- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 23, 2009

Virginians don’t necessarily align themselves with a specific party, but one thing they all appear to agree on is that things in Virginia need to get better.

The Washington Times traveled hundreds of miles around Virginia, talking to dozens of residents about how they see themselves, their politicians and the issues that are important to them.

Since the last election, Virginia has been dubbed a purple state — not fully Democratic or Republican but rather a state in play. Residents in cities across the commonwealth described themselves mostly as independent and say they are less concerned about what party is in power than what they do with that power.

And with statewide elections scheduled for the fall, Virginia is likely to be an early indication of the mood of the nation.


Jess’ Quick Lunch

In the college town of James Madison University, about two hours from Washington, D.C., give or take traffic, Jess’ Quick Lunch at 22 South Main St. has been selling hot dogs since 1927.

Originally Jess’ was just a long narrow counter with stools, but the Greek owners expanded into the building next door so now it boasts a dining room. It’s still the type of place where people can seat themselves and where Angeliki G. Floros, the wife of the owner, knows the regulars.

She placed a baked ham sandwich served on a roll bereft of toppings in front of Ralph Sampson Sr. along with a can of Pepsi poured over crushed ice when he walked in during his lunch break.

Mr. Sampson is a 65-year-old custodian who works for the city — and, yes, he also is the father of the former Virginia Cavaliers and NBA star who bears his name. He has lived in Harrisonburg his whole life and isn’t enthused about retiring next year.

Politically, he’s an independent, he said. He voted for President Obama and almost a year later, he’s proud of the choice.

“A lot of people have been abusing him because he was a black man,” said Mr. Sampson, who is also black. In Harrisonburg, with its population of about 40,000, 58 percent of voters cast ballots in favor of Mr. Obama in November while 41 percent voted for Republican John McCain. In surrounding Rockingham County, more than two-thirds of voters picked Mr. McCain.

James Dellinger also describes himself as an independent. The 64-year-old retired carpenter comes to Jess’ a few times a week because his wife of 42 years died in March and he can’t get used to doing his own cooking.

“I normally vote Republican, but I would vote for a Democrat if they weren’t so staunch on gays and abortion, which I don’t agree with. Normally, I would vote for a Democrat if they don’t agree with that. I like a lot of Democrats’ policy on employment but can’t vote for them on abortion. I believe a person has a right to carry a gun. I have a permit.”


Augusta County Fair

The pig races start at 4 p.m. and go every hour at the Augusta County Fair. Locals line the track and children volunteer to cheer on the contestants from Swifty Swine Productions, “America’s cleanest and fastest swine.”

If their pig wins, the child gets a plastic snout.

Jonas Mitchell, who works for the company, likes to rename the pigs for the races “to add a little local flavor,” he said. Sometimes he chooses country music stars or NASCAR drivers.

“We like to switch it up to make it funny,” he said.

Before this night’s race, Mr. Mitchell announced the night’s contestants. Wearing the green singlet was “Speaker of the House Nancy Piglosi.” In the blue singlet, “Hillary Rod-Ham Clinton.” In the red singlet, “Ba-Rack-o-Ribs Obama” and in the black singlet, “Swine-ya Sotomayor.”

The crowd went wild.

When the race began, Swine-ya Sotomayor quickly took the lead and held it as the pigs raced around the small track.

“No. 4, Sotomayor, bringing home the bacon,” Mr. Mitchell said.

They appreciate the jab at the people in power. They’ve watched unemployment here double to 6.9 percent and many blame the politicians 150 miles away in the nation’s capital.

Watching his daughter ride the Ferris wheel, Kenny Myers, 44, described himself as “pretty conservative.”

“I lean way to the right,” said the Mount Sidney resident, who works as a flock supervisor for turkey producer Cargill. He wants smaller government and less taxes, and he’s worried about the money he sees being spent by the federal government.

“It is so many changes so quickly, I worry about taxes, worry about energy, worry about the length of the recession,” Mr. Myers said.

He said Virginia has emerged as a purple state because the Democrats and Republicans have to please constituents in rural and urban areas that have different economies, different priorities and different beliefs.

The state’s “two-sided: city vs. rural. It’s red vs. blue — very divided. It is tough to have middle ground. It seems over the last couple of years there is a polarity within the parties. It is hard for them to work together.”


Country Club of Staunton

Jim Strock, 54, practiced hitting golf balls in the hot afternoon sun on the driving range at the Country Club of Staunton while waiting to lead a golf practice for Special Olympics athletes.

“I’m definitely not a Republican. That puts me more in the minority in a lot of situations I find myself in,” the social worker said. “Some of my best friends are very conservative — and so is my dad.”

When four of his athletes arrive, driven by their parents or family members, he is again in the minority.

Ted Lawhorne brought his brother to practice with Mr. Strock. Mr. Lawhorne said he’s “tended to be a little more conservative.”

He lost his job as a building-supply salesman — unemployment in this town jumped in June to 7.6 percent from 3.4 percent at the same time last year — and he’s concerned that at the age of 58 finding work won’t be easy.

Last year, he found himself voting for Mr. Obama, along with his son. Now he’s having second thoughts.

“I’m starting to have a little buyer’s remorse. I don’t see what I initially voted for in him,” Mr. Lawhorne said.

Bill Case, 47, who describes himself as “extremely conservative,” brought his son Matthew, 20, to practice.

When the topic turns to the gubernatorial race between Republican Robert F. McDonnell and Democrat R. Creigh Deeds, Mr. Case turns cynical.

“I’m not sure they have the best interests of Virginia in mind. I don’t think either one of them do. They’re looking to get elected,” he said. “Virginia is in trouble right now. I don’t think people can see it.”


The Post Office

After collecting her mail from the Martinsville City Post Office, Teresa Reeves, 52, paused to talk about politics in the midday sun.

But in Martinsville, where more than one in five workers is out of a job, discussions of politics inevitably lead to discussions of unemployment.

“We have no jobs anymore basically. We used to be a textile factory, furniture capital, now we’re nothing,” she said.

She works as an office clerk at a tire store. But she’s one of the lucky ones, and she knows it.

“You’ve got so many who have drawn unemployment so many weeks that they can’t get it anymore,” she said.

Ms. Reeves said she’s an independent. She voted for Mr. McCain, making her one of only 35 percent of voters here who went Republican. Mr. Obama took the city with 63 percent.

“I haven’t seen any changes,” she said of the Obama administration. “He made the statement when he was here that he was going to think of Martinsville, Henry County, every day.”

Bobby Dillard, 54, is looking for a job. He’s been on disability leave from a job at a local bank, where he worked in data processing.

Mr. Dillard described himself as “always a Republican.”

“It’s a family tradition, mostly social issues,” he said. “Obama said he was going to bring all these jobs once he got into office and nothing happened. It’s gotten worse, and it’s going to get worse. They advertise in the paper one job and 200 applicants show up.” His disability status makes things harder. When he does find a job, he said they want a lot of education, which he doesn’t have.

Marcus Manns, 25, has been out of work for eight months. He had a job with a North Carolina power company, and now he’s trying to return to college and redefine his life.

“I think it’s more a traditional thing,” he said of why he votes Democratic. But he quickly noted he hasn’t decided for whom he will cast his vote in November.


Jackie’s Wig Shop

Things haven’t been the same in Danville since the textile factory closed completely about a year ago, Myong H. Chaney said.

Mrs. Chaney, 64, and her husband have owned Love Wigs on Main Street for about 30 years. The placards outside say Danville is “a main street community.” But on a street with more empty storefronts than occupied ones, it’s a hard message to sell.

“A lot of people right here have no job,” she said. “The downtown used to be real good, a whole lot of stores. All gone now.”

There are signs of rejuvenation here, though, that might make a dent in the 14.4 percent unemployment rate. A record store down the street will resurrect at least one empty storefront.

“The president can’t do it by himself,” Mrs. Chaney said. “But what I like about him is he is helping young, lower-class people.”

Mrs. Chaney has only voted in two presidential elections. She voted for Mr. Obama and before that Jimmy Carter. “Democrat, Republican — it doesn’t matter as long as it helps the state. I hope the government makes things better for Virginia.”

Across the street from Love Wigs is Jackie’s Wig Shop, where the clientele is mostly black.

Deborah Davis, 45, was trying on bridesmaid dresses and shoes for an upcoming wedding. She said she’s always been a Democrat and that she voted for Obama.

“I have several of the issues that apply to me. They help out a little bit more with jobs for people in the low to middle income. They tend to help out more.”

Ms. Davis said she probably won’t vote in the governor’s race.

“I hadn’t heard about the election,” she said when asked.


Nauticus, Battleship Wisconsin

The pier where the Battleship Wisconsin is docked is a popular tourist spot in downtown Norfolk, a thriving military community with the world’s largest naval base. The signs of revitalization are everywhere in this city with nearly a quarter of a million residents. There is a grocery store around the corner from a mission.

Running by the Wisconsin, Layne Dyer, 62, of Norfolk paused for a breather and said she hasn’t thought too much about the coming elections. The middle-school teacher, a product of a family of Republicans, said stimulating the economy and reforming health care are important to her, especially with a husband in real estate, a daughter who owns her own business and the specter of retirement looming.

“I’m definitely an independent,” she said. “It is a scary time. I like Obama. I think he is getting overexposed. That is not good. I’m a little scared, but I’m still in his corner.”

Newport News

Outside the Subway Sandwich Shop

Voting in his first election, Petty Officer Third Class Nicholas Mack, 22, supported President Obama.

“I always have sided with the Democrats,” he said.

The aviation boatswain’s mate fuels jets on aircraft carriers. He credits his mother back home in Navarre, Ohio, with his political beliefs, which may be a little out of step with his colleagues in this predominantly military town located in the east of the state.

“I like the way they go about with war and social issues,” he said of the Democrats. The only sticking point is abortion. “I can’t say I agree,” Mr. Mack said.

Newport News resident Rob E. Lee, 53, sees the area where he lives as politically and geographically in the middle of the state. In the last election, 64 percent of voters in the city voted for Mr. Obama, while 35 percent voted for Mr. McCain.

Mr. Lee describes himself as an independent. This year, he said he’s paying a lot more attention to the race. “This year more than any other, especially with what’s going on in Congress. I’m giving a lot more attention to credibility” he said.


Outside the Torpedo Factory

Don Williams, 66, and Linda Couture are coffee friends. They run in to each other a few times a week and chat about the neighborhood and what’s going on in their lives.

In a city where, according to the Virginia State Board of Elections, 72 percent voted for the Democratic presidential ticket compared to 27 percent for the Republican candidates, they never talk politics.

Ms. Couture, who said she is in her late 60s, has always been politically active. She said that “typically I’m a Republican, but right now I put myself down as an independent.”

Originally a Democrat, she left the party because she thought it did not reflect her belief that small business was the backbone of the country and that it’s more important to teach people to provide for themselves than to give handouts.

Mr. Williams, who lives in Fairfax County and is retired, described himself as a Democrat. But he usually only votes on the national level.

“I’m usually not focused on politics on that level,” he said when asked about the governor’s race. “We’re interested in the health care debate going back and forth.”

He ruefully admitted that “I’m more interested in politics when it’s too late.”

A few minutes later, Syndee Werner, 40, paused in the middle of her morning run. An Alexandria resident, she said she’s not registered with either party but votes with the issues.

For Ms. Werner, a freelance photographer, defense issues are a major focus. These days she said she feels the government is moving too quickly.

“We haven’t had time to analyze what will happen 10 years down the road,” Ms. Werner said. As far as President Obama, she said, “I support him, I think he’s doing a good job but the pendulum is swinging in every direction. It is too quick. He hasn’t been in office for nine months yet.”

Ms. Werner doesn’t pay attention to state issues. “National is my local,” she said.


Near the Metro Station

Angelo Collins, 22, was waiting for his friend at the bus stop. He just took a job in Ballston working for a defense contractor, and despite his liberal Massachusetts roots describes himself as a Republican “ever since before I could vote, my parents were more moderate on the liberal side,” Mr. Collins said.

Not only is Mr. Collins out of step with his Massachusetts roots, but he also may be out of step in his new home. An overwhelming 72 percent of Arlington County residents voted for the Democratic presidential ticket while 27 voted for the Republican ticket, according to the Virginia State Board of Elections. In fact, Arlington rarely votes Republican. There are no members of the General Assembly or Congress representing Arlington who are Republican.

The issues that have drawn Mr. Collins to the Republican Party are economic. On social issues, he said he’s more liberal. Mr. Collins describes himself as pro-choice, despite once being against abortion.

“When you label yourself as a Republican, people assume you’re confined to certain beliefs. I don’t think you can define yourself by a political party,” he said.

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