How Obama's Hopesters Took Ohio

An ailing factory town votes for change

Lorain voted better than 2 to 1 in 2004 for John Kerry. But many polling sites showed turnouts of 50 percent and less. Efforts by Obama's campaign and Reclaim Lorain helped increase city registrations by 25 percent, officials said. Final tallies of early and absentee votes from this year's election are still under way, but preliminary results show a sharp drop in Republican votes, with dramatic spikes in Democratic votes at the city's poorer precincts. On Election Day, the big question was whether Lorain's many white Democrats would cancel out that surge by refusing to back an African-American candidate.

There were many surprises. Richard Schuler, a 63-year-old white man who owns a paint-contracting business, talked nothing like McCain's Joe the Plumber. "I am happy to see there's an intelligent candidate stepping up to run," he said after casting his ballot at St. Cyril & Methodius Church. "I like his speeches, like what he has to say, how he handles himself. I voted for Bush the first time, then changed my mind. I felt the country was headed in the wrong direction. Let's just hope it can get turned around now."

A few minutes later, a pair of young white men in work clothes emerged from the polling site and jumped into a mud-spattered Jeep Cherokee. "I did Obama," said Jason Hilton, 25, a laborer. "I wasn't even registered. Someone gave me a form at the racetrack, I filled it out, and here I am. Hell, I could've watched those debates till 2 a.m. Obama cleaned McCain's clock every time." His pal, Chris Hartman, 22, an auto mechanic, nodded. "If we had another 9/11, I think McCain would freak out—have a heart attack, drop dead—and then we'd have her for president."

On Lorain's southeast side in front of Southview High School, a pair of middle-aged white men stood outside the polls talking about bowhunting season. One man, who gave his name only as Steve, wore tattered camouflage pants and a bandanna around his head. The other had on a rumpled gas-station attendant's shirt bearing the name "Bill." Both looked like sure bets to have one of those "NO-bama" stickers—sported on cars around the state—on their bumpers. Wrong again. "I thought about McCain for awhile," said the man named Bill. "People said Obama was from the Middle East and has Arab blood. But I changed my mind. Obama's more the right man."

"I've got 14 guns, and if I thought he was going to take away one of them, I'd be against him," said Steve, a construction worker. "But I sorted everything out. We've had eight years of getting porked by this Bush, and that's enough. I want the guy who's going to do right by working people."

For that matter, not every minority voter matched the Obama profile. Luis Rosario, 34, wore gold studs in his ear and an African-style necklace to the polls. "We don't need someone with no experience in the White House," said Rosario, an ex-Marine who's spent five years as a correctional officer at Lorain Correctional Institution, a state prison in nearby Grafton. "We don't need Kuwait, places like that, trying to test us."

It was a day that tested many stereotypes. One of the leaders of Reclaim Lorain is a middle-aged black woman from Louisiana named Jo Ann Charleston, who is pastor of a local house of worship called New Birth Church. On Election Day, Charleston worked as a roving troubleshooter at the polls, helping voters and volunteers alike figure out how to cope with poll judges intent on handing out provisional ballots at the first sign of trouble.

In between answering voters' questions, Charleston filled in the rest of her remarkable résumé. If Lorain's problems are mired in its rust-belt past, Charleston stands for its hopes for a different future. An engineer with double degrees in divinity and chemistry, Charleston has worked for NASA for 30 years, where she helped design a battery that the agency plans to use in the next moon launch. She's received numerous awards for her work, including being named one of the agency's top five women employees. These days, she heads NASA's educational-outreach efforts, coaching high school students into becoming scientists: "We've got a shortage of students pursuing math and science," she said. "There's no reason we can't turn out a new generation of scientists right here in Lorain."

She turned to speak to an older white man wearing plaid pants—another likely McCain–Palin voter. He'd been told he was at the wrong polling site. Charleston made a call on her cell phone. "You're in the right place, just the wrong precinct," she told him, directing him to the proper table. "Everyone's vote should count," she said as he shuffled back into the polling site.

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