Saturday, November 10, 2012

Notes on Election Day in Key West

Tip O'Neill said it: All politics is local

When Tip O'Neill, the big, affable politician from Boston, said "All politics is local," he might not have realized how layered in meaning the statement is. It means congressmen won't be re-elected unless they take care of their districts back home. Yes, you might fight for national bills in Congress, but you better pay attention to the folks where you live.
After last week's voting, I realized it means something else: As hundreds of millions of Americans, from Maine to San Diego and Seattle to South Florida, went to the polls to vote, I had the pleasure of seeing and talking to my neighbors at my precinct headquarters at the community swimming pool in Bahama Village. We have an active political base in Bahama Village, the main drag of which seems to be Petronia Street. The neighborhood is bounded on the south by Front Street to the community pool. The northern boundary of the village is the length of Duval from United Street to Fleming Street.
At Johnson's Store, an important political communications center in the largely African-American precinct(second only to the neighborhood churches) owners "B" and Brenda Johnson post signs outside their little grocery store that urge neighbors to register to vote; to take advantage of early voting; and to remind everyone to vote on Election Day. They also let local, state, and national candidates hang their campaign signs on the store's outside wall.
The Johnsons have launched petitions for Bahama Village neighbors to sign that argue against the widening of Petronia or other projects that could diminish the neighborhood's peaceful atmosphere. The couple has sponsored Petronia Street cleanup days, during which they offer free coffee and pastries to volunteers who picked up trash and rubbish from the street. This week a sign outside the store thanks the community for voting and encourages everyone to come toether to improve the neighborhood regardless of race, sexual preference, religious belief or political party.
So, when Election Day nears--especially last week's, in which President Barack Obama faced Mitt Romney, a strong conservative Republican contender--politics was the top subject of conversation at Johnson's, at Courthouse Deli, and in the Elks Club on Whitehead Street.
At lunchtime on Election Day, I made my way to the community pool to cast my vote. There was my friend Charles, seated in a folding chair, holding up a campaign poster supporting Barack Obama. There was no Romney presence, not even a sign sticking up from the lawn. That's what Romney meant when he said there was no sense trying to attract Obama's 47 percent camp to vote for him in the last weeks of his campaign. Too bad. The irony of Romney's statement, by the way, was lost on none of my neighbors.
I also saw neighbors holding signs for Andy Griffiths for School Board and Catherine Vogel for state attorney, an holding posters for other candidates.
At a table outside the front door of the precinct, a young lady asked neighbors complete a form listing the top three problems facing Bahama Village. I listed parking, proposed widening of Petronia, Olivia, and more activities for youth. Jobs training programs would be great for young people, too.
I worked for Sen. John Glen's campaign, knocking on doors in Manchester, N.H., before the first primary in the fall of 1984. I covered the state Legislature in Annapolis, Md. I was a reporter on Capitol Hill for 10 years, watching, listening, and talking with lawmakers on both sides as they spun, spun, spun to the press.
That's why I decided not to watch the election returns last Tuesday night. It was going to be close. Fox News, of course, had the Romney momentum bringing its candidate to the brink of victory and MSNBC was calling it awful close for Obama. I get pretty wound up on Election Night and so, decided I'd watch the crime channel instead to stay calm. I would not peek at the results and instead wait for the morning to find out who would lead the nation for the next four years.
So the evening wore on as I worked on my book and watched "Deadly Women"; Sins & Secrets"; "Who in the %#$# Did I Marry?"; and "Behind Mansion Walls" (the closest I got to the 53 percent Romney represents). I was oblivious as to how the rest of the nation was voting that night. I wanted to get my results from the morning paper.
Before radio, television, and the Internet, Americans would learn who won when supporters launched torchlight victory parades and marched around town. Franklin Delanor Roosevelt's biography opens with the young boy waking in the middle of the night in his Hudson Valley mansion as an election night torch parade made up of neighbors and townsfolk marched up to the front of the property. The monied Roosevelts supported Hyde Park candidates and made their home available for political hobnobbing.

I continued to ignore the election results into the night. Then, about midnight, I heard an unexpected sound rolling up Petronia Street. I heard sticks striking plastic tubs, silverware beating on pots and pans, and children and parents chanting. My cat, who was napping on her high shelf, lifted her ears, then her head. The beating and chanting got louder. I stuck my head out my second-story window and looked out. There, at the corner of Terry Lane and Petronia Street, a small crowd milled about, celebrating.
"Obama! Obama! Obama!" and "Fired up! Ready to Go! Fired up! Ready to Go!"
The scene took me back to the 1800s before mass media. The scene was surreal and charming at the same time.
And it's the best illustration of what Tip O'Neill meant when he said that all politics is local.

-- John Guerra


  1. I enjoyed this column, John. I can't watch the returns either - I get too emotional. Especially on this one. I worked as a canvasser this year, the first time I have ever been overtly involved in politics - the legacy of decades as a journalist.

  2. I decided to skip the frenzied election night coverage and instead watch the PBS documentary 'The Natural History of the Chicken' on Netflix, and then turn in early.
    Around midnight I too heard the chanting and banging of pots and pans outside my window on Petronia St.
    I said to myself "Looks like Obama is still president," rolled over and went back too sleep.
    The Coconut Telegraph beats TV everytime.