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"We've got a president who looks like us"

N.C. convention delegate John Verdejo comes full circle



On Election Day morning, John Verdejo tucked a rosary under his shirt, laying it on top of the cross he usually wears. He put on a blazer to get ready for his job at the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources. And he prayed.

"Dear God, we've done all that we can do," said the 29-year-old Raleigh man. "Now we leave it in your hands. If you see fit that Barack Obama ought to be our president, then make it so. God bless us, this country, our future." As Verdejo crossed himself, he invoked, in Spanish, the Christian Trinity: "El Padre, Hijo, y Espíritu Santo. Amen."

Verdejo last appeared in these pages during our coverage of the Democratic National Convention. His life story distinguished him from North Carolina's other convention delegates: The son of a single mother from Puerto Rico, Verdejo grew up in an irregularly heated South Bronx apartment and remembers "going to school and seeing the crack vials on the street." When he was 14, Verdejo and his family moved to Greensboro. His mother earned a living assembling sandwiches for vending machines until the Made Rite Sandwich factory shuttered its doors. Now mother and son both live in Raleigh. She works nights at a Wal-Mart.

The Democratic convention was life-changing for Verdejo, who found himself singled out several times during the week. He was named one of North Carolina's three convention whips, who relayed instructions from the national campaign to the state's delegates. The last night in Denver, to his surprise, he was tapped to sit in a special section of Invesco Field, near Michelle Obama and Joseph Biden, to listen to Barack Obama's acceptance speech. The experience energized him to work harder for the Illinois senator's presidential bid.

Afterward, Verdejo started canvassing door-to-door, but Raleigh's streets had been well-trodden by other Obama volunteers. He decided instead to focus on registering Hispanic voters. "I thought they were not really being reached out to," he says. Using his mother as a translator—her Spanish is more fluent than his—Verdejo introduced himself to some of her North Raleigh neighbors. "They were like, 'Hey! Thank you for coming over! I was looking for this piece of paper,'" he recalls. Verdejo also participated in a conference call to discuss strategy with Obama campaign officials.

Verdejo felt like he was contributing to Obama's efforts, but he also felt like the campaign was transforming him. Watching Obama's achievements as a politician and a family man allowed Verdejo to envision his own success as a dark-skinned man raised without a father. "Secretly, we look at him as the dad we wish we had," Verdejo says. "We don't have much of a role model, and here's Barack Obama and his real-life Huxtable family: strong wife, two beautiful kids. It has built my confidence that I can do anything I put my mind to. It's just a matter of my pushing myself."

The flip side, Verdejo says, is that Obama raises the bar for people who look like him. A Democratic victory, Verdejo predicted early Tuesday evening, "is going to force us to look into ourselves. We can no longer use this excuse of, 'Because of my skin color, I can't be anything I want to be.' That's garbage now."

After the polls closed, Verdejo met some of his friends at the Raleigh Marriott City Center, where the N.C. Democratic Party was holding its Election Night party. In a sweaty ballroom, hundreds of supporters gathered to watch the results on two oversized TV screens, sending up roars as Obama took Pennsylvania, then Ohio, then Florida. "This is a rout!" Verdejo said. He took special pleasure in watching Kay Hagan defeat incumbent U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole, who spent the last week of her campaign desperately trying to paint her Democratic challenger as a friend of "Godless Americans." For 30 years, Republican Jesse Helms had used fear-based, overtly xenophobic advertising to hold onto that same Senate seat—but this year, Dole's Helmsian tactics backfired. "Yes we can!" chanted the crowd as the networks called the race for Hagan.

Then, as Obama's North Carolina lead narrowed and disappeared (at press time, Obama was leading by 13,746 votes), Verdejo turned nervously to his friends. "I'll be so mad if North Carolina doesn't pull through," he said. "I just want it to be the final nail in Jesse Helms' coffin."

"But that Kay Hagan victory—it helped," said his friend Montica Talmadge, a young party activist.

At 10 p.m., the polls closed in five Western states. Obama's already formidable lead quickly shot above the 270 electoral votes he needed to win. Talmadge, who is African-American, doubled over at the news. "Oh my God," she said, her eyes wide and moistening. "We've got a black president." Verdejo called his mother at Wal-Mart. "¡Obama ganó!" he shouted, but she already knew, and a celebration at her workplace was under way. "She says everyone is busting out of the store screaming," Verdejo reported as he hung up the phone. "Everyone just ran out the doors."

Before the night was over, Verdejo would join in a congratulatory round of Blue Moons at the Marriott's bar, then walk with Talmadge through downtown Raleigh, where horns honked and strangers high-fived. They would visit a hotel hospitality suite where dozens of Democrats, some in tears, watched Obama deliver his televised victory speech.

Before any of this, though, Verdejo pulled the rosary out from under his shirt and kissed it. He hugged his friends, kissed the rosary again, and crossed himself as he did that morning. He pulled out his phone and dialed his brother in Greensboro. "We've got a president who looks like us," he shouted above the jubilation. "Who looks like you and me, man."

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