DETROIT — In his first major campaign swing since the Democratic National Convention, Sen. Barack Obama had lines of people zig-zagging through the streets of Detroit as they waited to hear a raucous and inspiring speech on economic and workers’ issues yesterday at the Detroit Labor Day Parade.
Instead, Obama told the more than 10,000 anxious fans packed into Detroit’s waterfront Hart Plaza that “today is not the day for political speeches” and asked them to pray for the victims of Hurricane Gustav, which made landfall on the Gulf Coast yesterday.
The Republicans suspended most of their convention activities in St. Paul, Minn., Monday when the hurricane struck. They later resumed them.
Obama, who spoke for less than 10 minutes, initially planned to give a speech about organized labor. But in the wake of the hurricane, said “there is a time to argue politics and there’s a time to come together as Americans.”
After United Auto Workers President Ron Gettelfinger asked the crowd to give Obama a “Labor Day welcome,” the junior senator from Illinois thanked local labor leaders for the work they are doing, and proclaimed his support for workers’ rights.
“I’m a labor guy,” Obama said to the delight of the audience. “I believe in the labor movement.”
He later added, “I think it’s important to have a president who doesn’t choke on the word union.”
But his focus once more shifted to the dark skies facing those Americans on the Gulf Coast.
“Instead of a speech, what I’d like to do is to ask all of us to join in some silent prayer for all those Americans who are spending this Labor Day in a shelter waiting for another storm to pass,” he said. “I want all of us to remember that when we show solidarity with those folks in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas and Alabama, that we are expressing the true spirit of the labor movement.”
Obama, who officially accepted the Democratic nomination on Thursday, told the crowd that his campaign would be monitoring the situation all day. His campaign later canceled its scheduled stop in Milwaukee, Wis., instead returning to his Chicago headquarters.
“We are prayerful this will not be the same kind of situation we saw three years ago,” he said, referring to the slow emergency response to Hurricane Katrina, which hit New Orleans in 2005.
“My main goal today is to ask you to help,” Obama said.
His campaign also sent out email and text messages yesterday to supporters asking them to “give whatever you can afford,” even as little as $5 or $10, “to make sure the American Red Cross has the resources to help those in the path of this storm.”
But Obama’s speech was not without its light moments. At one point the candidate thanked singer Aretha Franklin for her support, before soulfully improvising his own version of a Franklin classic by singing, “Change, change, change, chain of fools.”
Despite the shortened speech and the change of theme, supporters appeared to still be excited to see the Democratic nominee in their home state.
After the speech ended, Rep. John Conyers (D-Detroit) climbed up a metal barricade and gave an impromptu speech to a group of Obama supporters emphatically stating that “on November 4th Michigan will follow Ohio in supporting Obama for President of the United States of America.”
Lake Superior State student Joe Schikora said he thought Obama gave a good speech, despite the somber tone set by the hurricane in the Gulf Coast. With Hurricane Gustav, “you know you can’t talk politics, you have to bring everyone together,” he said.
Southfield resident Janet Jackson, who is running for Oakland County Commissioner, said Obama is the right candidate for Michigan residents on issues of labor policy.
“He will speak to the grassroot level of people, the people who need jobs, he’s going to help create more jobs and help the labor movement,” she said.
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.