CINCINNATI, OHIO — The Graeter’s Brigade shouted until it was blue in the face that it would deliver Hamilton County for Barack Obama — and the county turned blue, too.
For the first time since LBJ, the Queen City of the West and its suburbs and exurbs voted to send a Democrat to the White House, participating in the Illinois Senator’s historic win — and vindicating the group of a half-dozen Brooklynites and their friends who parachuted into town last Friday to get out the vote for Obama.
“Did our little group actually deliver Hamilton County? Without question,” said Graeter’s Brigade leader David Shenk, only partially joking.
“In 2004, when we came in for Kerry, we didn’t win the county, but we beat our projections,” said Shenk, who last month helped raise $176,000 at an Obama fundraiser in DUMBO. “This time, we won. If anything, that suggests that we are a model of ‘community organizing — whatever that is, as the Republicans like to say.”
I embedded for four days with Shenk’s “Graeter’s Brigade,” which took its nickname from the super-premium ice cream for which Cincinnati is famous, but I can’t say its truly a model. After all, the group’s get-out-the-vote effort was definitely not roughing it (Shenk’s mother owns what appears to be a 45-bedroom house in a Cincinnati suburb, and nourishing, complete meals tend to materialize as if by magic whenever any Obama volunteer sat down for more than 10 seconds). The lodging alone, plus the welcome invitation to drain the Shenk family single-malt collection every night after the hard day of canvassing, meant that no matter how many doorbells the group rang, this was partly a vacation, too.
But as the last drop of cheap champagne was downed, the group had a chance to reflect on the four days of battling over America’s most-coveted electoral prize. Everyone remembered how pessimistic he was at the start:
• There was the half-hour conversation (an epic dialogue in campaign terms) with Melissa Browman, a 29-year-old white woman whose tiny brick house sits on a street with no trees, in a neighborhood where the public school is so bad that she scrapes every penny she has to send her kid to private school, in a state that has lost 200,000 jobs in the last seven years, yet for some reason, is surrounded by other right-leaning voters.
One member of the Brigade asked her where she was at that moment.
“I’m leaning towards Obama,” she started, giving the volunteer a cause for optimism. “The country is going in the wrong direction. That’s the bottom line. That’s how I vote.”
You didn’t need to be Sigmund Freud to know that there was a “but” coming.
“But I don’t know,” she said. “It’s just that I can’t get my head around the fact that most black people are voting for him simply because he’s black.”
The volunteer, who is white, pointed out that black voters tend to prefer Democrats anyway and, of course, many are attracted to the historic nature of this “transformational” figure, but immediately brought it back to meat-and-potatoes issues: taxes, schools, the economy.
But Browman still had that impossible-not-to-notice hint of racial resentment.
“I’ll give you an example,” she said. “My son goes to private school and I would say there’s probably 10 black kids in the whole school. The other day, he comes home and he says, ‘Mom, we’re voting for Obama, right, because he’d be the first black president.’ Now I mean, where does he GET that?”
Then the volunteer headed right back to Browman’s comfort zone: the direction of the country. He reminded Browman that she voted for Kerry last time and that she has been disappointed by the last four years.
The conversation ended politely, but the deal wasn’t closed.
“Did I get her? I don’t know,” the volunteer said. “I don’t think there was one single thing I could have said that would’ve convinced me that she will definitely vote for Obama on Tuesday. Maybe she will, maybe she won’t.”
• There was the conversation with Tammy Marcotte, a 33-year-old living in an upper middle class suburb. Marcotte started by telling a Brigade member that she was still “undecided” — and that the one issue for her was her husband’s job.
He, it turns out, makes Meals Ready to Eat for the U.S. military — “and if Obama pulls us out of Iraq, he’ll lose his job.”
President Eisenhower — who famously warned against a military-industrial economy so heavily connected to war that war itself becomes in most American’s economic interests — couldn’t have framed it better.
War pays the bills in the Marcotte home, so McCain got her vote.
• There were the two McCain supporters in the construction company van who called over a Brigade member after seeing his Obama button.
“Hey, lemme ask you something,” the one in the van yelled. “How is it that none of you Obama volunteers seem to have jobs?”
The volunteer explained that he had a job, in fact, a regular middle class job with long hours and decent, but not exceptional, pay.
“But I took two days off because this election is that important,” he said.
“Important? Why are elections important? Because you need to get your guy in there to take all the rich people’s money?”
The volunteer tried to explain that Obama’s tax proposal does not call for taking “all” of the “rich people’s” money, merely a slightly higher portion of it than has been taken in the past eight years.
“I don’t think we should tax the rich at all,” the other man suggested. “The rich create all the wealth in this country and they create all the jobs.”
The volunteer suggested that both working men played a fairly large role in creating that wealth and doing the jobs, and reminded both that consumer spending is the single biggest part of the economy.
“So wouldn’t it be a good idea to let you keep a bit more of your money, as Obama suggests, so that you can choose how to spend it?” the volunteer said. “After all, you can find a better use for it than the government, right?”
These guys had an answer for everything.
“I don’t even know why we need government in the first place,” said the man in the van. “What has government ever done for us.”
Well, started the volunteer, government built the road we’re standing on. Government built that playground over there, where the kids are playing right now.”
The man in the van didn’t agree.
“Private sector can do all of that, better and cheaper,” he said. “If everyone would just live a clean, good life, we wouldn’t need government. The economy is just a cycle. We just happen to be in a down cycle and there’s nothing government can do about it.
“I don’t trust the government,” the man said.
Well, hopefully President Barack Obama will give him something to believe in — if that’s even possible for those two.