‘Finding Common Ground’: Former President Obama visits VCU ahead of November elections, campaigns for Virginia Democrats

Former President Barack Obama spoke at a campaign event on Saturday for gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe. The event took place outside VCU’s Cabell Library. Photo by Megan Lee

Katharine DeRosa, News Editor

Former President Barack Obama traveled to Richmond on Saturday to campaign for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe. The rally was held at The Compass, located outside of the James Branch Cabell Library on VCU’s Monroe Park campus.

“I want you to get fired up inside and then go vote,” Obama said.

Obama was the last speaker in a large group of guests who expressed support for McAuliffe’s gubernatorial campaign, including Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, Gov. Ralph Northam, Sen. Tim Kaine and Democratic National Committee Chair Jaime Harrison.

Mark Herring, who is running for reelection as attorney general, and Del. Hala Ayala, candidate for lieutenant governor, are running on the Democratic ticket with McAuliffe. Both candidates spoke prior to McAuliffe and Obama’s appearance, which was accompanied by Obama expressing support for all campaigns. 

“Terry [McAuliffe] has brought the same grit and determination to everything he’s done,” Obama said. “From public service, to business, to being a husband, to being a father of five amazing children — so the guy knows how to work hard.”

McAuliffe was 72nd governor of Virginia, from 2014 to 2018. He is running for a second term against Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin and Liberation party candidate Princess Blanding.

During the event, the crowd booed when Obama brought up Youngkin’s proposed policies.

“Don’t boo, vote!” Obama said. “Booing doesn’t do nothing. Booing might make you feel better, but it’s not going to get Terry elected.”

During his speech, Obama called the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol building, “the biggest threat to democracy” in his lifetime. 

The event was organized by VCU Young Democrats, which “promotes American progress and the Democratic Party on campus, in Virginia, and across the country,” according to its Facebook page.

Senior political science major Mackenzie LaBar, is the president of VCU Young Democrats. LaBar said Obama has been an inspiration to him, partly because LaBar is biracial. LaBar referred to his dad as a “country boy” from New York and said his mother is from Clarendon, Jamaica. 

“It always gave me like the extra shot of energy, that extra shot of motivation and steam,” LaBar said. “That I can be, you know, somebody who could possibly be as great as the president one day, and that’s been somebody who I’ve looked up to for a long time.” 

LaBar said he reached out to other political organizations on campus, such as VCU Votes and VCU’s chapter of the NAACP, to ensure students were represented at the event on Saturday. LaBar estimated a total of between 60 and 100 students from those organizations were in attendance at the event, among a crowd of 2,000.

Gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe campaigned on VCU’s campus on Saturday with former President Barack Obama. Photo by Megan Lee

During his time at the event, LaBar said he was able to meet with some of the guests, including McAuliffe, Obama, Herring, Ayala and Stoney, to speak about the current state of the Democratic party in Virginia.

“With Terry McAuliffe, we talked a lot about how to get votership up, especially among students and people in the communities. We also talked about how Republicans are passing a lot of anti-Democratic rights legislation,” LaBar said.

The former president also criticized people who attended a Republican rally for honoring a flag used at the insurrection.

“When are you willing to say, there’s some things that are more important than getting elected and maybe American democracy is one of those things,” Obama said.

The Republican rally was held on Oct. 13 in Richmond and Youngkin did not attend, according to the Associated Press. Youngkin released a statement the next day which stated, “there is no room for violence in America.”

“It is weird and wrong to pledge allegiance to a flag connected to January 6. As I have said many times before, the violence that occurred on January 6 was sickening and wrong,” Youngkin stated. 

At the event, McAuliffe took the stage before Obama to speak about his campaign and his previous achievements as governor of Virginia.

“I did it, folks, by finding common ground,” McAuliffe said. “I’ll work with anybody. It doesn’t matter to me what your party persuasion is.”

McAuliffe’s other opponent, Blanding, is the sister of VCU alumnus Marcus-David Peters, who was shot and killed by police while experiencing a mental health crisis on Interstate 95. She is a candidate from the Liberation party whose name will appear on the gubernatorial ballot alongside McAuliffe and Youngkin.  

Sophomore film student Kamari Branch said she did not attend the event but was present on campus near The Compass at that time. Branch is not planning on voting, but would choose to vote for Blanding if she did vote, because Blanding is a Black woman “from the community” who Branch believes shares similar experiences to her.  

“I do not believe in Terry McAuliffe at all, and I don’t think that Obama’s endorsing him changes anything,” Branch said. “Terry McAuliffe has already been governor. He is also a white man which means he inherently doesn’t care about Black issues.”

Branch said she believes in “building bonds within the community” by creating donation jars, protesting, advocating and “making a stronger relationship with everyone around,” instead of spending her energy on voting.

As the president of Young Democrats, LaBar said he believes every person eligible should vote in this election, because “there’s a lot at stake.” He said the decision to abstain from voting is “counterproductive.”

“I would say that in order to promote love and equality and making sure that we live in a society that’s inclusive and accepting,” LaBar said, “I don’t think we can make harsh judgments based on very surface level and superficial things like race.”

Correction: A previous version of this story did not include why Kamari Branch was not voting. Branch said she believes in building community ties rather than voting.

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