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The Night the World Began: The View From L.A. Union Rooms 

Phone bankers in East L.A., bus drivers in Echo Park celebrate Obama's victory

Wednesday, Nov 5 2008
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“Fifteen minutes! Fifteen minutes!” a woman yells in the cramped storefront on Cesar Chavez Avenue, reminding everyone gathered that voting will soon end in Colorado. All day long, East L.A.’s Barack Obama headquarters has been a disciplined hive of phone-banking to battleground states. When Pennsylvania was declared for Obama around 5:30 p.m., the place went crazy, but now everyone is back on their cell phones, calling as many Coloradoans as possible before 6 p.m. The East Los headquarters has been the call center for California Latino voters and, four days before, took over the Belvedere Soccer League offices next door. Both places are hot and have fans moving the air around as volunteers make final pitches for Obama in Colorado before moving on to Nevada.

Across town at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza in Century City, accommodations for phone bankers are far roomier. But the line to get into the huge hotel snakes out the lobby and onto the sidewalk. Downstairs, the Olympic Ballroom is booked for 20,000, but already, attendance is being closely monitored and the closing of access discussed. Campaign volunteers have been working here since 6 a.m. — first as phone-bankers, then as grunt laborers and media wranglers.

“I can’t remember how it felt,” says Glen Arnodo, when asked how long it’s been since he enjoyed being in the driver’s seat. “I’m 56 years old!”

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Arnodo has been instrumental in the L.A. County Federation of Labor’s massive phone-banking and precinct-walking efforts. Unions are a big part of this evening — and tonight they are claiming their due. More than a year ago Maria Elena Durazo, the Fed’s executive secretary-treasurer, declared herself an Obama supporter and quickly ignited criticism from Hillary Clinton supporters within L.A.’s labor movement. Yet Durazo, like some other labor leaders, made Obama the candidate of the unions, and now those unions stand to benefit from the work they did to help his campaign.

A huge roar goes up in the ballroom when a CNN graphic announces on giant projection screens, “Polls Closing Soon.” It’s almost 8 p.m. and Obama just needs one more state to guarantee victory once California is declared in his column. At exactly 8 p.m. CNN calls Virginia for Obama and the place erupts. CNN gets replaced by Obama icons on the screens and the chant rises: “O-ba-ma! O-ba-ma!”

L.A. City Council President Eric Garcetti begins to emcee the event but quickly has to compete with a growing murmur.

“CNN! CNN!” someone shouts in preference to Garcetti’s speech. He is drowned out minutes later as CNN returns to the screens to declare, “Barack Obama Elected President.” Then Garcetti urges everyone to turn to a stranger and hug him or her. It’s one of those friendship gestures that made the Catholic mass such a cringefest to me as a boy, but now hundreds of people are already hugging one another — and crying and laughing.

Senator Barbara Boxer is about to be upstaged in an even worse way. Just as she begins to tell the story of how, when Boxer was a girl, her mother became ill and was hospitalized in a segregated Florida hospital, the huge TV screens explode with McCain’s concession speech. Boxer cools her heels at the podium for another 10 minutes before returning to her story.

The Hyatt’s stage is packed with such long-time politicians as Lt. Governor John Garamendi and former state senator Art Torres, but they probably have as much comprehension of the changes that Obama has brought to politics as did John McCain. All these old war horses know is that tonight they feel the way Republicans felt when their party won.

Although the Democrats’ celebration is scheduled to run until 2 a.m., people begin streaming out of the ballroom when Obama’s televised victory speech ends. Revelers make their way to the lobby only to find ranks of firemen blocking entry into the hotel — there is still a huge line of people trying to get inside, and the police have barricaded Avenue of the Stars.

Miles away, in Echo Park, young partyers stream out of a club on Sunset Boulevard, which earlier hosted local phone-bankers and an election-watch gathering. By 10 p.m. some are walking up Sunset blowing whistles and shaking illuminated tambourines. They gather in front of a car wash at Alvarado Street, joined by some of the Obama supporters who had packed out Taix French Restaurant across the street.

Some play fiddle and banjo, others pound on pots and pans while a man spritzes traffic with champagne. Car owners and city bus drivers honk their horns, people yell into the night and dance, as though FDR has returned in the body of Jackie Robinson. The next morning Obama supporters will realize that their happiness can never be greater than it is this evening, but for now politics as usual has been blown away like campaign confetti. Now is the night the world begins.

Reach the writer at smikulan@laweekly.com

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