Valley woman aboard for Obama's historic journey

Rosa Mendoza can't wait to accompany President-elect Barack Obama as he travels to Washington for his inauguration. There's just one problem.

What on earth is she going to wear?

"I'm going to a ball. I have no idea what to wear to a ball!" Mendoza, a 43-year-old teacher at a Las Vegas charter school, said Tuesday with a laugh. "I'm a blue-collar, Denny's-and-IHOP type of gal. I don't even wear high heels."

Mendoza, a longtime Nevada Democratic activist who threw herself into Obama's long-shot presidential campaign early on, recently found out she's one of 18 "everyday Americans from all walks of life" who will ride along as Obama and Vice President-elect Joe Biden take a whistle-stop train tour to Washington for the inauguration.

It's a dream come true for the daughter of Mexican immigrants and lifelong Las Vegan who was the first in her family to graduate from college. "I was numb, literally numb for a couple of days," she said. "I'm still pinching myself."

The train tour is scheduled to kick off Saturday morning, Jan. 17, with an event celebrating America's promise in Philadelphia. It will proceed to Wilmington, Del., to pick up the Bidens in their hometown, and then stop in Baltimore before getting to Washington.

At all the public events along the way, Mendoza and the others will appear onstage with Obama. In Washington, they've been told, they'll be invited to "all the events, all the galas," Mendoza said.

All expenses are being paid for Mendoza and a guest -- her 24-year-old only daughter, born when Mendoza was just 19, who now is also a schoolteacher.

Mendoza has been active for years in Democratic politics, serving as a delegate to the 2000 Democratic National Convention and as vice chair of the Nevada Hispanic Democratic Caucus. Because of that profile, Obama's campaign began courting her in early 2007. She read his book, "The Audacity of Hope," and decided to get on board.

"I liked his stance on the war," she said. "He stood up against the war when a majority of people were for it. He put his political career in peril. And I liked what he did in Illinois -- he really rolled up his sleeves and helped his community."

At the time, a lot of Mendoza's friends, not to mention national pundits, didn't think Obama had a chance against the supposedly inevitable nominee Hillary Clinton. "In the beginning, people virtually laughed at me," she said. "They said, 'There's no way he's going to make it.' But I believed in him."

As Nevada's January 2008 caucuses neared, tensions ran high between supporters of Obama and Clinton. As a Hispanic woman, Mendoza said, she got a lot of heat, but she never wavered from Obama's side.

Once the long primary season was finally over, Mendoza made it her mission to reach out to fellow Hispanics and convert them to Obama believers. She talked to them about his position on immigration and other issues of importance to the Hispanic community.

According to exit polls, Obama ended up winning an overwhelming majority of the Hispanic vote nationwide. In Nevada, Obama took 76 percent of the Hispanic vote on his way to winning the state by 12 percentage points.

Mendoza worked hard for that victory. She devoted most of her weekends and nearly all her free time to the campaign, canvassing, making phone calls and helping out at events.

In September, Mendoza was tapped to introduce Obama for a speech at Cashman Field. It was the second time she got to meet the candidate -- the first was before the caucuses -- and she said her impression, chatting with him and shaking his hand, was of a regular guy.

"Honestly, I felt that I could sit down, kick back, put my feet up and have a beer with him," she said. "That's the kind of comfort he gives people."

On Election Night, she went straight from work to the Democrats' party at the Rio. When the polls closed and the election was called for Obama, Mendoza looked to her left and saw an older black woman fall to her knees, overcome with emotion.

Mendoza bent down to make sure the woman was OK. As Mendoza stood up, "that's when it dawned on me what had happened," she said. "I took out my rosary and put my hands together and thanked God this happened."

Despite her commitment to the campaign, Mendoza didn't expect she would get to go to the inauguration. Tickets and hotel rooms are reportedly in extremely short supply. "Even though I'm well connected, I just thought it would be impossible for me to go," she said.

Now that it turns out she'll be attending as a VIP, Mendoza has some preparations to make, including practicing walking in heels and finding a warm enough coat.

"I heard Washington, D.C., is freezing," she said. "I'm used to Vegas. So I've got things to do."

Contact reporter Molly Ball at or 702-387-2919.