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Obama top story in local survey

December 30, 2008|By HEATHER KEELS

TRI-STATE -- Over the past 12 months, Americans have opened their newspapers to stock market plunges, $4-a-gallon gas, billions of dollars in bailouts and a hockey mom-turned-political celebrity, but when asked about the top news story of 2008, most Tri-State residents and community leaders zeroed in on one historic headline: Barack Obama elected president of the United States.

"The economy is important, but in terms of a milestone event that people are going to be studying 200 years from now, the election of the first black president is going to be the No. 1 thing that happened in 2008," said Elizabeth Hulett, head of adult services for the Washington County Free Library.

Her conclusion was in line with an Associated Press survey of editors and news directors as well as The Herald-Mail's online readership poll, both of which showed Obama's election as the top story, with the economic meltdown as a close second.

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Those who picked the economy stressed its universal and immediate impact, while those who chose the election viewed the year's events in their broader historical context.

"We've had economic crises before, but we've never had this type of an election before," said Leah Gayman, executive director of United Way of Washington County, who was inspired by the way Obama engaged Americans in a dialogue in a way that made them feel heard.

"We looked beyond color and we looked beyond party affiliation and we chose the person we wanted to lead the country," she said.

Many area residents said it was the obstacles Obama overcame that made his election so significant.

"Nobody expected one senator from Illinois to defeat the Clinton machine and McCain," said Ham Abuzayyad, 34, of Hagerstown. "I think that's more important than the economy."

Berkeley County (W.Va.) Commissioner William L. "Bill" Stubblefield said Obama's election was important because it showed how far our country had come in overcoming racial prejudice.

"Twenty years ago, it would have been unthinkable that an African-American, regardless of how capable or how skilled he was, could have been elected president," Stubblefield said.

John Harris, 72, of Hagerstown, said that as a black man, he had seen race relations improve significantly over the past 30 years.

"I knew the time was coming that there would be a black person that would be president of the United States, but I didn't think this would be the time," he said.

Melanie Stultz, 35, of Hagerstown, didn't expect the outcome of the election, either.

"I didn't think I would ever see it really happen," she said. "There are so many people out there who are so bigoted."

Retired Air Force Reserve Col. Ronald Wayne Taylor also picked Obama's election as the biggest story of the year, but for a different reason.

"We don't know how he's going to stand on a strong military, and if we don't have a strong military, we won't have a country long," said Taylor, who was also concerned about how benefits for veterans would fare under an Obama administration.

Bob Thomas, chairman of the Franklin County (Pa.) Board of County Commissioners, said he thought Obama's election would be more memorable than the economic crisis in 100 years.

"I'm still bullish and I believe it's going to bounce back," Thomas said. "People tend to forget the economy whenever things are good in one year or two years."

Franklin County Commissioner Bob Ziobrowski said only time would tell whether Obama's election or the economic meltdown would leave a greater mark on history.

"I guess both those stories are only in their infancy," he said.

For now, Ziobrowski is holding out hope that Obama will be able to unite Congress and get legislation passed that will turn the recession around by the end of next year.

"He has a certain leadership quality that comes across every generation or two," he said of the President-elect. "He has that kind of magnetism and charisma, and it's not just a veneer. He attracts smart people. He attracts ideas."

If credit markets do not rebound the way Ziobrowski hopes, however, the recession could turn from typical to "very, very significant," he said. Already, stagnant credit markets have had a wide impact, including stalling a badly-needed expansion and renovation at Chambersburg Hospital, said Ziobrowski, who is on the hospital's board of directors.

Other elected officials also zeroed in on the economic meltdown's widespread impact in picking it as the year's top story. Washington County Commissioner Kristin B. Aleshire said the housing market reshuffled the county's plans for capital projects, and oil prices drove up the cost of road improvements. Hagerstown Mayor Robert E. Bruchey II said a state budget shortfall is drying up funds on the county and municipal levels just when residents need the most help.

Waynesboro (Pa.) Borough Council President Craig Newcomer said he sees the effect of the economic crisis every day at a cold weather shelter and food pantry he runs in Chambersburg.

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