Election 2004  
comments_image Comments

Whither Pennsylvania?

In Philadelphia and its suburbs, voters' mix of concerns on issues points to no clear advantage for the candidates. That's where the activists come in to play.
 
 
Share
 

A few miles southeast of the wooded ridges of Valley Forge, where George Washington's army spent the bitter winter of 1777-1778, lies the King of Prussia Mall, the largest shopping complex in the world. The Philadelphia suburbs that surround its halls of Eddie Bauer, Foot Locker, and smooth-jazz Muzak are one of the places that may decide the 2004 presidential election.

Pennsylvania voted for Reagan and Bush I in the 1980s, but went for Clinton in the 1990s. Al Gore won it by 220,000 votes in 2000, a margin of 50-46 percent. The conventional wisdom is that the state consists of "Philadelphia and Pittsburgh surrounded by Kentucky"; two big cities balanced by isolated, mountainous rural counties.

Democrats, says state party director Don Morabito, rely on a "four corners strategy": Philadelphia, which Gore carried by better than 4-1 in 2000, piling up a 340,000-vote margin, along with Pittsburgh and the industrial small towns in the southwest, Erie in the northwest, and the old coal-and-steel areas of Allentown/Bethlehem and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in the northeast, which Gore won narrowly in 2000. Meanwhile, Republicans try to maximize turnout in the rural areas and the Pennsylvania Dutch country around York and Lancaster, the most solidly Republican part of the Northeast, where George Bush won by a 2-1 margin in 2000.

The key to the state may be in the Philadelphia suburbs: Bucks, Delaware, Chester, and Montgomery counties. They cast about one million votes in 2000, more than a fifth of the state's total, and gave Gore a 53,000-vote margin.

In the Mall: the Undecided

"I'm still swinging," says Mark Wensel, 45, a shipping-industry salesman from Media at the King of Prussia mall. He's a registered Republican who turned against the Iraq war when no weapons of mass destruction were found, but dislikes Kerry, saying he "tells people what they want to hear." His ultimate choice may be personal – "who would you rather have a beer with?"

Another undecided voter, Barbara Nichter, 56, of Drexel Hill, repeatedly describes the campaign as "frustrating. You don't know what is true and what is not true." She voted for Bush in 2000 and is leaning towards him again. Though she works for a healthcare consultant and likes Kerry's healthcare position, she feels that Bush is "a better commander in chief. We need to be aggressive."

Nancy Perkins, 44, of King of Prussia, is also frustrated with the "accusations and innuendo." She's divided between supporting Bush's "handling the terrorism situation" and disagreeing with him on social issues; she's "definitely for abortion rights" and says "if two people love each other, why shouldn't they be able to get married?" She gently remonstrates with her 17-year-old daughter, who calls Bush "a moron." "I can't understand these undecideds. Make a frickin' decision!" exclaims Denise Watkins, 44, of Philadelphia, at the mall with her 18-year-old daughter. She endorsed Kerry months ago, she says, because Bush is using faith-based initiatives "to get out of helping inner cities," because "I will never vote for a pro-life politician," and because in Iraq, "if you're making the wrong damn decision, how is it admirable to stick with it?"

"Just not Bush," says Ken Moore, 23, of Havertown, who says in the debates, Bush "seemed to have no clue." "Not Bush. The other one," echoes Helen Smith, 80, of Conshohocken, who says she has to spend more than $200 a month on medicine.

Two firm Bush supporters are Ryan and Jessica Swailes, a pharmaceutical-salesperson couple from the rural town of Williamsport. Bush "takes a strong stance on what he thinks," explains Ryan, 28, while Kerry "is a chameleon." Even if there was no link between Saddam Hussein and the 9/11 attacks, adds Jessica, 25, "you can't say Iraq is not better off without Saddam. His sons killed people for no reason." The two believe that "the media need to cover the good things more, not just the negative," says Ryan. "That's why we started watching Fox News. They give both sides." Another registered Republican, 21-year-old Penn State student Dan Iannucci, says he will vote against Bush, even though his friends call him "a bleeding heart." Bush's huge budget deficit is not "real Republican" economics, he explains, and the president went into Iraq "without a plan to win the peace. If it was you or me and you planned that poorly for something that important, you'd be fired."

Cleophis Hyman, 67, a retired truckdriver from Philadelphia, is a black man who complains that Bush "can spend billions in Iraq, but they can't put medicine on Medicare" – but says he'll probably vote for Bush. The reason: Kerry "believes people have the right to kill your children," he opines. "They use fancy words. They call it 'abortion.' They call it 'choice.' But it's murder."

West Philly: Kerry, Nader, or Nobody

The spectrum of views is very different at Baltimore Avenue and South 49th Street in West Philadelphia. The neighborhood, composed of aging, richly detailed three-story wood and brick houses, is mostly African American – storefronts advertise Caribbean cuisine, fried fish, and collard greens – but more multiracial and somewhat more middle class than the blocks to the north, which are pockmarked with abandoned rowhouses and vacant lots. It's also home to Philadelphia's anarchist space and was the site of the now-defunct Radio Mutiny pirate station.

"We don't want no Bush. I know that much," says Tee Johnson, 69, a Grenada-born retired longshoreman in an electric-blue baseball cap. "Bush is a downright liar," says Sarah Crocker, 40, a workers' compensation claims adjuster. "The economy's a mess, the senior citizens are catching hell with the prescription drugs. And the one who did 9/11 is bin Laden. Why are you going after Saddam Hussein?" Bush says the healthcare system is getting better, she adds, but when she tried to get medical care – "for me, my kids have CHIP" – after her unemployment compensation ran out last year, "They told me the government ran out of money. I said, 'You're taking my tax dollars to Iraq and I can't get healthcare here in the United States? That's ridiculous.'"

Her main hope, she says, is that "it doesn't happen like in Florida. They stole the election. I don't care what anybody says."

James Seldon, a 45-year-old father of three, says he was "kind of undecided" until the last debate, when "Bush would put the same answer to everything. 'Education is great.' School is great for kids, but people my age need jobs. We've got bills. And he wants kids to pay for their own Social Security."

Among the neighborhood's anticapitalist, countercultural types, Marissa Valenzuela, 26, a social worker with several rings in her lower lip, says she'll vote for Kerry as "damage control." A lot of her friends aren't voting, she says; after Florida, "Who knows if it gets counted?" Her friend Vincenzo Gentile, 21, a socialist bicycle messenger, would like to see "an extremely pervy queer president," but will vote for Kerry as "less scary than Bush." He was impressed that Kerry brought up reproductive rights in the debates without being asked.

"I don't know anyone who's not voting," he adds. "I've been to parties where people won't let you in the door unless you're registered." Joe, a 51-year-old construction supplies salesman who doesn't give his last name, says he's voting for Ralph Nader, based on his opposition to the Iraq war and his work on environmental issues. Asked the obvious question, he replies, "I'd rather have Bush. Kerry's a quiche-eating, insipid phony. He's for the war, then against it."

Kerry has "taken the inner city vote for granted," says Jim Kurtz, a 48-year-old nurse with two young children. He'd like to see the issue of drugs addressed, by legalizing some to take the profit out of the trade, providing treatment for addicts, and creating jobs to discourage the young from turning to dealing. "I don't have a lot of hope that Kerry will do anything about that," he says, but he'll vote for the Democrat anyway.

"I'm biased. Whatever Bush says is bull," says Bilal Bell, 29, sitting in front of Sugar Hill, his small bakery shop, with his baby daughter. "I hope people will see through all the propaganda and the bad commercials." For Bell, the main issues are healthcare ("they told us it was $1,400 for a family of four"); creating economic opportunities beyond the military or drug-dealing; and the Iraq war. "Who's the bigger terrorist?" he asks. "9/11 was horrible, but it doesn't justify going in and bombing a country that had nothing to do with it."

AIDS Activists Negative on Bush

Two Pennsylvanians who definitely aren't going to vote for President Bush are Philadelphia ACT UP activists Waheedah Shabazz-El, 51, and Jose DeMarco, 49.

"Mr. Bush has no compassion for people with AIDS," says Shabazz-El. "He's not signing bills that would fund AIDS drug assistance. He wants to push abstinence-only into our communities. Abstinence hasn't worked in 5,000 years."

Federal AIDS services "are worse than they've ever been," adds DeMarco. Several states have stopped accepting new patients for the AIDS Drugs Assistance Program, and more than 1,600 people are on the waiting list for it. "They have to wait for someone to die to get drugs," says Shabazz-El. "I think their theory is let the people who have [AIDS] die and push abstinence-only for the rest," says DeMarco.

Getting Out the Vote

"I ain't voting. I ain't registered. Been too busy being unemployed," says a man with faded skin and broken teeth, wearing a red Rocawear sweatsuit. He is proving the point expressed by ACORN team leader Kia James a few minutes earlier and a few blocks away, when she says, "A lot of people are so disenfranchised they don't realize their vote counts. They don't see how anything will change their lives."

While officially nonpartisan, the community group is actively registering voters in Philadelphia's poorer neighborhoods, on the grounds that getting people involved in the political process will increase their chances of improving their housing and schools. "You get one neighborhood with 100 percent turnout and one with 20 percent turnout, which one's getting the funds?" James asks.

With far fewer undecided voters than usual, says Don Morabito, the Democrats' state party director, the election is "going to be about turning out the vote." The party has 20,000 volunteers, making more than 100,000 phone calls a week, he adds. He's been involved in politics since 1960, and says, "I've never experienced this level of activity in a campaign."

Steven Wishnia, author of "The Cannabis Companion" and "Exit 25 Utopia," is a New York-based journalist.