The audience stood in unison as former Denver Mayor Federico Pena made his triumphant entrance at the local public library.
Both people, that is.
Pena shook a couple of hands, made some small talk and then got down to business telling the “crowd” why Sen. Barack Obama is his choice for president.
“I asked myself, who has the best skill set, the natural ability to bring people together,” Pena said. “You don’t teach somebody to be a unifier. ”
His face lit up when a third local resident sneaked into the room and sat down in the circle of chairs while a larger handful of Obama campaign workers looked on.
Nobody ever said the life of a presidential campaign surrogate was glamorous.
It’s a lot of heavy lifting, even in the lightest of crowds. But part of Pena’s job as one of Obama’s national campaign co-chairs is to look into each face, answer every question and win precious Iowa caucus votes one at a time.
In Perry, a quaint little town about an hour up the road from Des Moines, Pena got a fierce grilling on Iraq and other issues from 84-year-old retired high school math teacher Helen Dewey.
“I mean, obviously they’re beaten,” Dewey said of U.S. forces in Iraq. “They’ve been there 4 1/2 years. There’s eight miles from the (Baghdad) airport to the Green Zone, and they haven’t even been able to secure that with the greatest military in the world. Why the hell don’t they just say, ‘We can’t fight insurgents.’ We were defeated in Vietnam.”
Pena, 60, said he didn’t want to speak for the Bush administration, but he said Obama was a man who opposed the war before it began.
“Barack Obama got it right five years ago when he said this is not the right war, we shouldn’t be there,” Pena said. “So when I’m asked the question of whose judgment do I trust to get us out, I trust the judgment of the person who got it right the first time. I’m not going to look at the person who made the first mistake and ask them to fix the second mistake.”
It was a small triumph for Obama to line up Pena to make that case. As a former big-city mayor who served in former President Bill Clinton’s cabinet — first as transportation secretary and later as energy secretary — he is one of the most prominent Hispanic leaders in the country.
“Federico is one of the outstanding public servants in this generation,” Obama said in an interview Sunday in Des Moines. “He has served at every level of government. He is a genuine policy wonk in the best meaning of the term.”
“When I was talking about him possibly endorsing me, he didn’t ask about politics,” Obama said. “He asked about my positions on issues. And he has enormous credibility, both in national political circles and in the Latino community – a community where we are still not as well-known as some of the other candidates.”
Since Pena worked alongside Sen. Hillary Clinton, the former first lady, and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a former ambassador and Cabinet member in the Clinton administration, he surprised some people by joining Obama’s team.
“To be candid, which I am, there were some candidates who were disappointed that I didn’t endorse them,” he said.
In the end, he said he made the decision, in part, because he thinks the country needs somebody who can solve problems “without any political baggage” from long-standing political feuds.
(Reach M.E. Sprengelmeyer at sprengelmyerm(at)shns.com)