By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Majid Al-Bahadli camea long way to get to Denver. Born near Basra, raised in Sadr City, refugeed after the 1991 uprising against Saddam, married and naturalized in Seattle, Majid is the only Iraqi delegate at the Democratic National Convention.
“I think there are other Arabs, from Michigan and places like that,” he says. “But no one else is from Iraq. As far as I know, I’m the only one at any Democratic convention. Or Republican convention. I’m the only one ever!”
We’re on the floor of the Pepsi Center on Monday, where 4,000 delegates, 15,000 journalists and god-knows-how-many DNC staff, finance people, party bigwigs, hangers-on and fresh-faced, yellow-vested volunteers will fill the room in the run up to Thursday’s epic nomination. Majid is an Obama delegate. This is impossible not to know if you get anywhere near Majid, who rotates between self-designed T-shirts that announce, IRAQI AMERICANS FOR OBAMA and IRAQ FOR OBAMA, YES WE CAN!
“I first heard Obama speak in 2004 in Boston,” Majid says of his American political awakening. “And after that, I was just waiting for him to announce he would run in 2008.”
When that happened, Majid, who is 41 and has three kids, started canvassing his neighborhood, standing in front of grocery stores, talking to friends, talking to strangers, talking to anyone who would listen about his fundamental belief in his candidate. “I don’t have anything bad to say about Hillary, but I know in my heart that Obama will change the world.”
For Majid, this is more than rhetoric. With his entire extended family still in Baghdad, he has more at stake than almost anyone else here.
“I talked to my brother, Khalid, before I left. Everyone there is watching on CNN, Al Jazeera. Both conventions mean a lot to them. Now, I am an American. I love it here. Issues like health care and the economy are important to me, because they affect millions of my new American family. But I have an Iraqi family too, and they need security and safety immediately. Their lives are the ones that will change. Or stay the same, with McCain.”
The convention is called to order, and the Washington delegation feels the moment. They wave signs, holler, dance to the interstitial music between speakers (oddest segue: “Addicted to Love” after BillClinton’s speech Wednesday). One guy wears a button-and-sticker headdress making a none-too-subtle argument: McCAIN IS INSANE. Almost everyone within a 20-foot radius wears a blue button with OBAMA FOR CHANGE in English, Arabic and Hebrew — all Majid’s work.
“That’s how I got started,” he says, “with the buttons!”
In the months before the state’s February 8 caucus, Majid bought a button maker, created dozens of designs and churned out thousands of buttons. “People started ordering them from everywhere, even abroad. I gave them to people at synagogues and mosques. Now, you have Arabs wearing Hebrew and Jews wearing Arabic. That’s how much Obama’s message resonates with people.”
Majid’s success is also derived from his infectious enthusiasm. When Majid made his case for Obama at his local public library on February 8, his fellow caucus-goers were so moved by his heartfelt statement and personal history that they surprised him with a nomination as a precinct delegate. In a year of intense competition for delegate positions, it’s not easy to get to the convention, especially in Washington state, where three stages of caucusing winnow thousands of precinct-level hopefuls to fewer than 80 delegates. The three-month process turned out to be a campaign of its own, an exercise in democracy that most Americans don’t even realize is possible, and one well-suited to Majid, who loves people as much as they love him. At the final stage, Majid had 30 seconds to tell 1,100 people why he should go to Denver. When the votes were counted, he had convinced 900 of them, a landslide victory.
“Eighty seven percent!” he exclaims, recalling the shock, “of all the votes!”
When I point out that this is almost as much as Saddam Hussein used to get, Majid says, “It’s no joke! Where I come from, it was one ballot and one name. You guys don’t know what you have here with democracy. Half the country doesn’t participate! I don’t get it. You vote for who you want and have no fear of being killed. This is an incredible luxury.”
Majid has been appointed to the tallying committee, meaning he will play a procedural role in voicing his state’s votes. “I can’t wait,” he says, “to see all the names there, and next to mine I will mark the box for Obama!”
The Washington delegation is staying in the Hyatt Regency Tech Center hotel in an office park 15 miles south of Denver. Tonight, they’ve all gathered for a reception in the Plaza Room on the 13th floor. A congresswoman is speaking to a packed room. A buffet is stacked with a dozen types of desserts. No journalists are here, because journalists don’t party with delegates. They party with each other, and they’re too busy trying to wrangle their way into the many glitzy shindigs around town. Apparently, the Vanity Fair/Google party on Thursday is the week’s hottest ticket. I’ve already gotten inside one of those affairs and been reminded how shatteringly anticlimactic they are. If you want to stand in line for some jaded hobnobbing surrounded by a-holes, you don’t need to wait four years and fly to Denver. You can do that in Hollywood. Up in the Hyatt Tech’s Plaza Room, I realize, it’s much more fun spending time with the people who might actually get Obama elected. Like Majid, who seems to be the unofficial mayor of his delegation.