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Upbeat mood at Obama's town hall meeting despite downbeat topics

March 20, 2009|Seema Mehta

President Obama came to town to discuss somber subjects: the nation's distressed economy, the housing crisis and the budget deficit. But the mood at the Los Angeles high school where he held a town hall meeting Thursday was an upbeat mix of rock concert and campaign event.

Vendors sold T-shirts, buttons, framed photos and baby onesies; one enterprising young woman advertised "Presidential Concessions" -- bottled water for $1.

Tickets to the event at the campus just west of downtown were free and mostly given away through an online lottery. Some later ended up for sale on the Internet. Liz Bramhall's father bought her ticket on craigs list.com for $300.

"I just wanted to see history," said the 20-year-old Camarillo resident. "I'll have memories to tell my kids and my grandkids."

Paula Starr, 54, was visibly moved during Obama's speech.

"I was so overwhelmed, I started tearing up," said the Norwalk resident, who is the executive director of the Southern California Indian Center. "It's about this president coming to us, hearing us, feeling our emotions and our energy."

For ticket holders seeking the best seats, the day began early. Chris Campbell of Pasadena snagged the first spot in line by arriving at 5 a.m. His girlfriend won tickets earlier in the week through the lottery.

"She screamed. I thought we won the real lottery," said the 38-year-old, who owns an eco-friendly clothing store in Santa Barbara.

Volunteer Jessica Cruz, 17, directed new arrivals to the line. The Miguel Contreras Learning Complex student learned Wednesday that she had been selected to help with the event.

"I was so excited," she said. "Last night I couldn't sleep."

Nearby, protesters calling for immigration reform waved flags, carrying banners reading "Legalizacion! Ahora!" and playing mariachi music. Protester Vicky Marquez said she has not seen her children, who live in El Salvador, in 13 years.

"I haven't hugged them, I haven't kissed them, it's not right," said the local union member, through a translator. "I'm here to tell the president not to forget about us. We're anxiously waiting for immigration reform."

Nearby residents watched the scene unfold from their fire escapes, and rush-hour commuters honked in support.

Inside the gymnasium, a diverse crowd of L.A. political leaders, students, suburbanites and the occasional celebrity (such as longtime Obama supporter Kal Penn of "Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle") mingled in rows of folding chairs and the bleachers.

Councilman Eric Garcetti, who was among the first California politicians to support Obama in the primary, said he was "ecstatic" over the president's visit. Los Angeles' economic recovery is vital to the nation's well-being, he said.

"This is a chance for the president to reconnect with his people," he said.

Brigitte Gomez, 17, who was among the 40 Contreras students randomly chosen to attend, said she appreciated the president's devotion to education, especially in light of state budget cuts.

"If it comes down to it, our classes will get larger and we'll lose some of our teachers," she said. "It would be devastating."

Sandra Banks of Bellflower brought her son Syheim to the town hall. Banks' mother may lose her home to foreclosure, so she hoped to hear Obama talk about the mortgage crisis as well as education.

Though they were not among the handful of attendees called on by the president to ask a question, fourth-grader Syheim had one in mind: "Can I take a picture with him?"

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seema.mehta@latimes.com

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