Wilmington, North Carolina.
Past elections may have tagged North Carolina red, but the prevailing electorate is ambiguous about color. Though the state is geographically a part of the south, and all of that entails, I think its people are emancipating themselves from its days of yore. Votes that laid dormant in past elections awoke from slumber and are being cast in unprecedented numbers. Already bloopers sprang up in early voting sites. Reports of nearly 200,000 votes got sucked into a vacuum of obscure ballots that confused people into thinking their straight-party vote included their vote for president. Others reported they had glitches with voting booths that kept switching their choice to the opposite party. The ominous threat of voter fraud looms over North Carolina.
Once again, a cultural war is being waged against our civil liberties and threatens to amend the beauty of our democracy. The Republican Party has been hijacked by nutjobs and extremists whose visions for America accustom the sentiments of the Fourth Reich. Liberals are running exposés about The Republican Empress and her new clothes. And the hoi polloi is being tested like a monkey on its back with wild theories about a filibuster-proof democratic congress that will turn into a liability. Skewing the possibility that there’s a flipside to the argument as the county faces critical challenges on so many fronts. That quite possibly a democratic dominance in congress, and the senate, might lend itself the fluidity of becoming a strength. With Washington divided on pressing issues the stakes have never been higher, and North Carolinians are not taking it lightly. No doubt the challenges that dog The South linger comparatively in more progressive places like Wilmington. Though the city bellows diversity, racism bellies a visceral divide. And similarly, The South’s anti-intellectual war against The North is also entertained.
With the race tightening as it plays out, I thought I’d see what people here are thinking. I asked Marilyn Gillingham, a 56-year-old mother of two who hails from Santa Barbara, Ca, and has lived in Wilmington’s downtown district for two years. “There is a cast system here,” she said. What’s more, “there’s no smoke screen. People seem still shackled by the past,” But the partiality of the south doesn’t just stop at race, she said. Earlier in the day, she had seen a bumper sticker that read “We Don’t Care How You Did It Up North.” “Well, you better get used to it,” she quipped. Transplants, who make up 40 per cent of Wilmington’s population, and move to North Carolina for its balmy weather and lower cost of living, cannot be discounted. “Look what happened with the Mexican population in California,” she added, “they didn’t see that coming.” She identified with Barack Obama’s message: Change, and she said, “I feel comfortable with him representing our county’s foreign policies,” after traveling to Europe for a couple of years and didn’t appreciate how Americans were viewed overseas.
Across the street from Gillingham, Suda Tuggle, has lived in Wilmington since the sixties. She always votes based on issues, she said. “I’ve voted liberal–I’ve actually voted for two democrats and one republican,” Tuggle said. She was a Hillary supporter and presented with her current choices, Suda, voted for McCain, because her son served in the first gulf war, and “unless you’ve experienced what they [military] go through, you don’t understand,” she said. McCain “will weigh out the options before sacrificing our troops.” When I asked if she would feel comfortable with an Obama presidency, she said “sure.” But she was apprehensive about letting on to the neighbors whom she voted for.
Two weeks ago, on my way down to an Obama rally in Fayetteville, NC, I called my old neighbor, Gloria Mauro, a single mom from Connecticut. We chatted indefinitely. It was just filler talk when I changed the subject to politics, and she hesitantly admitted whom she’s leaning for. Her voice broke and sounded as if it was the first time she said it out loud. “Really? I asked. “Obama is all about spend, spend, spend,” she qualified. But more to the point, she admitted, ” C.J.,” her two-year-old son, “gets a seven-thousand dollar tax break,” with McCain. “But, he probably won’t win,” she muttered. With child support hard a-coming I could sympathize. But I couldn’t get around how she missed an essential piece of the puzzle: Her story is Obama’s story. He was raised by a single mother–just like her. But indolent to reflection she wavered otherwise.
As Gloria’s news loomed over me my car seemed to be accelerating backwards. The McCain/Palin logo reigned supreme on SUVs, pick trucks and signs along the highway. It seemed the loathsome fuel of fear mongering had permeated the North also.
Last week, Mack Hicks, a 43-year-old plumber, who picked up the trade 18 years ago as he faced the challenges of raising his two daughters as a single dad. He told me he was undecided but was leaning toward McCain. “I was a veteran,” Hicks explained, and he identified with McCain’s stance on guns. Mack was honest about not being up on the election. He hadn’t seen the debates or knew much about Obama’s experience. I encouraged him to update himself, and because he exhibited the same leeriness of his demographic, I also reminded him to take a closer look at Joe Biden, who may assuage some of his concerns.
Weird news spilled in from all over, though. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted by Peter Hart, in Cuyahoga County, Oh, last Sunday had me stirred with mixed emotions again. This time by Cookie, a nanny in her 50s, who voted democratic for nearly 40 years. She lived through the wrenching narrative of the ’68 election and pointed out that we’re in danger of reliving it. “Are we better off than the next generation?” The moderator asked and she confidently raised her first-hand experience: “Yes, we are.” She supported Hillary, but expressed passionate disdain for Sarah Palin. Asked to give her take on Obama, she huffed,” That smile–he is too perfect–too rehearsed–I don’t feel it,” she said. The moderator then asked each participant at the roundtable if they had to choose right then, who would it be? Cookie’s answer was: Joe Bidden. The room broke into jovial laughter. She gave some thoughtful explanations, which exposed her preference for an older guy in the White House. And though she said race had nothing to do with it when Michelle Obama’s name came up she unintelligibly displayed an aversion toward her as the room echoed the same. Where as to with Cindy McCain: “Good spouse” was the general consensus. It was easy to frame Cookie as a bit shell-shocked and rather callous on TV, holding back enthusiasm as she minced over her choices.” You gotta go with your gut,” she bookended.
I was as weak as my network signal. Sometimes you have to press restart if you want to keep going, and I felt better already.
I followed up with, Mack Hicks, from two weeks ago, to see where he was with his decision. And he sounded almost like a different person. “I don’t like McCain’s record of voting against raises for our military, and better equipment,” Hicks said, and he took a stance on the Iraq war. “We’re there guarding oil fields. What business is it of ours to try and make other people like us?” He posed. It seemed Mack had done his homework. After seeing some of the ads attacking Obama’s character, he saw right through McCain’s smear campaign and said “I don’t care about black and white or man/woman if I like how he/she handles the issues, that claim a common benefit, that’s my man!” He sealed his approval for Obama’s rise from humble beginnings and saw him as someone who broke through the race barrier, and he came to Michelle Obama’s defense, too. “She would stand for better education and better healthcare.” He said he didn’t buy into allegations that Michelle Obama seeks to gain position in Washington and saw her simply as a supportive spouse. He also said he saw though the disconnect of Sarah Palin’s attempt to save face on Saturday Night Live, and compared the two women in a staggering analogy: “Palin is a .38 special next to Obama’s .357 magnum,” he canted.
Mack The Plumber tipped wholeheartedly toward Obama.
I also called, Marc Rhodes, a gentleman I met at a McCain rally in mid-October, to see how his decision was faring out. That day he confided his ambiguous predilections about leaning toward McCain, and I was shocked to hear that not only did decide, but that he had already cast his vote early. “Whom did you vote for?” I hesitantly asked. “Obama,” he said resolutely. I asked him what swayed him to such a conclusion, and he said, “the ad–last night–the infomercial, I guess it was,” Obama’s choice to run the alleged four-million dollar, 30-minute movie had been debated extensively by marketing experts who disregarded the timing of its effectiveness. “I think Obama will be far more effective than McCain,” he said. What’s more, “I think senator Obama is as intelligent as president Clinton–if not more,” he added.
I felt the weirdness dissipating.
But, it was hard to add up Cookie, the nanny, and many undecided voters for that matter. Because, the choices couldn’t be more black and white this time around. Could the current election cycle rear its ugly head as it did in ’68? John McCain and the mastermind of his camp haven’t created a movement. What they have, however, accomplished is they’ve appealed to the morass of our national character. They are confident in an America with a split personality bent for The Dark Side, and don’t mind exploiting her. How else could one account for one of the most unpopular politicians rise to War Hero status? Once again, history stands witness. I recalled the sentiment of the ’72 election in what Hunter Thompson said, just days away from Nixon presiding over the White House: “Our Barbie Doll president, with his Barbie doll wife and his box-full of Barbie doll children is also America’s answer to the monstrous Mr. Hyde. He speaks to the Werewolf in us; the bully, the predatory shyster who turns into something unspeakable, full of claws and bleeding string-warts, on nights when the moon comes too close.”
I’ve seen change in Wilmington, though. Despite the fragility of the times, unity is beginning to putter in North Carolina. I’ve seen lots of chins up and people–black, white, talking–and looking each other in the eye, trying to feel their way though new winds of change.
With just two days before the deal goes down all there is left now is raw instinct. And that’s something statisticians can’t track. I could be musing over wild delusions. But. It appears evident that some people woke up, and by my count, I think The South is being won again. This time with North Carolina to: “Yes, we can!”
VAL STRANGE is a writer/journalist presently journeying these United States and keeping score. In between working on a collection of essays she takes long walks with her two dogs Boy and Lucy.