Obama's southern pizza parlor

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — Over red-checked tablecloths, people in Obama T-shirts sipped Yuenglings and munched supreme pizza. It was Super Tuesday in their campaign headquarters: the local pizza place.

In Chattanooga, supporters of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) gathered in Pisa Pizza, a pizza joint along the Tennessee River where riverboats drift by and couples smooch on the banks. It’s their informal campaign headquarters, where volunteers regularly get together over greasy pies and post information on the Web, make phone calls and organize their community activism. The group has had sign-making parties, caucus parties and even a “Women for Obama” party at Pisa’s. Think of the movement as grease-roots.

At Pisa’s, everyone is at home rooting for the cause. It’s where the group of approximately 40 volunteers goes to organize.

“I’ve always been opinionated, but I’ve never been involved before,” said Margen Laratta, a 20-something volunteer who was carrying a large poster on a stake around the joint. “This year I felt like I cared about the candidate.”

Justin Wilkins, with wire-rimmed glasses, his shirt untucked and Birkenstocks on his feet, is the fearless young leader of the local campaign. He wears a cable knit sweater over a T-shirt, and talks easily with anyone who comes through the door. Articulate and educated, he initiated this small-town campaign that grew from the ground up.

“It’s the people driving this, rather than the other way around,” he said, sounding much like Obama, his group’s presidential hero. Many members of this local campaign had never been involved in politics before. Wilkins says that Obama has removed widespread complacency about politics.

Aside from the smell of grease in Pisa’s, there’s also a strong whiff of idealism. Tish Jackson, a small-business owner and one of the group’s main volunteers, said, “Obama comes around once in a lifetime. I can’t put a finger on why I like him. He’s got the zsa zsa zsu.”

Volunteer Mary Smith purchases her pizza and leaves to watch the rest of Super Tuesday results at home. She’s ready to sing Obama’s praises.

“It’s time for a change for my grandkids,” she said. Smith is one of the few older volunteers at Pisa’s. Even if not demographically diverse, the joint is racially diverse. Some African-Americans in Chattanooga have expressed pessimism about Obama’s electability.

Is it possible for an African-American man to win the presidency?

“Of course it is! Yes, it’s possible!” said Smith. She almost started chanting, “Yes we can!” Obama’s catch phrase. Then she took her to-go box, offered hugs to everyone left in the leather booth, and headed home.

Wilkins attended Camp Obama in Chicago last summer, where he received resources and training for building the campaign in Chattanooga. Wilkins, who could be a poster child for Obama’s grassroots movement, started calling his friends, who started making cold calls, and now the volunteer base has grown to the hundreds. Tonight, he’s having a good night, sipping a Sam Adams and yelling out local results as they roll in. Chattanooga went strongly for Obama, even though Clinton ended up winning Tennessee.

“Our county pulled through!” Laratta exclaimed as she pored over the results with Wilkins.

Laratta says she is from a rich, white county. Her parents are big Clinton supporters, but she says Clinton is “prolonging a dynasty.” She’s part of the crowd looking for Obama’s talisman of change. His grassroots movement is a magnet, she thinks. It’s so different from Clinton’s political structure.

Unlike Obama, Clinton has paid staff in Chattanooga. The Obama campaign hasn’t funded a staff or offices in Chattanooga — but it does have Wilkins and his crew. Local volunteers have underwritten everything. They had no money for posters, so they scrounged leftover materials from the South Carolina campaign when they volunteered there.

They had no money to rent an office — that’s why they are here in the pizza place, where one of the heads of the local campaign, Elizabeth Crews, works as a waitress.

Crews, a political science undergrad at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, also attended Camp Obama, and joined her friend, Wilkins, on the campaign. Crews worked for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in past years, but the loyalty didn’t translate to this election.

“I’ve lost respect for Bill Clinton,” Crews said. “Everybody spins everything; that’s why I’m supporting Obama — he doesn’t.”

Wilkins, meanwhile, has a full-time job at a small insurance firm, and says he usually works until 2 in the morning each night for the campaign. He is also in school part time pursuing a master of business administration degree.

At 1 a.m., the pizza place is still open; they usually close at 10 p.m. The bartender says they’re in until the bitter end. The crowd gets smaller, but not quieter. As the returns for each state come in, shouts get loud. People are chatting loudly on their cell phones. Jokes about other candidates fly. Each time Clinton wins a state, volunteers ask themselves, Would they vote for her if she wins the nomination? Some are resigned to it. One volunteer, Eric King, says he would vote for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) over Clinton.

“I’m ‘none of the above’ for anybody else. If we don’t get this, we’re going back to being disenfranchised,” he added.

Wilkins and company have been working hard since sunrise. In the wee hours of the morning, they leave the pizza booths for their beds. But the campaign is far from over. They will be back in the booths with a supreme pizza tomorrow.