New York Daily News

First for Barack Obama in the city, Harlem Sen. Bill Perkins leads pack at the polls

BY Michael Daly, New York Daily News

Perkins_Obama_Vote.jpgThe first in line to vote at 110th St. and Fifth Ave. Tuesday was an actual political hero, the very first elected official in our city to endorse Barack Obama.

"The big shots said there is somebody called inevitable," recalled State Sen. Bill Perkins.

He did not need to add that the supposedly inevitable somebody was Sen. Hillary Clinton. The political bosses of Harlem were backing her when Perkins took his solitary stand 18 months ago. The big shots treated him as some kind of traitor.

"Ungracious reactions from people who know better," he recalled. "It got very personal."

Those same people became considerably more gracious when it became clear that the name on the ballot would not be Clinton after all.

"Let me put it this way, it's easier now," Perkins said Tuesday.

He had predicted back in May 2007 not only that Obama would be the nominee, but that there would be a record turnout come Election Day. He now stood at the head of as long a line as anybody had seen even before the polls opened.

"5:56 a.m.," he said. "Four minutes to go."

He saw in the crowd proof of another kind of inevitability he had felt back when he made his solitary endorsement, an inevitability rising from the streets.

Perkins and Obama opposed the Iraq war from the start. They also were both raised by single mothers in difficult circumstances.

But in the end, what persuaded Perkins was the response he saw in everyday people to the promise of actual, historic change.

"Three minutes," he said.

Even a big shot could have seen the hope in the faces of those who waited, hope shared by millions upon millions who would be lining up all around the country.

"Two minutes," Perkins said.

Ever more people were arriving out of the early morning darkness into the apartment building lobby that serves as the polling place for the 53rd Election District of the 68th Assembly District.

No doubt most of them were up earlier than usual, but nobody looked sleepy. There was not a yawn among them.

"One minute."

The moment ticked closer. The eyes of the elderly flashed as bright as those of young.

"Six o'clock and time to vote!" Perkins announced.

He stepped into one of the two voting booths and there, at the top of the ballot, was the name that only he among New York's elected officials had felt was inevitable almost from the start. He emerged from behind the black curtain with an exultant smile.

"Oh, what a wonderful experience!" he exclaimed.

The waiting voters broke into applause.

"Hallelujah!" a woman exclaimed.

The next to vote was Perkins' daughter, Maggie, who emerged with a smile to match her dad's. An 18-year-old, Ruby Swinnie, stepped in, her mere presence a kind of victory.

"A first-time voter!" somebody called out.

The voters again applauded.

"Thank you," Swinnie said.

She was followed by another voter and another and another as thousands more were voting in other polling places. The sky beyond the windows began to lighten with the first light of what so many hoped would be a truly new day.

"This is their victory," Perkins said. "Not the big shots' victory."

Perkins departed to check on three other polling places, all of them on the way to a record turnout. He had a victor's spring in his step when he arrived at the Harlem State Office Building on W. 125th St., where he has an office.

The big shots were setting up grandstands and jumbo TVs and a stage in the plaza for an outdoor Obama bash. The podium had a photo of Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) beside one of the new inevitable for President.

Never mind that during the primary season, Rangel had declared, "I don't know Obama supporters in New York."

The lone exception, the political hero who actually helped make history, held a smaller victory party upstairs. The race may have been decided by the economy, but it was the hope and faith of everyday people that propelled it. He quietly contemplated the enormity of what new history might now be made.

"Think of the opportunities...," Perkins said.