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A New York Yankee in George Bush's America
It doesn't matter that tax dollars are going to politically connected contractors while military families starve and scrape; George W. Bush struts around in a flight suit and says he loves Jesus.
With the 2004 Election being one of great importance, I was eager to do something for the cause of democracy besides simply going and voting or writing a check to my candidate of choice. I wanted to do something hands on to mark the occasion. This, after all, was the "most important election of our lifetime," and I didn’t want to spend it on the sidelines.
Help came from my friend Bob who ran for office in Georgia. While a native New Yorker, I had the privilege of living and going to college in Georgia. My friend Bob was one of my roommates in college and is one of the brightest people I know. A native Georgian, Bob has all of the culture and smarts that you’d want in a political candidate with none of the pretension. He introduced me to both NASCAR and the music of the Velvet Underground.
After going to law school, Bob worked at a large and prestigious law firm in Atlanta until deciding to open a small law practice in his home town of Luthersville, Georgia. Luthersville is about an hour’s drive Southwest of Atlanta and is a rural area. When I went to visit his home and law office, Bob told me that if I got lost, I should just ask anyone where "the law office" was – his is the only one in town.
Bob decided to run for State Senate. I volunteered to do whatever I could to help the Bob Trammell for State Senate cause and took some time off close to Election Day to pitch in during the final days of the campaign.
The metro Atlanta area was awash in Bush-Cheney signs and bumper stickers, even though the signs of Bush’s failures abound. The highways are choked with traffic because there is no real public transportation in Atlanta. The airports are filled with soldiers in desert fatigues going to or coming from Iraq.
My father, stepmother, sister and stepbrothers live in the Atlanta area. Being hearty Democrats from both sides of the Mason-Dixon line (my father was raised in the Bronx while my stepmother hails from Alabama), they had two Kerry-Edwards signs in their yard. Initially they had one sign, but when someone destroyed it, they put two signs in the yard. "If those get destroyed," my father told me, "we’ll have four signs in the yard the next morning."
I set about helping my friend’s campaign any way I could.
An important part of the campaign was to make sure black people got out and voted. To that end we went to the black neighborhoods in Columbus and LaGrange and went door to door handing out information about where to vote. Often I went with Matt, one of Bob’s campaign workers who ran the LaGrange office. It felt good to do, especially in light of Republican efforts to suppress the black vote in 2000 and 2004. We were greeted warmly and thanked by people who took our flyers. Many asked us questions about early voting (Georgia was one of many states that allowed early voting the week before Election Day).
One woman I gave a flyer to asked me, "Are you a Democrat?"
"Yes ma’am," I said (people in the South are civilized in their speech to one another and it’s customary to say "sir" and "ma’am" to people rather than "asshole" or "bitch").
"Thank you," she said.
I also spent time canvassing a heavily Republican area of Columbus, walking door to door leaving campaign literature. I’ll never get used to the weather being 80 degrees in October (unless global warming makes it that way here in New York – that would make me flee to Canada). Most people were polite. A woman told me that "if he’s a Democrat, he’s out of luck here." I gave her a flyer anyway, as Bob left his party affiliation off of his literature in the heavily Republican area (his opponent emblazoned his signs and literature with ‘Republican’). One man refused to take a flyer because Bob is a Democrat. Another man had his front door open and sat in his living room with no clothes on (I assume he was a Nader supporter). He scurried away when he saw me approaching his door and I left a flyer on his porch and quickly moved on.
The best part about the experience was getting to travel with my friend Bob. He worked tirelessly on campaigning and gave it everything he had. He told me that it was very liberating to make such an effort, to put yourself out there and go for it. "There are going to be no ‘what ifs’ in this campaign, Sheahan," he told me as we were driving along. It was inspiring to see my friend in newspaper ads and TV commercials, looking every bit like the political candidate.
Election Day came and I joined Bob at his parents’ house in Luthersville. His girlfriend and his sister joined us there and the four of us drove to nearby Greenville, Georgia, to look at election returns at a county election office there. Greenville’s center of town is beautiful. It is centered around a courthouse and traffic circle and is squared off with red brick buildings and sidewalks.
Bob outperformed other Democrats in the heavily Republican district. Still, it was not enough to put him over the top against an incumbent in a state that overwhelmingly voted for George W. Bush. We returned to his parents’ house where he called his opponent and conceded. While he didn’t get the win he wanted, Bob walks away having proven himself. He mounted a strong challenge to a well-financed incumbent and showed he can make inroads into Republican territory. Even newspapers that endorsed his opponent had only good things to say about him. He’s got a bright future ahead of him and I hope he’s president someday.
I drove home through the rain, through the traffic hell of Atlanta and turned on cable TV as soon as I reached my father’s house to see if a presidential winner had been declared yet. I was up until 3 a.m.
The next day Kerry conceded. I stood heartbroken in the Atlanta airport watching him give his concession speech. Like much of America, I was in a dark mood. It broke my heart so see the American South solidly voting for Republicans.
I can say first hand that Southern Republicans are not the ignorant yahoos that George W. Bush makes them out to be. I’ve been to crazy fundamentalist churches and found sincerely good people there. The other two friends that Bob and I shared and apartment with, Rich and Ryan, are both Republicans – Ryan was even a volunteer for the Bush campaign this year in Florida.
I, a Godless, whiskey-swilling Yankee, have more in common with most God-fearing Southern Republicans than George W. Bush ever will, but the current political climate doesn’t recognize that. Most Bush supporters don’t have degrees from Ivy League universities. Most Bush voters don’t dine with Saudi princes. But Bob’s mother put it most succinctly: "If white people have two nickels to rub together, they think they have to be a Republican."
Ironically these states that overwhelmingly supported Bush will continue to disproportionately suffer under Bush. It is our "red states" that will continue to watch its jobs being shipped overseas. It will be our "red states" that watch its children being sent to die in Iraq.
What’s most frustrating is the degree to which Bush voters cast their ballots against their own interests in favor of shallow cultural overtures. It doesn’t matter that George W. Bush won’t stand up to Saudi royalty who help finance terrorism; he’s against gay marriage. It doesn’t matter that tax dollars are going to politically connected contractors while military families starve and scrape; George W. Bush struts around in a flight suit and says he loves Jesus.
The left is not blameless for our current political state. The American left has often chosen ethnic pandering over truthful American unity and turned its back on large swaths of middle and working class voters. When Howard Dean rightly said that Democrats needed to attract voters who have Confederate flags their pickup trucks, he was pilloried by many fellow Democrats. Many liberals view religious Christians with a mocking contempt that they would never aim at other religions. If a conservative newspaper treated Judaism or Islam the way The New York Times treats Christianity (Catholicism in particular), it would rightly be accused of bigotry. The more contemptuously the left looks at the working class, the more the working class will be pushed to voting against its own economic interests. George W. Bush’s handlers know this, and they exploited it to the hilt.
America has made a tragic mistake in putting George W. Bush and his brand of Republicans in power. Our country, which has always been better than our government, will overcome the crimes of the Bush administration. For the next four years, the job of patriotic Americans everywhere is to love America as strongly as ever and keep fighting the good fight against George W. Bush. It will be very liberating.