Scenes From the Political Battlefront

09 Nov 2012, Posted by admin in Packages, No Comments. Tagged , , , , , , ,

Scenes From the Political Battlefront

Hamilton County was Ground Zero in the presidential election. Both the GOP and Democrats worked feverishly to get their messages out.

Story and visuals by Keith Bowers and Jordan Horras

HAMILTON COUNTY, OHIO – The passion was palpable on this cold and rainy October morning, as Mitt Romney supporters gathered to fill the “Victory Center” in Kenwood, one of the few local physical spaces dedicated to GOP campaign organizing. Donuts and coffee were scattered across tables, and quotes by inspirational conservatives festooned the walls of the modest office space. On a table near the entrance were informational packets about Mitt Romney Sr. and the history of black Mormons; prominently displayed on the wall was a picture of actor and GOP supporter Clint Eastwood. The overriding message was of one of excitement.

A photo of Clint Eastwood adorns the Victory Center wall. (Photo by Keith Bowers / NMB)

Kathy Danneman of Tillermill, Ky., said she had come to the event to stand up for her beliefs. “I’m extremely pro-life, and I’m totally against this HHS mandate,” she said, speaking of the mandate that would require private health insurance plans to cover contraceptives and abortion. “I’m Catholic, and I feel that we should have religious freedom.”

Voters in Hamilton County had the privilege — and burden — of being at the front line of the national political battle in the 2012 Election. They reside in one of the most important areas in THE most important swing state. The winning candidate had taken the state in every election since 1964.  Both parties’ candidates visited cities and towns in the state to lure votes with soaring rhetoric. But what was perhaps most important was the battle on the ground, where supporters fought hard for the hearts and minds of the public.

During this GOP event in October, droves of supporters had come from as far away as Virginia to work tirelessly for their respective candidates, most with great zeal. It was apparent that extreme anger and dissatisfaction motivated them to make the trip to Cincinnati.

Brad Wenstrup, who won the general election by defeating the Democratic runner-up, William R. Smith, enlightened the crowd with a straightforward and well-spoken pep talk. A physician and self-proclaimed deep conservative, he ran and lost against Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory in 2009. He believes deeply in the efficacy of the private sector.

“Every business that we have is a gift to our community and a gift to our country,” he said. “The greatest social reform we could have is a job in the private sector.”

His speech touched on the attacks in Libya in September that came to forefront of the political debate in later months.  People like Danneman were not satisfied with the way the president handled the situation. Wenstrup played to this sentiment.

“We need honesty,” Wenstrup said. “We need to know who our friends and who our foes are. We don’t know if Egypt is a friend or a foe, but let me tell you those in uniform want to know… the CIA wants to know.”

Family issues are at the core of the party’s cause. Several parents said they put in campaign efforts for the sake of their children.

“I have two boys, 27 and 23, and I feel Obama has run up debt that young kids can’t afford. I can’t afford it,” Gail Kuhnell of Wyoming, Ohio, said. She worked on the Romney campaign for about two months. She logged countless hours on the McCain-Palin campaign of 2008.

The image of Romney as a traditional fatherly figure and religious cleric seemed to resonate with these Hamilton County followers.

Ashwin Corattiyil in his office. (Photo by Keith Bowers / NMB)

“My personal opinion of Mitt Romney is that he is an incredible father, a great civic servant. He was a missionary. He doesn’t do a political job because he needs to,” said Ashwin Corattiyil, the communications director for the Hamilton County Republican Party.

Corattiyil had come to the city in 2010 to work for the Republican Party. He studied politics and education at NYU during the events of Sept. 11. After graduating he served in the armed forces for four years and worked with tribal leaders in Afghanistan on governmental development, among other things. He said these experiences shifted his perspective to the GOP.

Even though many in the crowd said social issues were important to them, the economy was their core concern. With a national unemployment rate hovering around 7.8 percent and Ohio’s only a few decimal points below that, voters felt the crunch.

Lisa Ramstetter of Montgomery, like many recent college graduates, studied hard only to find few paid positions in her area of specialization, political science and security studies.

“Consider me in the 8 percent of unemployed Ohioans,” Ramstetter said. “I’m still looking for work.”

Corattiyil said jobs, the economy and debt were by far the biggest issues in the GOP.

“We find a lot of people who are dissatisfied with the last four years, whether they did or did not vote for Obama. I think people are really boiling down this election to what’s important,” he said.

Ten miles away, a world apart

Meanwhile, at an event 10 miles away in downtown Cincinnati, the Democratic Party showed no mercy to its GOP political opponents.

The party’s modest campaign office was in the Over-The-Rhine neighborhood. Its tall glass-panel windows — similar to the old storefronts of local bars and shops around the area — belie the office’s logistical importance to the party in Southwest Ohio.

On this day, the neighborhood played host to the “Mayors for Obama” Bus Tour.

Peering through the raindrop-splattered double doors into the dimly lit front room, passersby witnessed a congregation of clean-cut, suit-wearing civil servants. On the front door was a sign reading “Gotta Vote,” hanging by one loosely taped corner.

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter started the proceedings explaining why he thought Romney wasn’t the solution to the nation’s problems.

“Mitt Romney is not ready to lead this country,” Nutter said. “As (Cincinnati) Mayor Mallory said, ‘I’ve never heard him say the word city, let alone know what they (cities) are all about.’”

Nutter expressed his distaste for Romney’s position that GM and Chrysler should have filed for bankruptcy in 2008 before getting government aid. And he said lack of Republican cooperation with Democratic proposals in Congress was the reason unemployment was astronomically high.

After Nutter, Clare Higgins, former mayor of Northampton, Mass., boisterously took the center stage. Her unequivocal tone was backed by her personal knowledge of Romney’s past as governor of Massachusetts.

“He did a pretty good job as governor,” Higgins said with irony. “He missed 477 days of work. About 25 percent of the time he should have been in state, he was out of state.”

Higgins continued to touch on every aspect of the Democratic campaign and Obama’s plan for the future. She spoke of the importance of investing in jobs and education, of saving industries that need to be saved, of increasing manufacturing, of getting a fair tax code, and of not giving tax breaks to the rich while taxing those at the bottom of the ladder.

The crowd erupted into hysterical laughter as Higgins began to roll with clever anecdotes about Romney. She closed in the same relentless fashion as she began.

“What do you think the (poll) numbers are in Massachusetts for Mitt Romney? He hasn’t cracked 40 percent,” she said. “I had to come here (Ohio) to find a presidential campaign. There is no presidential campaign in Massachusetts because we’re not voting for him, and we know him best. That should tell the country something.”

Following the formal part of the ceremony, a tsunami of handshakes, small talk and greetings flooded the room. Michael Coleman, mayor of Columbus, Ohio, stood by the front entrance, just a short swim through the sea of politicians.

Coleman articulated the importance of voting early and the significance that Ohio would play in the presidential race. He emphasized that Romney would not win the presidency unless he won Ohio and, by extension, Hamilton County. The look on his face never changed as he spoke in a serious tone that resonated over all the commotion.

“This race is going to be won in the shoe leather of people knocking on doors and talking to people, getting them out to vote,” Coleman said. “The old style of campaigning that works so well in urban centers.”

Election Night

Fast forward to Election Night. Obama has won another term in office, taking both the Electoral College and the popular vote. Republicans must return to the drawing board.

At 11:30 p.m. the TV networks called the election for Obama. GOP supporters immediately began an exodus out the doors of Toby Keith’s “I Love This Bar & Grill” at the Banks complex in downtown Cincinnati. One woman muttered, “This is terrible.” Her husband nodded.

Just an hour before, hundreds of conservative followers had gathered in the restaurant to watch FOX News election coverage. They listened as the TV analysts talked about the voter turnout and gave projections for each state’s election results.

When the networks declared a state red, cheers rattled the 32-ounce bell jars filled with beer. Boos followed when any state went blue.

Underneath it all, those in attendance knew that the election hinged on the decisions of Hamilton County voters.

The contrast between the Republican and Democratic election night parties was almost comedic, as if each had its own team colors and uniforms. For every clean-cut, blazer-wearing man at Toby Keith’s, there was a bomber-jacketed hipster with glasses and a handle-bar mustache at Cincy’s. Each scantily clad waitress or high-heeled corporate professional down the street contrasted with a uniquely styled, scarf-wearing lady with the Democrats.

A Democratic supporter cheers after hearing results on Election Night. (Photo by Jordan Horras / NMB)

In the end, political pundits said Obama won because of the support he gained from a diverse coalition around the nation. A cursory view of the faithful Obama revelers on Election Night at Cincy’s reflected this diversity. Immigrants, students, young and old professionals, people of all colors and blue-collar workers were in the mix.

Margaret Upshore, a woman’s health major from Virginia, said, “All I want is to have a president who represents women’s rights and defends their right to choose what to do with their bodies.” She came to Ohio to work for the Obama campaign. She had volunteered for McCain in 2008.

Homero Castro was dressed in a Big Bird costume, poking fun at Romney’s promise to cut the miniscule amount of federal funding allocated to public broadcasting. He said that Latinos, and his family specifically, didn’t belong to a particular party, but his stake in the election was personal and based on what he viewed as Republican-inflicted suffering.

“All of my family are citizens – they’ve all been here for around 25 to 30 years – and we feel very discriminated from the Republican Party and all these politicians making our life worse day by day,” he said.

This was the first presidential election for Morgan Billingsley, a 21-year-old student studying environmental studies at UC. Her vote for Obama wasn’t along party lines; it was out of political expediency.

“I was trying to place the most strategic vote that I could against Mitt Romney. I wanted to vote for Jill Stein so bad, but I live in a swing state,” Billingsley said. She saw Jill Stein as the candidate for those interested in gay rights, women’s health issues and environmental issues, but a vote for any third party in this election is essentially throwing a ballot in the trash.

Some people simply despised the conservative candidate. A man named Dave, sitting at a table drinking a beer, gave his opinion bluntly: “Romney was a good man maybe four years ago, and I respected him. But then he turned himself into a severe conservative and went to bed with all of these extreme right-wingers, and I said forget about it.

“When he went in front of an audience and said, ‘I’m from Detroit and nobody ever has to see my birth certificate,’ that was it for me,” Dave concluded. “No way would I vote for a guy that brings out the worst in conservative America.”

Another four years

Whatever their reasons, the citizens of Hamilton County brought vigor and passion to the battle for executive control of the country.  A lot rode on the election, and they knew it. A Republican president would have put an end to the obstructionist activities that’s made compromise nearly impossible. In the minds of many, four more years of Obama would have meant four more years of political standoff.

Obama won the national Electoral College handily, but the popular vote was relatively close. The immense pressure put on the state of Ohio, and all of the swing states, had some giving rather strong opinions about the volatility of the electoral institution. Opinions on both sides spoke to a sense of resentment and fear that half of the population has towards the other half. It’s a divisive rhetoric that must soften if political leaders are to address the many issues on the minds of voters in Ohio and throughout the country.

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