Monday, March 3, 2008

The Ohio Primary - Getting Down in Dayton and Vandalia

Arrived in Dayton on Sunday and went right to the Plumber's Hall on the eastside where I picked up voter lists and Obama lit for the Grafton Hill neighborhood. Knocked on doors (37 of them) for two hours, asking voters who answered to vote for Barack on Tuesday. Fourteen of the 17 I talked to were already intending to vote for Obama.

In that sense, all of Dayton's Westside was like gold; votes to be mined--the vast majority Barack voters--but, unfortunately, not in quantities sufficient to overcome the advantage Clinton had in the wrecked industrial landscape of eastern and northern Ohio. The Obama campaign seemed to be everywhere, but we know that the Clinton campaign was pretty mobilized, too.

The next day I walked a neighborhood in Vandalia that was far from Obama territory and likely not much in the way of Clinton territory, either. The neighborhood, a sprawling collection of 1950s-era ranch homes and split-levels on wide lots, lies just west of I-75 and south of US-40 (the National Road).

It was a puzzling place. When I arrived there late morning, there was virtually no activity on the street--pretty much me and the mail carrier. I walked quite a few streets before I saw my first campaign sign and most of the vehicles parked in driveways, or curbside, had no bumper stickers, either.

After awhile, putting a little bit more effort into observation, I did begin to notice American flags planted on houses. Three or four lawns with campaign signs were supporting Hillary. I didn't see a single McCain sign and, ultimately, near the end of my door-to-door sweep, one Obama sign. But I ran across a Huckabee sign before I saw the Obama sign.

It was a definite thought-bubble moment. I'm striding up the street, thinking, "Huckabee?"

When I hit the house with the Obama sign in the yard, I felt a certain solidarity with the occupants, who weren't actually there and who were likely at work or school. Wondering how many allies they might have on the street, I slid an Obama vote-reminder under the welcome mat. I'm sure they needed no such reminder, but the act felt more like a "you-have-friends-here" note.

I don't mean to suggest that anybody in Vandalia was hostile. More like indifferent or just not present. By mid-afternoon there were teenagers on the street, walking home from a nearby high school. One group of teens came out of a house and got into a late model sedan with a "Newt in 08" bumper sticker.

Another guy in fatigues, washing a modest pick-up truck, told me he was a Republican, but that he might vote for Clinton "just to keep you guys going." He laughed as he said it, so we would both know he wouldn't really do something like that, but I told him that would be fine.

"I think we can handle a long primary and still take care of business in November," I told him.

"I think you can, too," he said.

Though Vandalia seemed a strange land, it's likely that Vandalia residents--skewing quite white, hanging on to middle-class life, facing foreclosures and bankruptcy, leaning Republican and sending their children to Iraq, are facing much of the same social distress the rest of the country is facing.

But they've swallowed more of the Kool-Aid than some of the rest of us. They think big government is bad government and social programs are debilitating.

Well, we will have to be patient. Some of the change we wish for won't happen unless some of them start wishing for it, too.

It would have been nice if Barack could have won in Ohio and Texas on Tuesday and effectively ended the Democratic primary. Unfortunately, that's not what happened. Still, I would have made the journey even if I had known Barack would lose. I wasn't pretending to myself that knocking on a few doors or talking to a few voters would make much difference. I just wanted to see some of the campaigning up close.

And, of course, it also represented an opportunity to come back to Dayton, where Marrianne and I spent the '90s working on the Dayton Voice/Impact Weekly, and where Brendan spent most of 1998 in utero, working on being born. It is the people we worked with at the Voice and the people we knew here that make coming back worthwhile.

I stayed two nights at Kristen's house. Since working as a reporter at the Voice, Kristen has been working in journalism and communications. She's also put in time in the public relations department at the University of Dayton and taught writing at Stivers High School.

Stivers is probably the jewel of Dayton Public Schools, but Dayton and the public schools being what they are, Kristen's job as head of the creative writing department got axed shortly after she took it. Tough, out-spoken and a skilled journalist with a secret life working on more personal writings, Kristen would be a great teacher.

Lost job or no, she will get another shot at teaching writing; this time in a storefront in the Oregon District from which she and a friend will be offering writing classes for adults.

Dayton's not an easy place for entrepreneurial efforts like Kristen's. It wasn't an easy place for the Voice, either. And it hasn't been kind to working people for many years.

The area was once the location, after Detroit and Flint, of the third largest concentration of GM factories in the country. There were a lot of good jobs at National Cash Register, McCall's printing facility and other mid-century industrial giants, as well.

But all those jobs are gone now and Dayton is a depopulated center-city surrounded by much wealthier suburbs, which are themselves experiencing real decline. There are probably a wide variety of statistical measures that would demonstrate just how desperate things in Dayton are, but it should suffice to say that in Dayton-area dialect there are about 32 words or phrases for urban decline.

That makes it all the more important to note that for all the hard knocks life in Dayton delivers, it also seems to foster a streak of stubbornness and persistence that is evident in so many of the people I know there. Old Voice colleagues apparently never give up. They keep trying to do their art and their music and their writing, and raise their families, and fix up their houses, and start new businesses, and find another job that will get them a step closer to where they want to go.

I loved the two days I spent in Dayton for Obama, but my time there was not really for Barack. It was for me, and I spent a good part of it listening to Annie and Kristen and Kier and Dean and Michelle and Joe and Margaret and Jim McC and Robin and others. These are committed, creative and durable people.

Barack's formulation, we "are the ones we've been waiting for" is made manifest in Dayton. The changes that we insist must occur if America is to realize its promise of economic and social justice will come when more of us are like the heroes I know in Dayton.

1 comment:

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