by Glenn Reed
(Swans - November 19, 2012) Sometimes life forces you to the sidelines. Often it's left you black and blue.
Such was my reality this year. So, for the first election cycle since the mid 1990s, I didn't volunteer for any campaigns except for some tabling for Vermont's senator Bernie Sanders. Despite my revulsion for Romney-Ryan, there was just too much on my plate.
Circumstances also led me to cross the country in the last three weeks before the presidential election. My partner and I covered fifteen states in that time, from Vermont to Washington. Six were solid "red" ones, six "blue," and three among the touted "battleground" states (Ohio, Iowa, Colorado), where President Obama and former Governor Mitt Romney spent virtually all of their time in the last two months of the campaign. Following are some of my observations leading up to, and after, November 6, 2012.
Oct 15: Fair Haven, Vermont. When I check on-line polls they indicate that President Obama has his biggest lead in the nation here. The major statewide contests are pretty much sewn up by Dems and Vermont's beloved Socialist/Independent, Senator Bernie Sanders. But even here, there's an endless onslaught of TV ads. One Super PAC, funded mostly by a Burlington millionaire, is pouring money into spots for Republicans running for state treasurer and auditor. My sense of Vermont as a haven from much of the utter corruption of our system feels violated on this night before leaving my home state.
Oct 16: Along Rte. 90 near Amsterdam, New York. Didn't see any campaign signs on the upstate trek along Route 90, but did catch a few farm spreads lauding the benefits of hydraulic fracturing (fracking). The Mohawk River and signs for the Finger Lakes remind of the vital, pervasive water resources here.
Both Obama and Romney have talked about natural gas a vital part of our energy independence. New York governor Cuomo is still wavering a bit on fracking, but the Vermont behind me banned it in its last legislative session.
Somewhere east of Buffalo we turn the car radio on for the second presidential debate. We laughed when Romney was caught flat-footed when he tried claiming that President Obama didn't refer to a terrorist act on the day after the attack on the US embassy in Benghazi, Libya.
Oct. 17: Niagara Falls, New York. Water, of course, doesn't recognize national boundaries. I think of this as the millions of gallons of the St. Lawrence tumble from Canada's side, over Horseshoe Falls, into the gorge below. The pictures being snapped by dozens of Japanese tourists won't show any of the estimated 600 chemicals potentially released into our water supplies by fracking. Nor do the "free" trade deals lauded by Obama and Romney value people or the environment more than the bottom line.
Black and white is quite often gray in our two-party dominated system.
Oct 17: Cleveland, Ohio. Cuyahoga County always brings out a heavy Democratic vote to help balance out the Republican vote in more rural parts of the state. I remember the long voting lines here in 2004 and the Republican-dominated state legislature's efforts to cut back on early voting. I spy my first political billboard deep in blue territory that asks voters if they're aware that Obama is not "pro-life" or in support of "traditional marriage." Meanwhile, the tolls that are helping to reduce state budget cuts begin to eat into my own travel budget.
Oct 18: Iowa City, Iowa. Still few political signs, but you can't really judge much by travel on a Rte. 80 swarming with speeding trucks. Have seen almost no bumper stickers anywhere, either.
Stopping at this university town offers a co-op with a superb multi-grain bread and great lattes. There are a few Obama signs around, but not many. I wonder about the enthusiasm of the youth vote, which went for Obama by about 2-1 in 2008.
Later in the day, the weather deteriorates and howling winds and sheets of rain batter our car. The massive wind turbines that rise from the wrinkled farmland are twirling full-speed. Beneath them the fields are brown, but probably little different looking from when drought ravaged the crops over the past summer. Signs at a rest stop give equal praise to wind, solar, "clean" coal, nuclear, and natural gas. They say nothing of the drought or record heat, though.
Oct. 21: Columbus, Nebraska. Deep in red territory now. We're helping a friend prepare his parents' house for sale, as they are moving into assisted living. Their home was once bordered by corn and cow fields and it's now surrounded by housing developments, which are mostly one-story, single-family houses with bland, close-cropped grass lawns and bushes that require little care. No one seems into gardening here, but keeping nature at bay and maintaining an illusion of control. The few political yard signs are for the Senate race. Deb Fischer, the Republican candidate, is standard Tea Party far right/anti-choice/anti-gay marriage, and Bob Kerrey is what I'd consider a recycled Blue Dog Democrat.
My friend's parents are both staunch Republicans who used to watch Fox non-stop. His father, due to failing health, is already in a care home. His mother is gracious, welcoming, generous, and a total joy with us. We don't discuss politics at all and she's grateful for the help we're providing. It's comfortable in the home where this 92-year-old woman has lived since the 1950s and who is now facing having to leave it all. Our common humanity and the reality of our life's challenges is what I feel as we sit down to a pleasant dinner with her.
Blue and red make purple, after all.
Oct. 22: Still in Columbus. Our friend takes us downtown for lattes at a gift/coffee shop. Don't notice until we're leaving that all of the nicknacks for sale have Christian messages on them. On the way back to the house, I see a sign at a real estate agent's office that reads: "Pray, then Vote."
Later, we take a walk along the shallow, meandering Platte River. There's little to it due to the summer drought, but the cottonwoods lining it glow yellow in the sun. Our friend points out the home of a gay couple he knows. Says that when he gets together with them they not only avoid talk of any gay issues, but don't even acknowledge that they're gay. I begin to feel the weight of the vast Nebraska sky and how suffocating to have to hide yourself even in your own home.
We don't watch the third debate that night, but I check it out later on line. Happy to see Obama score points, but still a great silence on such issues as climate change and labor rights and not enough about the Republican's War on Women or threats to cut Medicare or privatize Social Security.
Oct 25: Denver, Colorado. The endless, daily polls indicate Obama and Romney are neck-and-neck here. Campaign commercials are constant and highly agitating.
Our friend here has scored tickets to see the president speak this afternoon at City Park. Her neighborhood is about as solid blue as the Colorado sky on a typical summer day. This morning I counted 40 Obama signs and just 4 for Romney in the vicinity.
We stand in line and then wait for over two hours for the president's arrival from another rally in Iowa. Looking around, I deduce that we're clearly in the minority here as older, white males. However, we find the diversity is stimulating and refreshing. We're proud to be in the so-called "47%." The rally's an amazing contrast to the Romney-Ryan gathering at Red Rocks the previous night. TV shots of it showed a crowd that looked almost totally white and about 75% male.
I'm happy to be seeing my first sitting president, though the speech is a rather canned one that I've heard before.
Oct. 30: Somewhere between Douglas and Newcastle, Wyoming. Got off Route 25 well north of Cheyenne to take a side trip over to the Black Hills. The place of Crazy Horse and more broken promises. Black and white again.
The remote, two-lane roads we take have steady tractor-railer and pick-up-truck traffic, belying the lack of any towns for about 50 miles save for a small collection of buildings called "Bill." The sky and landscape are pitch black except for the scattered lights indicating fracking towers. They whisper of local jobs and corporate PR ads on TV touting how natural gas and "clean coal" are leading to our energy independence. I open the window near a huge plant and breathe in the marsh-like stink of coal. That night we're glued to the TV and the devastation that is being heaped on the mid-Atlantic by Hurricane Sandy.
Everyone the next day says that Obama looked "Presidential." Appearances are everything in black and white.
Nov. 3: Billings, Montana. This city has grown in the last ten years to be the largest in the state -- mostly due to the extraction industries. We drive through it quickly. Both sides of the highway are lined with train tracks, refineries belching smoke, processing plants with monstrous piles of coal, and billboards reminding of the very same selection of chain hotels and restaurants that lie off every major exit of every major highway in the whole country.
Main Street, my ass.
A mile or more long train passes by; its open boxcars piled high with chunks of coal. Billings reminds me of Montana's history as a one-company state and we don't linger here. On the other hand, the local paper reminds of a non-binding initiative on the state's election ballot that gives a middle finger to corporate personhood and the United v. FEC Supreme Court decision.
Red or blue are never all black and white, as I'm reminded.
Nov. 4: Butte, Montana. Great setting; depressed town. Am disappointed that the world's biggest open mine pit is closed for the season, though I cringe at the thought of the toxic waters that are filling it and which kill any birds unfortunate enough to land there. The historic district here is amazing, however, and it seems like a place with great potential. Lots of political yard signs -- but all for local candidates and for the highly contested statewide races for governor and US Senate.
Nov. 6: Mount Vernon, Washington. Finally arrived here two days ago.
Election nights always make me nervous and despite my confidence that President Obama will win, the potential of a Romney administration making Supreme Court appointments, helping to overturn Roe v. Wade, cutting corporate tax cuts and deregulating big business, denying science and making climate change worse, pursuing a confrontational, neoliberal foreign policy, etc., has kept me fearful for months. We're glued to the radio and when NPR calls Ohio for Obama much earlier than expected, I feel an overwhelming relief. Elizabeth Warren's victory in Massachusetts, the approval of gay marriage and marijuana use in various states, the defeats of misogynistic Richard Mourdock and Todd Akin, and many other results make for a happy night overall. It helps to erase the devastation of the 2010 mid-terms...somewhat.
Nov. 7: Mount Vernon, Washington. Driving up to Bellingham, I notice yard signs with the message of "No Coal Train." Ironically, I note that many are on the massive farms of the Skagit Valley that have also displayed Romney signs. "Not in my backyard," I think, along with "scratch a conservative long enough and you get a liberal...," and vice versa.
The relief/happiness felt last night is now more like a hangover from catastrophe averted. Today I'm still unemployed. Rumors remain of Social Security being forfeited in grand sacrifice to avoid the so-called "fiscal cliff." Climate change is slowly drifting back down in the priority pile despite the massive wake-up call of Hurricane Sandy. Our election system and D.C. are still dominated by corporate money.
And red or blue, most of us remain black and blue and wondering if everything will just continue as a descent out of the blue and into the black.
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About the Author
Glenn Reed is a freelance writer who has worked in the non-profit world for nearly 30 years, both as paid staff and volunteer. He is also a lifelong activist for social, economic, and environmental justice. He currently resides in Fair Haven, Vermont. (back)