Voting in the Rain

In one of the poorest corners of America, voters turned out in droves

 EAST CLEVELAND, OHIO—On Election Day in Ohio, a group of church-going people concerned with basic moral values and their nation's well-being have assembled in the basement of their house of worship to try and help elect a president. There is Gladys Alexander, 75, a slim elderly woman with her gray hair tucked under a beige hat, who has spent the past week knocking on her neighbors' doors and urging them to get out to vote. On Election Day morning, in the pouring rain, she was out before dawn greeting voters at the polls. Now she is back at Concord Baptist Church, a stately brick building surrounded by two-story homes and tall oaks, laughing with excitement and ready for further marching orders. "I never saw the polling places like that before in all my days," she says. "All the lines! It made me so proud." Just what was it that she hoped to accomplish, she is asked. "I want to live to see change in my country. I want to elect someone who is going to pay attention to communities like this one. Someone I can trust." Her face wrinkles in a frown. "And I am looking to get that guy, the one who is in there now, out."

If George W. Bush's election victory was won by masses of conservative, God-fearing voters in Ohio's rural and suburban communities, John Kerry's close bid came as a result of equally devout citizens like Alexander. Against even steeper odds, albeit in what would ultimately be a losing cause, they gave Bush strategist Karl Rove a tough run for his money throughout that dreary, rain-drenched Tuesday.

Alexander and her neighbors toil not in suburban affluence or small-town comfort, but in the ghettos of East Cleveland, a three-square-mile municipality with 27,000 residents adjoining Cleveland proper. Once the summer resort of John D. Rockefeller, East Cleveland's chief claim to fame today may be that it is even poorer than its far larger next-door neighbor, which in September was dubbed the poorest big city in America.

Peggy Allen, 63, casts her first vote.
photo by Lynn Ischay
Peggy Allen, 63, casts her first vote.

The little city of East Cleveland could match any measurement of urban misery. Last month it was forced to lay off 13 of its 49 police officers. This left just two patrol cars to prowl its violence-prone streets. Last year, the city laid off most of its paramedics. Street lights on many blocks are unlit; the city can't afford the utility bill. But that's nothing new. The city has been under a state-declared fiscal emergency since 1988. After 16 years, the term emergency hardly fits. It has become a way of life.

The root causes are no mystery: Industry shut down or left town in the wake of white flight in the 1960s, which left the city 97 percent African American. There have been self-imposed wounds as well. This year the former mayor was convicted of 22 counts of racketeering, including taking bribes from vendors. Before his conviction, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that Mayor Emmanuel Onunwor was one of many city officials who weren't even paying their property taxes, the city's main source of revenue. More than 30 percent of the city's properties are tax delinquent.

In most elections, the city musters less than a third of its 16,000 registered voters. But this Election Day, the message in the streets is that the stakes are far higher. A group of local ministers has recruited organizers to help turn out the vote. Groups like America Coming Together, the unaffiliated but avowedly anti-Bush voter-mobilization project, have been roving the streets of East Cleveland and the adjoining neighborhoods of Cleveland's east side, registering voters, as have the activist group ACORN and the Service Employees International Union. The political-action arm of the government workers' union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, has agreed to pick up the cost of the get-out-the-vote effort at Concord Baptist.

In the church basement, Alexander sits across from Raymond Jackson, 48, an auto worker who had waited 25 minutes to vote at a senior citizens' center near his home. "I can tell you that never happened before," he laughs. His job starts at 2 p.m., but he has offered to drive through the neighborhoods to help "flush" voters to the polls.

Jackson grew up in nearby Hough, a Cleveland ghetto racked by deadly riots in 1966. "I remember the tanks going down the street," he says. Twenty years ago, in what was then a step up the ladder, he moved to East Cleveland. He said he had watched the neighborhood slide downhill around him. "At one point, East Cleveland was a good place to live. Now it's just a depressed community. It has no business base. The biggest problem is the school system. The solution would be to have Cleveland take it over, but they don't want us. They've got their own problems."

Jackson commutes 30 miles to his job at a DaimlerChrysler auto parts warehouse, where he is an official of the United Auto Workers. "It all starts with a job—if you've got one you can make it." He speaks with pride of his daughter, who obtained a master's degree in communications from Cleveland State University. "She's got the degree, but she can't get a job. I tell her she may just have to move somewhere else." His union affiliation and a sense of futility about his community have brought him to the church on Election Day. "I always vote Democratic, though I did vote for [Republican U.S. senator George] Voinovich. But I'm for Kerry. This country is going in the wrong direction."

Next Page »