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Obama Mops Up in Oakland

By Judith Scherr
Friday August 10, 2007

Pauline Beck isn’t absolutely sure who she’ll be voting for in the February presidential primaries, but after spending the morning with the man she called her “co-worker”—Sen. Barack Obama, candidate for president—the 61-year-old homecare worker, said she’d “probably vote for Obama.”  

The presidential candidate’s few hours spent with Beck and her 86-year-old client John Thornton mopping floors, making beds and fixing lunch in Thornton’s East Oakland home was part of the Service Employees International Union’s (SEIU) “Walk a Day in My Shoes 2008” campaign to ensure that the needs of working people get placed prominently in the presidential debate. 

To date senators John Edwards and Christopher Dodd and Gov. Bill Richardson have participated; senators Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden and Gov. Mike Huckabee are scheduled to take part in the coming weeks. No Republicans have responded, according to SEIU officials. 

Speaking to reporters at the Oakland Hilton Hotel after his stint working with Beck, Obama reflected on the experience: “One of the downsides of a presidential campaign is that you start living in a bubble. You’re flying from airport to airport, making big speeches. You don’t always have time to spend just listening. It reminds me why I’m doing this—this isn’t just about ambition and polls and fundraising. It’s about my sense of mission.” 

As senator, “you spend your days talking and it’s not clear at the end of the day whether you’ve got anything done. When you’re cleaning out some cobwebs, or you’re mopping the floor and you see the dirty mop water, you know you’ve accomplished something,” Obama said. 

Time spent with Beck wasn’t all work and no talk. Obama found out that in order to support two adopted children and a great nephew, Beck depends on food banks when her salary can stretch no further. Beck’s $10.50 an hour job—which had been minimum wage before she joined the union—offers no sick or vacation days.  

“When she was sick for a month and a half, Pauline lost her salary. There’s no safety net,” Obama told reporters. 

The candidate underscored the service home healthcare workers provide. 

“We’re an aging society and we’re going to have a series of decisions to make about how we care for our elderly,” he said. “Institutional care in some cases may be the only option, but where you have the ability to keep seniors in their homes, in their communities, they are typically healthier, they are typically happier and most importantly, from the perspective of budget hawks, it’s cheaper.” 


Inner-city violence 

Obama responded briefly to questions from the press. The one from Josh Richman of the Oakland Tribune hit home for many reporters in the room. At about the same time the mid-morning press conference was taking place, there was a memorial service across town for Chauncey Bailey, the murdered newspaper editor who had once been Richman’s colleague at the Tribune. 

The community “is wracked by violence, much of it black on black. What are you talking about doing to help cities like Oakland?” Richman asked. 

“It’s not just Oakland,” Obama responded, pointing to 32 school students shot in Chicago last year.  

“There are no magic solutions,” he said. “Communities that are poor are like a diseased body, they are more vulnerable to violence, to the drug trade, more vulnerable to HIV/AIDS—their immune system is broken down. If we can strengthen these communities with jobs, education, preventative healthcare, that will all make a difference.” 


Barry Bonds 

Someone else wanted to know if Obama would invite Barry Bonds to the White House.  

“If I were president, I probably would. I’d consider [breaking the homerun record] a remarkable achievement. He deserves our congratulations. I’m concerned about the cloud that remains, not just in baseball, but in basketball and in the Tour de France,” he said. “I would like to see our sports leagues recognize that our children look up to sports stars more than other individuals and I’m not sure our kids are learning the right lessons.” 


Al Qaeda 

While Obama has said the United States should never have gotten into the war in Iraq, he said, in response to a question, that al Qaeda is a correct target. 

Obama said the officials in the White House had intelligence in 2005 that al Qaeda was growing in Pakistan, but failed to act. “Our safety and security is going to depend to a great deal on how we deal with al Qaeda base camps in Afghanistan and along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border,” he said. 



Obama outlined his healthcare plan, in which individuals without insurance can buy into the plan. Insurance companies would not be able to discriminate on the basis of preexisting conditions.  

“We would negotiate with the drug companies so that they would charge the lowest price for what was needed [and] pay for subsidies for those who couldn’t afford the low group rates by savings—putting more money into prevention.” 

The savings would provide for the 145 million uninsured people, he said. 

SEIU, with 1.9 million members, will consider making a presidential endorsement later this year. The AFL-CIO, which is the nation's largest federation of labor unions, has freed its 55 unions to choose for themselves from among the Democratic contenders. 




Photograph by Anne Hamersky. 

Home Healthcare Worker Pauline Beck looks on as Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barak Obama serves John Thornton, 86, a meal as part of SEIU's Walk a Day in My Shoes 2008 campaign.