BTS: Obama Columbus Rally

Monday, May 14, 2012
[NOTE: this 'BTS' has taken a LOT longer than I originally thought it would to compose and post.  A funeral, moving our daughter home from college and Mother's Day all subtracted time from my already meager allowance for blogging and this was an item that I wanted to 'polish up' before posting.]

So close...but still a 'no-go'

If you are a frequent visitor to this blog, you would know that I like to focus on certain areas for my reporting and politics is probably right at the top of that list.  Over the past five to six months, I've covered several events in my local area related to the current 2012 presidential campaign.  Back in November, I made my political reporting 'debut' at one of Herman Cain's last rallies before he suspended his campaign due to accusations of personal misconduct and infidelity.  In February, I attended a Newt Gingrich rally in Dayton when the former House speaker was still considered by many to be a viable candidate for the Republican nomination.  In early March, I went to two separate events in two different cities for Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney being held on the same day in the run-up to a contentious state primary contest.  So it would be no surprise to anyone that I would make the trip to Columbus two Saturdays ago to attend the "Ready to Go" rally for the kick-off of the Obama/Biden 2012 reelection campaign.

Two entrepreneurs selling political souvenirs outside the Columbus, Ohio Obama rally

Under overcast skies and through some foggy conditions, I made the nearly one-hour drive to the campus of the Ohio State University and parked my car at approximately 10:40AM--a little later than I wanted but not terribly late.  A shuttle bus service was provided for attendees parking in the satellite lots and I got on one to take the short trip over to the Value City Arena at the Jerome Schottenstein Center.  While waiting for the bus, I sensed the heightened security when a private guard mentioned that I might not get inside with all of the equipment I had with me (a sling camera bag along with another bag for my monopod and tripod).  I assured her that I should be OK because I was going to be allowed into the press area and not have the same restrictions as general admission attendees.  As it turned out, I almost regretted that decision.

The beginning of  the 'gauntlet' to enter the Obama rally in Columbus, Ohio

A little back story is required here...when I first learned of the Obama rally, I was going to take a pass.  Being the initial campaign event, I anticipated that the interest from the public would be high and the demand for press credentials would be great.  After some goading by an online friend, I changed my mind later in that week and submitted my name through the campaign's website for information and--dare I say it--approval to join the press in covering the gathering.  Late on May 3rd, I got a reply from Jim Messina, the campaign manager for Obama for America, which told me that I "was in for 2012".  I took this as a confirmation of my media request and I made a paper print-out of the correspondence for proof.  I packed it into my camera bag, believing that it was my 'golden ticket' for admission.  I would find out in due time that would not be the case.

Ohio Stadium, also known as 'the Horse Shoe', sits just across the Olentangy River from the Value City Arena at the Jerome Schottenstein Center

Back to the bus stop...I got on the shuttle and we were dropped off just outside the building and had to walk along a designated path up to the formal entry areas.  Before I entered that gauntlet, a small group of protestors attracted my attention and I walked over to their location to interview them.  Totaling five in all, they represented several conservative groups from the Columbus area and the state of Ohio.  The first person I talked with was Dr. Robert Wagner of the Conservative Calvary.  I initially asked him about this 'protesting' but he immediately corrected me by saying he and the others were "exercising their First Amendment rights."  Standing near a grouping of police officers, I next asked if they were in a 'designated' area but they confirmed that there were no restrictions placed on their anti-Obama activities.

Dr. Robert Wagner, far left, and Katie Eagan, center, demonstrate their opposition to the visiting president at the Obama 2012 rally in Columbus

Speaking for his fellow 'exercisers', Wagner said that their message was simple--"you cannot tax, regulate and legislate your way to prosperity."  He coupled the current administration's policies with that of "old Europe, Cuba, the Soviet Union and China" and told me that "we need to get back and embrace what made America great."  Katie Eagan, the Ohio state director for Americans for Prosperity, told me that "we know that Ohio is 'ground zero' in 2012" and told me she was there to "hold the president accountable for his policies and the promises he made."  The Columbus/Central Ohio 9-12 Project was also represented but no one from that organization made themselves available for a short interview.

The southeast rotunda entrance of the Value City Arena at the Jerome Schottenstein Center.

After that session, I began my way over to the building.  Built in the late 1990s, the Value City Arena at the Jerome Schottenstein Center (also known as 'the Schott' or the 'Buckeye Nuthouse') is the home of the Ohio State University's men's and women's basketball teams and the men's hockey team.  Its proclaimed capacity limits are 18,809 for basketball, 17,500 for hockey and 20,000 for concerts and other live events and, unfortunately, this objective--and innocuous--data would become one of the major subjective takeaways from the event.  When we drove up, I saw several long lines of supporters waiting for the mandatory magnetometer and bag inspections at the entrances and I clutched my camera bag to remind me of my press pass and its promise of bypassing that chaos--or so I thought.

A graphic overview of my day at the rally

As I made my way over to the press entrance, you could tell just by watching the interactions between the public and the campaign staff that the latter was very enthusiastic in their data collecting activities (everyone entering had to fill out a card that asked for contact information).  Conversely, the folks who were performing the security- and safety-related functions appeared to be nervous and their patience was starting to wear thin as the rally start time approached.  A presidential appearance will ratchet up security to its highest levels and the Secret Service was in 'damage-control' mode after the recent reporting about unprofessional activities by an advance team in Columbia last month.  I had to state my purpose and destination on a few occasions to uniformed personnel to allow me to walk over to the south side of the building and the press check-in area.

My eventual seat for the Obama speech (photo courtesy of Jed Lewinson/Daily Kos)

As I approached the table, I started to get a little nervous.  I got out three forms of identification and retrieved the approval email from my camera bag and waited my turn to get checked in by one of the two staffers.  I brought out my cell phone and brought up this blog in the browser in case they wanted proof of my bona fides.  After a few minutes, I walked up to a very nice young woman who asked me for my name and other information.  She started looking for me on her 'approved' listing but I was not there.  I asked her to look for my real name (I provided it in the online application) as well as my blog's name but it just wasn't there.  I said that I had an email that said that I "was in" and she asked to see it.  As she pored over it, it was only then that I started to think that I was experiencing one of my regular bouts with "Murphy's Law".  She told me that the email reply appeared to be a form letter and not something specifically from the campaign manager.  In the wording underneath that first paragraph, the email had more of a 'volunteer' flavor than one for press approval.  She then asked me if I would move over to the side and told me that a representative of the campaign would be out shortly to determine my status.

The view from my original seat in Section 324--notice those glaring lights?

That 20-minute span seemed to drag on for hours and I wasn't the only one in this predicament.  Two journalists from People's World, a daily news web site associated with the Communist Party USA, were also waiting for approval to enter the media area.  During this delay, I watched other recognized--and credentialed--journalists signing in.  While most were from the Columbus and Ohio market, I did notice Dan Balz from the Washington Post signing in as well as a photographer from the Daily Kos.  When the campaign representative (I won’t use her name) eventually came out, she first talked to the other two gentlemen and, after a short discussion, approved their credential request.  My spirits rose slightly but then they came crashing back down to earth when she and I discussed my situation and reviewed my paperwork.  While she was apologetic for the apparent misdirect on the web site and felt bad that I showed up with all of my equipment, she could not approve my request.  I thanked her for her time and consideration and we exchanged contact information to (hopefully) secure access to a future Obama event a little closer to Dayton.

The media area on the floor...tables to the rear, camera riser to the front

As I started to walk away, my decision for packing so much stuff came crashing down around me.  When walking over to the press area, I heard some people tell me that my camera’s lens was too ‘zoomy’ (supposedly there is a 100mm limit on lens but my camera has a built-in telephoto lens that cannot disconnect or change out) and that my bag was too big.  It was too late in the game to make a round trip back to my car to ‘downsize’ so I made my way to the closest general admission entry to take my chances with security.  I walked into the southeast mezzanine entrance and made my way directly to the magnetometers.  The program had already started and the flow of attendees had slowed to a mere trickle so when I stepped up to the tables, I attracted the attention of nearly all of the screeners.  I took my camera out of the bag, removed my cell phone from my belt and emptied my pockets of any extraneous change before walking through the electronic scanner.  No buzzers went off but I was given secondary screening by a hand wand before I was cleared to enter.  My equipment, unfortunately, didn’t have a similar outcome.

Former US senator and American astronaut John Glenn making remarks at the Obama rally in Columbus

My Canon camera was the one that I took out for inspection but in my haste to pass through, I forgot that I also packed my old Fuji digital model as a back-up.  The examiner fished it out of the main compartment and I had to demonstrate that both were functional and not more dubious devices posing as cameras.  I took single shots of the hanging displays and I got the OK to pack them back up.  While I was doing that, there was a small discussion going on behind me about my other bag—the one with the monopod and tripod inside.  That conversation continued for several minutes and required the opinion of another official from a near-by checkpoint.  When they finished, I was delivered the bad news—those two stabilizing devices would not permitted into the general admission area.  It was at that point that I knew that I had only two options:  head back to my car to drop them off and hopefully return before they close the doors for any further admissions or just give up on the rally and head for home.

Current US senator Sherrod Brown highlights the president's accomplishments for the people of Ohio to the Columbus rally attendees

It was at that moment that a third option popped into my head—I could throw the equipment away!  There were several trash receptacles in the area outside of the magnetometers and I made the quick decision to sacrifice those items (not professional-grade) for the opportunity to attend this historic event.  The bags lining the cans were, like my equipment bag, black in color and would make it difficult for any passers-by to see it in there.  When they saw me do this, the security folks told me that they couldn’t guarantee that it would still be there when I came back and I told them I understood the risk.  I gently placed the bag (with the logo side inward) in the closest receptacle and proceeded to the nearby escalator to take me up to the ‘nosebleed’ section.  As you will read later, this decision would weigh on my mind the entire time but I made it and I needed to do what I went there to do.

The Columbus rally was being televised and streamed online to a national audience

As I got off the moving stairway at the first level, I saw several tables with Obama/Biden campaign items for sale.  While I do have a preference in the upcoming election, I do not contribute to any specific election campaigns and normally ignore any requests sent directly to me.  However, I did want to pick up a few souvenirs for my wife and a fellow co-worker so I stopped there and exchanged some money for a T-shirt, car magnet and pin.  Since I was paying with cash, I thought it would be an easy transaction but I had to fill out a form to affirm the rules and my responsibilities concerning political contributions.  I quickly filled it out and made my way over to the second escalator and up to the 300-level seating.

Some of the campaign items for sale inside the arena

As I walked off, a center employee directed me to the right (all seating to the left of that point was closed off, supposedly for ‘security’ reasons).  I passed through the curtain at the beginning of the tunnel for Section 324 entry and was immediately bathed in very harsh television lighting.  Since this is was a ‘world-class’ campaign event, no expenses were skipped to ensure it would play out well to the folks who were not in attendance but, sadly, that focus made the experience for those who did show up somewhat unpleasant.  After adjusting to the brightness level, I made my way up the stairs to the top row of that section and sat in a seat in the center area to limit the chances of people walking in front of me during the event. 

'Branding' was evident everywhere you looked inside the venue

I pulled out my camera and started to get my bearings about the activities happening way below me.  The stage was set up near one end of the floor and had stairways and a long ramp attached.  The podium was facing the upstairs area that was blocked off so my best chance for photos would be from a side angle.  I could see the ‘rope line’ area filled with people who were probably in line very early that morning.  Behind those standing folks was the media ‘riser’ for the video and still cameras and behind that was several rows of tables to allow reporters to start writing their stories and post live updates to web sites.  Seeing those areas where I could have been viewing the proceedings just compounded my upper-level ‘funk’.

A campaign staffer handing out signs for those lucky enough to be in the camera's view

John Glenn was at the podium when I started to pay attention to the program.  The former Ohio US senator (and the first American to orbit the earth) turns 91 this year and it was nice to see him in such good spirits for the upcoming campaign.  Due to his advancing age, I’m assuming that future appearances will be limited to those in the immediate Columbus area where he and his wife Annie currently reside but he did recently travel to the nation’s capital to speak to a gathering at the Smithsonian Institute’s Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center for the delivery of the recently retired Discovery space shuttle.  During his five-minute speech, Glenn used the last six words of the Pledge of Allegiance—“with liberty and justice for all”—to highlight the president’s performance in office and his rationale for voters to give him another four years in office.  He also alluded to the current Democratic US senator from Ohio, Sherrod Brown, who immediately followed him in the speaking order.

How I wished I could trade places with her

Brown, currently in his own contested re-election campaign against sitting state treasurer Josh Mandel, has kept his distance from the president at recent events in the state but he stood front and center on stage Saturday and received a loud ovation from the crowd.  He reminded the gathering of the economic conditions that President Obama faced in January 2009 and how his administration fought off a looming depression and has steadily improved the conditions that Ohioans are seeing today.  As a pro-union candidate, he focused specifically on the automobile industry that directly and indirectly impacts nearly 800,000 families in the state.

A short patriotic interlude provided by the Ohio State University band

The state’s senior US senator touted the resurgence of General Motors and Chrysler and cited major investments by them and other auto manufactures in Ohio to demonstrate the wisdom of Obama’s faith in them and to working families.  He used Chevrolet’s Cruze model as the story of Ohio—“it starts in Defiance where they build the engine blocks, in Toledo which makes the transmission, in Northfield where they make the bumpers, in Middletown where they make the steel, in Cleveland where they make the aluminum, in Parma where they do the stamping, in Springboro where they do the electric and the speaker system, in Warren where they make the seats…the whole thing comes together in Lordstown, Ohio with 5,000 workers working three shifts putting the Chevy Cruze together”. 

First Lady Michelle Obama making her remarks before the president's entrance

He followed up with “the rebound of the auto industry and the growth in manufacturing, which has been pretty steady since 2010, they’re all exciting but there’s so much to do.  That’s why I am fighting alongside the president for every single job, every single day, every single way we know how”.   In another ‘shout out’ to Ohio labor, he brought up last year’s successful Issue 2 campaign to repeal Senate Bill 5 and its impact on 400,000 state workers’ ability to strike and to collectively bargain as well as other anti-progressive and anti-Democratic initiatives by the current Republican governor and GOP-dominated Statehouse in Columbus as well as in the US Congress.

The president walks out on stage to address the rally

Towards the end of his 10-minute speech, I stepped out to try and get a better location for photos but was told that the Secret Service was moving attendees in the upper levels closer to the stage areas and away from the less-lit (and likely more favorable for photography) areas of the arena.  I’m assuming that this was due to security concerns but I had my own doubts about that that perhaps were proven true in media accounts of the event.  One of my fears for attending this event in person (if not allowed into the press area) was that I would arrive too late and not be able to get a seat.  Once I made it inside, I realized that those fears were overblown.

A shot of the crowd right after the president was introduced...not really as empty as some folks claimed

During the rally, a photo of an entirely empty seating section of the upper level taken by a Romney spokesperson and ‘tweeted’ to his followers was splashed onto the Drudge Report’s website.   This started an avalanche of reports in conservative circles about how poorly attended the event was and this meme eventually made it to ‘mainstream’ outlets.  Since I was there, I will state for the record that the venue was not filled to capacity.  Even in the seated sections, there were empty seats interspersed throughout and the density became lower the higher up you went.  I do not have the expertise to estimate crowd sizes but the campaign put out a figure of 14,000 for a seating configuration of 20,000 for concerts and other live events and I would say that figure was closer to the truth. 

President Obama hugs the First Lady before he delivers his remarks at last Saturday's rally

I’ve attended several campaign events this election cycle and I will say that this one had, by far, the most supporters (the Romney event in Beavercreek would be the next largest at approximately 1,200 folks—about 10 percent of what the president attracted on Saturday).  As I mentioned earlier, today’s political rallies are more for the folks who are not in attendance and making things look good for the television cameras has become a staple of all political campaigns.  Almost all of the election events I attended so far did not fill their venues and had their campaigns making last-minute changes to create an appearance of a larger crowd (the only one with an overflow crowd was the Herman Cain rally in November and that interest might have been caused by rumors of his eminent departure from the race). 

President Obama delivering his remarks at last Saturday's rally

For example, the Dayton Gingrich rally was held at the city’s historic Memorial Hall in early February.  Instead of bringing the crowd into the spacious auditorium that used to serve as the home of the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra for over 60 years, the campaign instead jammed between 200 to 300 supporters into the facility’s smaller atrium to give the appearance of a well-attended event.  The Santorum rally in Blue Ash was booked in a good sized hotel ballroom but it went about one-third empty just four days prior to a hotly contested primary election.  Since it was held in a facility not designed for such events, ‘guestimates’ for Romney’s rally inside the US Aeroteam manufacturing plant were up to the viewers’—and reporters’—interpretation.  The bottom line is that everyone does this but it depends on who you are supporting as to when--and where--you point.

Supporters listening to President Obama's remarks at the Columbus, Ohio rally

Instead of returning to my original seating area, I moved up to Section 319 and found a mostly empty row about 10 down from the top.  With all of the disappointing things I had experienced so far that day (and being up and awake much earlier than I normally am),  I wasn't in much of a mood to continue but I was determined to make 'lemonade' out of the 'lemons' I had been handed so far.  My seat was right above a long ramp that connected the stage to an entryway under the lower seating sections (and one that I assumed that the president would walk along for his portion of the program).  By the time I got settled in, the First Lady was being introduced and the folks surrounding me joined in with the others in attendance to give her a rousing welcome.  With people standing up while she took the stage, I was not able to get any photos of her from any other angle except the rear during her remarks.  I started to think of all of those empty seats on the opposite side of the arena and the view I would have had sitting over there.

President Obama making remarks at the Columbus, Ohio rally

It was right about the time that the president was being introduced that I noticed my camera's 'low battery' indicator starting to blink.  I had planned for such occasions and made a second battery one of the first accessories I purchased.  I quickly powered the camera off and retrieved that back-up from my bag.  I removed the current one, inserted the fresh one into the chamber, closed the cover, and turned the camera back on.  After the initial start-up screen disappeared, I was able to continue my photo taking but I again saw a 'low battery' icon on the display.  It turns out that I had not checked it the night before and assumed that I had already recharged it before putting it back into its compartment along the bag's sling.  This would be the ultimate 'last straw' for me and the capping of a day that I would rather forget (but diligently recall here to provide some future reflection and some 'lessons learned' for fellow classmates).

The president addressing the crowd at the "Ready to Go" rally in Columbus, Ohio

Since I did not know how much power the back-up battery had (the primary had just started blinking), I put the first one back in and regretfully limited my photo taking during the president's remarks.  I ran the HD video to help save some power and to overcome motion experienced by still cameras when zooming in without a tripod or monopod for support (they were in the trash, remember?).  When I thought I got enough photos of Obama, I shut down the camera and sat with my head in my hands.  People around me ignored my private plight, loudly cheering and supporting their candidate for the fall's general election.  Not wanting to get caught up in the mass of people making their way out all at the same time, I packed up my things and made my way out of the seating area.

Vendors making last-minute sales pitches to supporters leaving the Obama rally

After a quick rest stop (and I have to admit that the audio in that location was far superior than what I heard inside the arena), I made my way to the entrance I came through to (hopefully) retrieve my abandoned items (along the way, I stuck my head inside one of the curtained-off areas and was able to snap some good photos of the president from a near front-on angle which I used above and in my 'A/V' post after the event).  The magnetometers had been taken down but a few screeners were still in the general area and I asked them if they saw anyone take the bag out.  They would not comment so I went to the closest can and looked inside.  Incredibly, it was still there and I quickly pulled it out to inspect for any damage.  Other than having coffee and other liquids spilled on the case, both items looked OK and I took them and my bag of campaign items outside to make my way to the shuttle bus that would take me back to my car.  The weather had improved in the hour or so I was inside and a bright sun greeted me as I walked out the center's doors.

The back of a car I was following out of the parking lot leaving the Obama rally

I made the short walk over to the bus stop and the quick ride over to the satellite parking area.  I tried to keep my soaked bag as far away as I could from other people but the smell was overpowering and I quickly exited the bus at the drop-off point when the doors opened.  I made it back to my car where I removed the tripod and monopod and placed them on my backseat while relegating the bag to the 'wagon' part of my car to await a good washing when I got home.  That trip, unfortunately, was made even longer by my failure to plan for the route of the presidential motorcade back to Air Force One and their trip to another rally in Richmond later that afternoon.

Some of the 'swag' I picked up at the Obama Columbus rally

My original intent was to get on Ohio 315 South at Ackerman to go south towards Interstate 670 and, eventually, Interstate 70 back to the Dayton area.  I made it as far as the entrance ramp onto 315 before I realized that cars were coming down the 'on' ramp after being redirected by State Patrol officials to leave the highway.  Taking 315 to 670 to the Port Columbus International Airport was the quickest--and probably most secure--route for the Obamas to travel in order to leave the city.  The northbound lanes were flowing smoothly so my only choice was for me to drive north in order to go south (on the city's Interstate 270 'loop') to eventually head west.  If the negative things that happened so far were the "cake", then this final inconvenience served as the "icing" of an extremely demoralizing day.

Next-day coverage from Ohio's 'Top 5' newspapers range from a headline to...nothing!

After a short meal break, I made my way along that route and got back to Dayton around 4:30PM.  I unloaded the car, retrieved my SD card from my camera (and remembering then that I had the second camera with me), and started to process my photos and video from the day's activities.  I found Obama's speech online and watched it to focus on what he said instead of what I had experienced way up in the 'rafters'.  All in all, it was a pretty good first attempt at getting his campaign points out to an eager audience both in Columbus and across the nation.  I did not follow anything from the Virginia rally and worked on my 'A/V' posting of the Ohio one on Sunday to get it up before it became too 'stale' (the 12:45AM Monday time stamp is an indication of how long it actually took).

Akron, Lima, Lorain and Ravena (left to right) all featured the Obama rally on their front pages

I looked at the newspaper coverage of the event on Sunday and I was neither shocked or pleased with their coverage of the campaign kick-off.  The state's five largest papers spanned from headline story to totally ignoring the event on their front pages.  Naturally, the Columbus Dispatch featured Obama's visit but the story was 'crammed' along the right side of the page with state government stories apparently 'balancing' their coverage on the opposite side with both flanking an investigative feature on credit reporting errors.  The Sunday Plain Dealer and the Dayton Daily News relegated the event to interior pages or to a 'Metro' section while no mention of it can be seen on the front page of the Cincinnati Enquirer.  Only the Toledo Blade, published in a pro-union region of the state, chose to make it their top story of their Sunday copy.  In fact, of the 19 Ohio papers with Sunday editions, only 10 of them made any mention of the president's rally on their front pages and I highlighted the most demonstrative pages in a graphic above.  One could dissect this unscientific finding by  demographics, geography or simply by media ownership but it does provide tangible evidence on just how split the state really is and how it will probably go down to the wire come election day.

This was the other badge I was initially issued before it was taken away (and I was given permission by the campaign to post it)

Unless Ron Paul decides to make a visit to the 'Buckeye State', this entry completes my series on presidential contenders for the 2012 general election.  While I do have my own personal political views, I made the effort to be an impartial observer and recorder of these appearances.  With Ohio considered one of the main 'battle ground' states, I can almost guarantee that the president, vice president and other campaign surrogates will be visiting the Dayton area in the 5+ months leading up to the November 6th general election and since I have made a connection within the Obama campaign, I may try to go to a future event and cover it from a credential journalist's perspective instead of how this Columbus one turned out. I will keep my fingers crossed for that one!

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