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Published: Thursday, 7/3/2008

Mayor invites Obama to speak in Findlay

BY TOM TROY AND JENNIFER FEEHAN
BLADE STAFF WRITERS
'I would like [Obama] to come here, if he could, so that people can talk to him,' Findlay Mayor Pete Sehnert says. 'I would like [Obama] to come here, if he could, so that people can talk to him,' Findlay Mayor Pete Sehnert says.
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FINDLAY - The community that saw itself characterized - some would say caricatured - in a Washington Post article as a hotbed of false tales about Sen. Barack Obama has invited the Democratic presidential candidate to a town hall meeting to help find mutual "recovery."

The Courier newspaper of Findlay yesterday posted on its Web site an open letter signed by Mayor Pete Sehnert extending the invitation to Mr. Obama to take part in a town hall meeting.

"I'm not endorsing him," said Mr. Sehnert, a Republican who said he's supporting Sen. John

McCain for president. "I would like him to come here, if he could, so that people can talk to him. It might be a win-win situation for us both - he'd get a chance to air some of those myths, and he'd be able to see we're not a bunch of, I don't know, people say we're prejudiced."

The article in Monday's Washington Post said false rumors, such as that Mr. Obama is an African-born Muslim who is opposed to reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, "have built enough word-of-mouth credibility to harden into an alternative biography."

A spokesman for Mr. Obama said such a visit would be considered.

"Senator Obama is committed to campaigning across Ohio and visiting communities large and small that have been hard-hit by the failed Bush-McCain agenda and who are hungry for change," said the spokesman, Isaac Baker. "From Findlay to Pomeroy, Barack Obama believes hard-working Ohio families deserve a president who speaks for them instead of the special interests. While the details of Senator Obama's schedule are being worked out, we'll definitely consider the invitation."

Mr. Sehnert said the three-paragraph letter was produced by a group of concerned citizens, including the local Democratic Party chairman, Nancy Stephani, who said it was drafted by Carol Elchert, a communications professor at the University of Findlay.

The letter makes a parallel between the damage done to Mr. Obama by false rumors and the damage done to Findlay by severe flooding one year ago.

"I would like to invite you to Findlay to recognize the efforts of our entire community in its disaster recovery," the letter states. "Perhaps at this historic time when events will focus on healing, a town hall meeting between you and Findlay residents might correct misunderstandings to create another kind of recovery."

Mr. Sehnert, who was briefly quoted in the article about Findlay residents' aversion to change and development, said he was not offended by the article so much as he was surprised by it. He said the Post reporter told him the story was about patriotism in Flag City USA, as Findlay is officially known.

"Quite frankly, it didn't upset me that much," the mayor said. "I just thought it was supposed to be about something else."

During the 45 minutes or so he spoke with the reporter, he said Mr. Obama was the topic of discussion for only about two minutes.

Still, he has heard from numerous people who believe the article painted Findlay residents as "hicks" and "rednecks" incapable of thinking for themselves. He is hoping a face-to-face meeting with Mr. Obama would change that misconception and give the candidate a chance to clear up the misconceptions about himself.

"I just want him to straighten some things out, smooth some things over and find out we're not so bad," Mr. Sehnert said. "I don't want people to read something and get the wrong idea of our town."

The Courier - which until 1976 was called the Republican-Courier - ran an editorial on Tuesday claiming the Washington Post article painted "a picture of credulous, rumor-swallowing bigots" and demanded an apology from Post reporter Eli Saslow.

"It looks to us like Saslow came here looking for a specific type of interview to make his story. He picked his neighborhood, and he drew his conclusions exactly the way he'd decided in advance to do," the Courier wrote. "That's not fair. He owes this city an apology and a rewrite."

Mr. Saslow said he didn't want to respond to the editorial but said he had "100 percent confidence in the story."

He said he didn't claim that everyone in Findlay believed the rumors. "This is a story that could have been set in a lot of places in the country. The point of the story was to show how universal these rumors are," Mr. Saslow said.

A call to Mr. Saslow's editor was not immediately returned last night.

The Courier quoted Mr. Saslow on Tuesday as being disappointed that his article had created consternation. "That's a major bummer," he told The Courier.

Contact Tom Troy at:

tomtroy@theblade.com

or 419-724-6058.



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