A risk viewed as worthwhile

When Ty Harrell looks at Barack Obama, he sees a little of himself.

Both are Democratic office holders who stress bipartisanship. Both have racially mixed backgrounds. Both won elections with the support of white constituents – Obama as a U.S. senator from Illinois and Harrell as a state representative from Wake County.

Which may be why Harrell, a year and a half ago, was the first elected N.C. official to endorse Obama.

Harrell is part of a new generation of black politicians who did not rise through traditional black politics, do not stress what are often seen as black issues, and win large numbers of white votes.

“I just happen to be an African American,” Harrell said. “I'm not doing it because I'm an African American.”

Harrell, 38, was elected in 2006 to represent a Republican-leaning district that was less than 10 percent black.

Obama called Harrell even before he was sworn in. “How did you do it?” Obama wanted to know. “What made you successful?”

The endorsement was not easy, Harrell said. Obama's support was in the single digits nationally at the time and much of the state's leadership was endorsing the local favorite, John Edwards.

Some older black political leaders were wary of endorsing Obama. They had seen other black candidates stumble.

Harrell's experiences gave him a different take. When he thinks of his grandparents growing up in south Georgia in the Jim Crow era, he feels powerful emotions about Obama's ascendancy.

“I've welled up over this,” he said.