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Anxious Harlem Braces For Election

By's Stephen Smith

Chet Whye has reason to be confident.

Harlem4Obama, the grassroots organization he directs, has recruited more than 1,000 volunteers and registered 3,000 voters. It has opened field offices in Pennsylvania and Virginia. And, perhaps most promising, Barack Obama maintains a lead over John McCain in the majority of national polls.

Despite all the favorable signs - and the cake on his desk for his 53rd birthday - Whye is hardly celebrating.

"We're scared," he says. "It's really more intense right now."

Traditionally the backyard of Hillary and Bill Clinton, Harlem is now abuzz with Obama fever - and Obama himself has singled out community efforts here as a source for his policy positions. Still, even as the United States may be poised to elect its first African American president, the nation's epicenter of black culture remains anxious about Obama's prospects.

The tense mood is palpable in Harlem4Obama's donated office on Frederick Douglass Boulevard and 133rd Street. Whye takes a flurry of calls on his cell phone while coordinating campaign strategy from his laptop. Volunteers phone voters to urge patience at the polling sites. And a hand-written sign hangs in the corner serving as the ultimate cautionary tale: "I Was In New Hampshire."

The sign refers to Obama's primary defeat to Hillary Clinton. Back in January, the Illinois senator enjoyed a double-digit lead in the polls before losing a narrow vote to the New York senator. Whye and volunteer Alima Berkoun recalled a long and dismal drive from New Hampshire back to Harlem.

"That was a wake-up call," said Berkoun, who has lived in Harlem for 13 years. "The next day I was out on 125th Street working even though I was sick."

Perhaps one reason Obama has inspired volunteers in the community is that the Illinois senator has credited Harlem for inspiring one of his presidential platforms. Last year, he singled out the Harlem's Children Zone, an ambitious and successful anti-poverty effort, as a model for his policy to address the plight of urban America.

"There's no reason this program should stop at the end of those blocks in Harlem. It's time to change the odds for neighborhoods all across America," Obama declared last July. "When I'm President, the first part of my plan to combat urban poverty will be to replicate the Harlem Children's Zone in 20 cities across the country."

Harlem was not always safe ground for Obama. Once Hillary Clinton's turf and the home of her husband's office, the community's support was fractured between the senators from New York and Illinois. Indeed, Hillary Clinton received twice as many votes as Obama in Harlem's district during the New York Democratic primary in February.

But ten months later, after a lengthy and bitter Democratic race, Harlem's political leaders and Clinton backers have slowly gotten on board with the Illinois senator. Obama signs now adorn nearly every street corner and many Harlem businesses, including Karrot, an organic health food store on 117th Street.

The store is a hub of passionate political discussion among locals and its owner, Carlos Aguila, is not afraid to display his views. Outside his shop is a chalkboard sign that reads: "The coming retirement of the GOP brand." Inside his store, you can buy his top-selling drink "The Obama" - a concoction of almond milk, peanut butter, chocolate and bananas.

Aguila, 49, says he is emotionally invested in this election for the first time in his life and he believes 99 percent of Harlem will vote for Obama. He cites the nation's evolving racial makeup (what he calls "the browning of America") as the main reason to be hopeful. Still, Aguila concedes that anxiety and uncertainty hang over Harlem.

"The whole neighborhood feels it. We're talking about a black man," Aguila says. "If he's so good, why is [the race] so close?"

Although Harlem has produced iconic black political figures (Malcolm X and Adam Clayton Powell, to name two), many residents say they do not dwell on race in politics. Whye says that a recent survey mailed out to voters revealed the number one issue among Harlemites is not housing or education or health care - it is political conduct. Accordingly, says Whye, the community's residents not only praise Obama's demeanor and intellect but they also have an emotional attachment to his family.

Even one of the rarest of sights in Harlem - a McCain supporter - agrees. Keisha Morrisey, who unsuccessfully ran as a Republican for New York City Council in 2002, acknowledges she's a fan of the Obama clan. "I love the family. I love Michelle and the daughters."

In the final hours before the election, Whye is trying to translate that love into logistics. His office is focused on stationing volunteers at the nearly 200 polling sites in Harlem's 15th district. Meanwhile, volunteers are calling on-the-fence voters in battleground states right up until Tuesday. His biggest priority is preaching patience to the overwhelming number of first-time voters - the ones "Barack pushed through the door," as Whye puts it. He worries some will get intimidated by polling red tape and frustrated by long lines. But Whye is blunt when it comes to local residents waiting to cast a vote for Obama.

"Most people from Harlem - their ancestors made it through slavery," he says. "So you can wait."

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