Anton Gunn is a first-time delegate to the Democratic National Convention from South Carolina, and he has never so much as watched a political convention on television before. Even Barack Obama's famous keynote address in 2004 didn't grab his attention (he sheepishly admits he still hasn't listened to it). In fact, until two years ago, when Gunn ran for a state house seat in Columbia and lost by 298 votes, he'd never been involved in electoral politics.
Obama's candidacy has brought a wave of new voters and volunteers into the Democratic Party, but even among them, Gunn, 35, stands out. In addition to being a Democratic delegate and a candidate once again for the state legislature, he now has a line on his political résumé few can match: political director for the Obama campaign in South Carolina, the state that more than any other launched the Illinois Senator's successful candidacy.
It surprises no one more than Gunn, a man who, when he first heard the name "Barack Obama" from some community-organizer friends in 2002, promptly forgot it. "I didn't even think he was African American," says Gunn. "The name sounded foreign to me." Two years later, he connected the name with the face when Obama came to his church to campaign for Inez Tenenbaum, then Democratic candidate for Senate.
In early 2007, having lost his first campaign, Gunn wasn't quite sure what to do. A University of South Carolina graduate and former Gamecocks offensive lineman, he had been involved with community development for the previous decade. And since his younger brother Cherone was killed in the U.S.S. Cole bombing in 2000, Gunn had become even more devoted to public service. Then, returning from a trip to Washington, he wandered into a bookstore at Reagan National Airport and saw a copy of Obama's second book, The Audacity of Hope. He'd heard Obama's name bandied about with those of other possible presidential candidates but hadn't taken it seriously. "That skinny guy I saw at church two years ago?" Gunn remembers thinking. "He wants to do what?" He decided to buy the book and find out what this Obama guy was all about.
The next thing he knew, Gunn was halfway through the book and had missed his flight back to South Carolina. He recognized in Obama's writing the same ideas about power and justice that had infused his own community-organizing. And he heard the voice of a man who was confident about his beliefs. By the time he had finished the book and arrived home, Gunn knew two things: "This dude has got to run for President--and I have to help him."
At a time when half the Democratic world seemed to be trying to get onto Obama's not-yet-official campaign, Gunn found that his calls to the Senator's offices went unreturned. Finally, he placed one more call to Chicago and laid it on the line. "I may not know a whole lot about politics, but I know a lot about South Carolina," he remembers saying in his message. "If you want to run for President and South Carolina's going to be an early-primary state, you need to have me involved."
The next day, a voice-mail message from Obama himself was waiting on his phone. The two met in Washington a few weeks later, and Gunn became his state's political director. Using his organizing skills and contacts, Gunn set about building a grass-roots movement that empowered volunteers. When they learned that many black voters didn't realize Obama was African American, the campaign developed a seven-minute dvd about Obama's life that supporters could play in their living rooms for friends and neighbors. "We told them it belonged to them," Gunn says, "that Barack's success would depend on how much ownership they took."
When primary day arrived in South Carolina, it was a must-win moment for Obama. His strong start in the Iowa caucuses had surprised a lot of people and shown African Americans that his quest just might be possible. But then came the stumble in New Hampshire that allowed Hillary Clinton back into the race. South Carolina was the first contest in a state with a sizable black population--and on that day, African Americans gave him more than 8 in every 10 of their votes. "It all started here," Gunn said with a smile, leaning back in his chair in the lobby of a downtown Columbia hotel. "The process may have started in Iowa. But if we didn't do what we did in the exact way that we did it, I daresay we may have had a different outcome."
For African Americans in South Carolina, the tale of how they helped Obama win the nomination has already become the stuff of legend. James Clyburn, Gunn's Congressman and a fellow delegate, is a veteran of the civil rights movement who never thought he'd see a black presidential nominee in his lifetime. But while he's proud of Obama, he's also proud of his generation for making Obama possible. "We were standing on shoulders," Clyburn says. "We had a responsibility to develop strong shoulders for someone else to stand on."
The tug of history in the making--and a strong sense of community pride--explains why you hear many African Americans use the pronoun we to describe Obama's candidacy, as in "When we win ..." Those forces explain why older men who have never become attached to politicians wear hats emblazoned with Obama's name. And why you can find young men sporting hip-hop T shirts that bear the face of Obama instead of Biggie or Tupac. Obama has given millions of black Americans a reason to be proud. But he has also expanded their sense of the possible. And so, while some of his older colleagues talk about their fears of what could happen if Obama loses in November, Gunn is optimistic. As far as he's concerned, the change has already taken place. "Whether you like Obama or not," he says, "if you believe in democracy, you have to be excited about what he's done."
Gunn cannot imagine what it will be like to be in Denver's Invesco Stadium watching the man he calls "the hip-hop candidate" become the first African American to accept a major-party presidential nomination. But he does know that he'll feel a sense of ownership. That, and a twinge of regret that he's missing the season opener of his beloved Gamecocks the same night. But for the first time in his life, Gunn would rather be at a political convention.