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Spartanburg Herald-Journal - Family Issues Will Be Focus During Obama's Visit To Upstate

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Spartanburg Herald-Journal - Family Issues Will Be Focus During Obama's Visit To Upstate

By Jason Spencer

In his first visit to the Upstate today, Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama plans to announce new ways of dealing with absentee fathers, and providing new avenues of support for those who are responsive to their families' needs.

It's a relevant topic for Spartanburg: Single mothers comprised nearly 13 percent of family households in this county in 2005, according to the latest estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.

But it's just a launchpad for a larger vision the Illinois senator will present on strengthening families. Academics call it part of the "human capital agenda," though it's unlikely the charismatic contender will use such sterile language.

"We're not investing enough in our people. Any investment that the government makes, that has to be partnered up with a better education and learning in the home," Obama said in a brief phone interview Thursday, on his way to a fundraising event in Chapel Hill, N.C.

"Governments can't do things alone. So, it's important when we do things in the schools, it's accompanied with significant reform."

The timing fits perfectly.

First of all, this is Father's Day weekend.

And, a report issued this week ranked South Carolina schools as having the lowest graduation rate in the country. School choice advocates immediately called that proof of the need for vouchers and tax credits for private schools.

Obama said he doesn't support such vouchers, but does support charter schools.

Then he segued into three ways he thinks this country could better invest in its next generation: More money needs to go toward early childhood education; teachers need to be better paid and offered more professional development, particularly in low-income and minority-majority schools; and more after school and summer school programs need to be implemented, he said.

Building up fathers

Whether asked questions about trade or the Confederate Flag on the S.C. Statehouse grounds, all of Obama's answers shared the common theme of removing barriers that keep people from having a better life.

Some barriers - like keeping visitation rights away from fathers who pay child support - can be easily removed, said Kelly Walker, director of the Upstate Fatherhood Coalition. Walker runs a program designed to help well-intentioned fathers get back into the lives of their children by addressing education, relationship and job needs - even by helping them understand the role of a father.

Walker will be one of the 300 to 400 people at Mount Moriah Baptist Church this morning to hear Obama speak. The Spartanburg event is invitation-only, though a rally open to the public will be held in Greenville later this afternoon. About 1,000 people are expected to attend that event.

In state and national polls, Obama typically places second to front-runner Hillary Clinton and above third-place rival John Edwards. Today, Clinton will be in New Hampshire talking about stem cell research, and Edwards will be in Iowa outlining his health care plan.

Details on who has received invitations to the Spartanburg event have been scarce, with local organizers, the campaign and the church not saying exactly how they were distributed. Members of select non profits have been invited as private citizens, as they cannot attend political events in their "official" capacities.

But it's in those capacities they could help Obama the most.

What's holding the senator back in South Carolina is grassroots organization, and commitments from opinion leaders, Clemson University political scientist Dave Woodard said. That's why Clinton remains first in the polls.

But, Obama's message today should go over well in Spartanburg, Woodard said.

"Certainly, the press coverage would probably draw the independents," he said. "Many people who wouldn't get involve in politics may get involved, because Obama's message reaches beyond the normal Democratic constituency. He inspires people to get involved. And he's going to have to have those people, if he wants to beat Clinton."

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Some excerpts from the Herald-Journal's interview:

SHJ: What could deter the "epidemic" of absentee fathers?

OBAMA: "We can't force a father to be a loving parent. But we can make sure they are paying child support. We can make sure that if they want to be better fathers - after having made mistakes in the past, if they're ex-offenders - the kind of opportunities we give them to get a job and support their families are there. Government can't do everything ... but there's some intelligent things that government can do that would make a difference."

SHJ: For months now, we've had several instances of gun violence in Spartanburg where teenagers were the ones pulling the trigger, sometimes injuring or even killing people - and it's not a new trend. But South Carolina has a strong desire to protect gun rights. What can be done to keep guns out of the hands of children?

OBAMA: "We all recognize that there is a tradition of gun ownership. I think the Second Amendment means something. But I also think there are some common-sense provisions we can put in place. One thing I'd like to see us do is make sure we're cracking down on gun dealers who are illegally selling to straw purchasers, who load up vans with handguns, and dump them on the streets all across America. They're already operating illegally, the laws are already on the books. We're just not enforcing them."

SHJ: The black vote is critical to winning the Democratic nomination in South Carolina. Your race has the potential to help you in that regard, but are you prepared for people voting against you because you are black?

OBAMA: "That's not how I think about elections. I think about elections in terms of, 'What are the unifying issues that bring people together?' The lack of health care. The lack of well-paying jobs. The lack of retirement security. The need to improve our education system, [and] help kids finance their college education. Those are issues that cut across race. My experience in Illinois has been that if I'm speaking to those issues effectively, and people feel like I could represent them, I'm going to get some votes."


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