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Bleachers and rafters

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"You are having way too much fun," said a reporter I didn't know in a high-school gym in Concord, N.H. We were leaving our laptops, notebooks, cameras, lighting equipment and the coffee-stained messenger bag that denoted my lowly position on the press totem pole in unguarded piles around the perimeter of the Crimson Tide's basketball court.

I was hurriedly safety-pinning one of the rectangular passes we had all received to a shoelace-thin lanyard that also held a laminated Independent Weekly press badge. Before I could respond to the unsolicited observation, we were rushed out, so that Secret Service agents could inspect our bags and secure the gym for a primary speech by a mesmerizing, if exhausted, Barack Obama.

Obama had just surprised the country by finishing first in the Iowa caucuses. He later won over at least a few of the 2,000 onlookers in Concord who waited in line for hours to glimpse the strongest-ever African-American candidate for the presidency. Many of the attendees swore they were still undecided (indeed, Obama later lost New Hampshire to Hillary Clinton), but everyone sensed the potential for a monumental upset.

This year, North Carolina—which played a critical role in Obama's election—made history again by passing the Racial Justice Act. The act, which Gov. Bev Perdue signed into law last week, prohibits the execution of defendants who can prove race was an underlying factor in the decision to seek, or impose, the death penalty at the time of their trial. North Carolina is now only the second state, after Kentucky, to pass such legislation. It will reduce the sentence, or charge, of defendants who can successfully make such a claim to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Throughout the bill's unlikely ascension, I often made it down to the more stately Legislative Building in Raleigh. I did not have an official badge or particularly generous press access, but I could always sit in on the sleeves-rolled committee meetings. There, opponents miscast the bill as one that would deter the prosecutions of violent criminals, which it will not; and as a ploy to defeat the death penalty—which, if true, seemed beside the point. On the Senate and House floors, I sat in the rafters, watching legislative aides glide across the floor in ill-fitting suits and evening dresses. I listened as the clerk's soporific voice barely registered among the clusters of legislators, gathering over snacks as they brokered deals and conducted the people's business.

After the Racial Justice Act's dramatic passage two weeks ago in the state Senate following one such three-hour session, I made my way down to the floor with my face buried in my notebook, hoping no one would notice. The Sergeant-at-Arms let me pass. State Sen. Floyd McKissick, the bill's Senate sponsor, looked tired, but he greeted his supporters warmly. He told me of the "soul searching" that happened in an hour-long private Democratic caucus that preceded the decisive vote, which seemed to surprise even some legislators who voted for it.

After I got my quotes, a few of those supporters asked me out for drinks. I politely declined. I had to finish one of my final stories as an Independent Weekly staff writer. I got in my car, drove home, and thought about how lonely, and fulfilling, my job can be.

Indeed, Mr. New Hampshire, it's been way too much fun. It even included dental.

Staff Writer Matt Saldaña is moving to Massachusetts to work as a legal advocate. His Web site is www.mattsaldana.com.

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