country back,” said Langley author Elizabeth George. For the past several weeks, she has been writing position papers supporting Obama and circulating them via e-mail across the country.

“It felt like a day upon which we decided that being intelligent, thoughtful, educated and articulate did not mark someone as a member of the ‘elite,’ but rather distinguished him as capable and prepared. I was thrilled to play even so small a part,” she said.

Melinda Mack of Langley said that although Obama’s win has given her an uplifting feeling as if something has shifted, it hasn’t quite set in yet.

“Today I had an overwhelming sense of gratitude for my life, and I felt more of a commitment to living simply; that ‘Yes we can’ attitude that Obama talked about,” she said.

“Now we don’t have to move to Canada! We want to sink deeper and root ourselves into our community. Living here is now more meaningful,” she said.

As some in the U.S. compared Obama’s victory to watershed American benchmarks such as the Emancipation Proclamation, the Louisiana Purchase and the Civil Rights Act, the enthusiasm of Obama’s rise to the White House spread across the globe.

In Germany, Iran and China, people were seen to be celebrating as if Obama was their own choice for a leader of their own country. In Obama’s ancestral homeland of Kisumu, Kenya, people paraded in the streets, and Nov. 5 was declared a national holiday.

History in the making

Diane Mattens brought her three children — Michela, Aren and Evan — to the party at Bayview Corner on Election Night. Democrats and Obama supporters packed the two-story building, and cheers echoed through the Cash Store as the crowd watched states turn blue on a big screen hanging from the ceiling in the center of the building’s Hub.

“It’s a new beginning, and I wanted to share that with my children,” Mattens said. “I told them that, because of this historic decision by the American people, you have hope in your future.

“I was overcome with pride. Now it’s time to come together,” she said.

A moment past 8 p.m. Pacific Standard Time on Election Night, Obama was declared the winner after California, Oregon and Washington were called in his favor; the 100 or so people gathered at the Cash Store sent up a cheer and started dancing.

Earlier, South Whidbey resident Barbara Phillips was watching the Pennsylvania returns closely. It was her home state, and where her 84-year-old father still resides.

“My dad is an avid Hillary Clinton fan, and though he would never say so publicly as he is a well-mannered gentleman, he would never vote for a black man,” she said.

But her father turned around about two weeks ago and decided to vote for Obama, even though, as his daughter said, his racism ran deep.

Perhaps it was Obama’s charisma that convinced him. Phillips believes it’s a powerful thing, and she said she’s seen it in others.

But Obama has even more than that, she added. “He’s so hopeful, so fresh. It’s like watching the sun come up.”

Excitement grew in the crowd as the evening went on and more states turned blue. Arms raised skyward in jubilation and many hugged anyone within arm’s reach.

Finally, Obama took the stage in Chicago.

“If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.”

Another cheer arose from the Bayview crowd.

Penny Harger, who volunteered at the caucuses in February and who has worked steadily on the Obama campaign, was ecstatic. She hovered on the verge of happy tears.

“I feel tears of joy and of relief,” she said.

“And hope for the future. The oldest democracy in the world is proving that it still can be a democracy,” Harger said.

Gleeful shouts were interrupted by moments of rapt attention.

“It’s been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America,” Obama said.

Nathan Simpson, a South Whidbey resident who turned 18 on Election Day, was celebrating the biggest gift of his young life.

“I voted for Obama,” Simpson said. “I’m just so happy; this is all the birthday party I ever wanted. This is easily the best birthday I’ve ever had.”

Dozens of eyes turned upward to the big screen as Obama gave his victory speech. He eloquently thanked his staff, his wife and family and, finally, the voters. He spoke of how his campaign was built, and what that effort means for America.

“It was built by working men and women who dug into what little savings they had to give five dollars and ten dollars and twenty dollars to this cause,” Obama said.

“It grew in strength from the young people who rejected the myth of their generation’s apathy; who left their homes and their families for jobs that offered little pay and less sleep; from the not-so-young people who braved the bitter cold and scorching heat to knock on the doors of perfect strangers; from the millions of Americans who volunteered, and organized, and proved that more than two centuries later, a government of the people, by the people and for the people has not perished from this Earth. This is your victory.”

Change has come

Obama then told the story of the 106-year-old Atlanta voter Ann Nixon Cooper.

“She was born just a generation past slavery; a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky; when someone like her couldn’t vote for two reasons — because she was a woman and because of the color of her skin,” Obama said.

“And tonight, I think about all that she’s seen throughout her century in America — the heartache and the hope; the struggle and the progress; the times we were told that we can’t, and the people who pressed on with that American creed: Yes we can,” he said.

The crowd cheered again. Obama continued and the ecstatic audience lifted their eyes upward again.

“America, we have come so far. We have seen so much. But there is so much more to do. So tonight, let us ask ourselves — if our children should live to see the next century; if my daughters should be so lucky to live as long as Ann Nixon Cooper, what change will they see? What progress will we have made?

“This is our chance to answer that call. This is our moment. This is our time. To put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American Dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth: That out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope, and where we are met with cynicism, and doubt, and those who tell us that we can’t, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes we can.”

This story was written by Patricia Duff, Jeff VanDerford, Roy Jacobson and Brian Kelly.

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