Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Confessions of a Habitual Voter

Election Day by Norman Rockwell

Back when I was a young Wobbly hanging around at the anarchist Solidarity Bookstore in Chicago, the byword among my friends and fellow workers around election time was, “Don’t vote, it only encourages them.”  I would laugh along with the line and nod my head.  After all, I had punched my ticket as young radical and would hardly do anything to jeopardize that standing.  Then Election Day would roll around and I would look over my shoulder and make sure no one was looking and skulk over to a polling place in some school gym or Legion Hall, pull that sideways lever behind me closing the red, white, and blue striped curtain, and start flipping switches on the voting machine.  I couldn’t help myself.
I blame it on my parents.  Just like drunks lacing the apple juice with whiskey to “help the baby sleep or junkies skin popping their toddlers.  Yeah, just like that.  I have very early memories of them hauling me and my twin brother Tim to the polls at some ridiculously early age.  Actually, I best remember standing by my Dad’s long legs, holding on to his wool suit pants while he did something mysterious and holy or going with my Mom and clinging to her official Jane Wyatt flaring skirts.  We didn’t do it often, but when we did it was apparent that it was really, really important.  So I caught the habit like I did standing up and putting my hat over my heart every single time an American Flag passed in a parade.  I still do that, too.  Yeah, I’m that hopeless.
I learned eventually that although both of the folks went to vote, they didn’t vote the same way.  Dad was a Republican of the Eisenhower stripe.  Mom with all of the fervor a young woman who had gone hungry in the Great Depression voted Democrat.  Despite the fact that I emulated my father with all of the slavish devotion of hero worship in most things, I ended up in my Mom’s political party.

It's his fault.

That was probably John F. Kennedy’s fault.  Yeah, that’s the guy. 
As a nerdy kid, I already had more than a healthy interest in politics.  I remember being fascinated by coverage of the national political conventions four years earlier when I was only 7—watching Walter Cronkite in a little box in one corner of the screen with his headphones on as grainy pictures of ecstatic delegates parading with signs and banners wavered across the screen.
And that year, 1960, I had sent away to Mad Magazine for the official Alfred E. Newman for President kitposters, buttons, bumper stickers, and a plastic boater hat with a red, white, and blue ribbon—and actually campaigned door to door in my neighborhood as if it were a real campaign. 
But as the election drew near, I became more drawn to the charismatic young Democrat.  I bought and read his paperback campaign biography and then found a young reader’s edition of Profiles in Courage.  I watched the famous debate and thought Nixon looked like one of the shifty gamblers in a two reel western that the good guy shoots when he pulls a derringer out of his sleeve.  My Dad told me that Nixon was the grown up and Kennedy was just “a spoiled rich man’s son.”  I would have none of it.  Oh, how I yearned to go to the polls and be part of the history that I was sure would change the world.   Election night I stayed up well after midnight glued to the returns until it was called in the hours right before dawn.
On a windy day in late September 1963 I actually got to see the President as he flew in for a brief stop at the Cheyenne, Wyoming airport to make a quick speech and fulfill a foolishly made promise to visit all 50 states.  I pressed up against the chain link fence when he bolted from his security detail to touch hands with those along that fence to see him.  He passed right before me, his flesh missing mine by inches.  Less than two months later he was dead.  That day was the most traumatic of my life.  But that’s another tale.
I turned 21 and finally eligible to vote in 1970.  I was already a veteran anti-war activist and blooming radical.  I had “voted” in the streets against the Vietnam War during the 1968 Democratic Convention.  Now I was a resident of Mayor Richard J. Daley’s Chicago living in the rundown, gang infested part of the old 43rd Ward—the epicenter of Lakefront Liberalism further east.  But where I lived on Howe Street, west of Old Town and the urban removal wreckage of Larrabee Avenue the Hillbillies, Puerto Ricans, and old Germans hung on desperately resisting displacement. 
I slipped away downtown one day in March right after my birthday and registered to vote at the County Clerk’s office.   I cast my first vote at the Fires House on Armitage just a block from my house.  It was a thrill which I could feel tingling in every part of my body.  I voted for Adlai Stevenson III for Senator.
By 1972 I was living on Webster Avenue right across from the old DePaul University gymnasium.  That was also my polling place.  It was my first presidential election.  I wrote in Benjamin Spock, the nominee of the Peace and Freedom Party who was not on the ballot in Illinois, or very many other places outside of California.  It was the last time I would “waste” my vote on a protest candidate.
The next year I was a guest of the government serving a sentence for draft resistance.  When I got out, there was some fear that I would be ineligible to vote.  But Illinois is one of the states that does not bar felons from voting and later I would also be covered by Jimmy Carter’s blanket pardon of Draft offenders.  Over the next decade I moved around the city multiple times, but always made sure I was correctly registered at my new addresses by the time of any election—special, primary, or general.
After a brief departure for Madison, Wisconsin I returned to Chicago just in time for the infamous Blizzard of ’79 and as the snow slowly melted got involved in my first electoral campaign as a low level volunteer for radical Helen Schiller’s early unsuccessful run for Alderman in the Uptown centered 48th Ward. Four years later I was living on Albany Street near Diversey in Dick Mell’s 33rd Ward, and volunteered for Harold Washington in the Democratic Primary for Mayor.  In the General Election I was a de facto Washington precinct captain since the regulars were supporting Republican Bernard Epton. 
We voted at an American Legion Post.  For the first time I was able to bring my new daughters by marriage, Carolynne and Heather with me as I voted, just as my parents brought me.  I was determined to pass on the infection.
By the next round of election the whole family was relocated to Crystal Lake in the wilds of McHenry County where Republicans strutted unchallenged and lowly Democrats cringed and hid.  I didn’t care for that.  So I signed up to run for Democratic Precinct Committeeman it got to be a habit.  I walked the blocks and rang doorbells for nearly 28 years.  Found a few Democrats.  Encouraged others.  Not once did I carry that precinct, or even come close.  But I’d be damned if I would just give it to the bastards.
We first voted at a Dodge dealership just a block up the road from the house.  Voting booths set up amid the shiny new cars.  I brought Maureen, a three year old toddler holding my hand wondering what it was all about.  Later the polling place moved a bit further away, to the offices of Flowerwood Nursery around the corner on Rt. 14.  Then it was at North Middle School until the hysterics decided that voters were likely to be sex predators or terrorists and could not be allowed in the same building with their little darlings.  Those self-same darlings lost the regular awareness that voting was a part of life.  Congratulations for a job well done on that.
Finally they moved our polling place out of the precinct over to the basement of Salvation Army several blocks away where we shared the space with another precinct.  Been there for a few years now. 
Over the years I helped on a lot of campaigns, local, state, and national.  I got elected a McHenry County Central Committee officer—Vice Chair and Secretary.  Even served a few months as Chair after Bob McGary suddenly died.  I did publicity and tried to make myself useful.  We made small inroads.  Even won a little victory here and there occasionally.  But mostly we lost elections.  A lot of ‘em.  And I voted in every one of them.
I even ran for office myself.  Got past a cavalry charge of an open, non-partisan primary for Crystal Lake City Council one year when the whole town was mad at the incumbents, but got my ass handed to me in the Municipal elections.  Not smart enough to know better, I tried again running as a Democrat for County Board and for the lowly post of Nunda Township Trustee.  A dead skunk would have polled as well.
One year the Democrats even gave me a plaque with my name engraved on it, a pat on the head, and let me ramble for a few moments at the annual Thomas Jefferson Dinner fund raiser.  That was nice.  No one ever gave me an award before and none are ever likely to again.  It looks semi-impressive on my study wall.
There were high points.  In 2008 we carried McHenry County for Barack Obama and the whole statewide ticket.  Turns out that there really are Democrats out here, but they are generally too discouraged, too fearful of the opinions of their Republican neighbors, and too damned lazy to get out and vote most years.  That election and celebrating at the Old Courthouse in McHenry was one of the best moments of my life.  Four years later we managed just not to lose the country too badly, which is better than anyone expected.
Some folks wonder if I am disappointed in Obama.  Not really.  There is lots of stuff I disagree with him about—especially his continuing reliance on the blunt instrument of military power—and I have not been shy about calling him out about it or protesting.  And I wish he could have done more—moved universal single payer health insurance—instead of the badly made half-loaf of so-called Obama Care.  But at least it is a half loaf and a lot of folks won’t go hungry because of it.  On the whole he has done about as well and anyone could expect against the raging and united opposition of a political party gone mad and an assertive not-to-be-denied oligarchy.

Giving advice to a guy I will vote for today.

Last year I hung up my clipboard as a committee person.  Someone else’s turn.  I took a pass this year on meetings and rallies, phone banking and worse, fundraising.  I’m an armchair politician now.
But it’s Election Day.  The alarm bell has gone off.  The old fire horse is up for another run, even though chances are excellent that my candidates will, once again, be pasted.  This morning I got up and put on my Election Day tie—the one with the cowboys on horseback and big American Flags.  I can’t say it’s a luck tie, because it has seen mostly lost elections.  But I wear it because the Republicans think they own the flag and it literally drives the worst of them into a frothing rage to see it worn by a commie/pinko/babykiller/fag/democrat.
After work I will take the bus home from Woodstock as usual but instead of getting off at my house, I’ll ride a few blocks more to where I can walk to the Salvation Army.  I’ll go down the stairs and signing in, chatting with some of the Election Judges who have served nearly 30 years.  I’ll ask about turn out.  They will shrug.  I’ll take my cardboard ballot to the flimsy little privacy stand, carefully fill in the little ovals with a felt marker and feed it through the optical scanner that I don’t entirely trust.  When I turn in the protective privacy shield, a judge will peel of an oval sticker with an American flag on it and the words I voted.  I’ll put it on my lapel and exit the building for the fairly long walk home in the gathering gloaming.
And I will feel good.  Damned good.  I’ll have had my fix.

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