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Politics invades Half Moon Bay Pumpkin Festival

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California--There were people sporting clothes honoring their favorite sports teams. There were college logos. There were Halloween costumes on children and senior citizens and everything in between. There was more orange than you would see at a DailyKos convention. Everywhere there were infants and toddlers in their elaborate vehicles. But there were almost no examples of people wearing political T-shirts (or sweaters, since it was bone chillingly cold). The scene at the Half-Moon-Bay Pumpkin Festival was nothing like a San Francisco political demonstration, but there were interesting political activities and energetic voter registration efforts that paid off better than what I have seen at typical Civic Center demonstrations.

I was at the festival for the entire event, based mostly in the annual chess lot where people could take a break from the vendors and sit down for a few games of chess. However, my journalistic assignment was to look for items of interest to our online community. The huge crowd, probably about a quarter million attendees, about average, I think, was there to shop for unique arts and crafts, enjoy performances by local musicians, and sample every conceivable culinary possibility for the humble pumpkin. I'm talking about such treats as macaroni and cheese with pumpkin, pumpkin sausages, many types of pumpkin pie, up can of course pumpkin ice cream.

Waiting in a long line for some tasty garlic fries, I chatted with a couple from Florida who were wearing Obama buttons. I had guessed that they were from out of town, because locals who are not directly involved in campaigns rarely wear their politics at this social occasion. They told me how surprised they were that so few people were displaying their political views in this hot election season. They expected to see far more Obama buttons but were surprised that these were clearly outnumbered by indications of opposition to Proposition 8. Vendors, in particular, were reluctant to display any signs of political affiliation, not wanting to drive away paying customers. The one exception was a used -book store that had a prominent Obama poster and had earlier also had a "No on 8" (the bigot proposition to define marriage to exclude gays and lesbians) poster which was still prominently displayed. The clerk explained to me that she was very nervous about this, but that the owner had insisted. One customer had mentioned the posters and that she held opposing viewpoints, but she shopped in the store anyway, not considering it a big deal. The signs were still up when I left at the end of the weekend.

There was at least one other exception. One of the workers at the pretzel booth was sporting a McCain/Palin button on Saturday, and it was quite noticeable that they weren't doing much business. One couple, as they walked away without purchasing anything, remarked that they would not give money to a McCain supporter. On Sunday the sticker was still there, but covered up by a coat. I'm not sure that it was only because the day was noticeably colder.

The biggest political activity was voter registration. The only other political activity I saw in the main area was a group of high school students opposing Proposition 8. But more on that later. The voter registration efforts were both partisan and, at least technically, nonpartisan. The partisan operations were at the northernmost point of the festival, and all of the organized political activity was confined to that area. I was in the southern area, almost at the end, and in the morning had to wait for the political activity to reach me.

Fortunately, prominent local activists and Democratic organizer Dennis Paull stopped by to say hello and agreed to a brief interview. I asked him how things were going, and he told me that he had already registered a few people (in fact he added five or six more during the course of our interview). His goal was to register 500 new voters and when I saw him again in the middle of the day on Sunday his team had already registered 350. We discussed how people were greatly concerned by the parental notification proposition and the proposition attempting to define marriage to exclude gay and lesbian couples. Not surprisingly, he told me that intense efforts would be continuing and that volunteers are needed to protect election integrity. He described the registrations as a steady flow, not just trickling in.

Three high school students, Josh, Tommy, and Anna, were parading with banners opposing prop eight. They were also interested in the chess and were having to decide between playing a few games, continuing their march, or going back to help out with voter registration. I suggested that they go and fulfill their voter registration commitments and then come back and chat. When they returned, they talked about how shocked they were that so few people seem to know what the proposition actually did, and what the consequences would be. Their impression, that this pumpkin Festival was far more political than usual, was shared by most of the people I spoke with in my highly unscientific sample. It was clear to me that Obama was doing quite well with young people.

I should mention one more visitor to our area, wearing any McCain Palin button next to one displaying the opposition to Proposition 8. However interesting a discussion might have been, there were some things about his speech and demeanor that suggested to me that this would not be a fruitful line of inquiry.

Eventually, it was time for me to make the long march to the other end of Main Street and talk to the McCain people as well as checking in on the Obama forces. Interestingly, each side had a life-size cardboard version of their chosen candidate and people were getting photographed with them. The partisan operations were comfortably distanced from each other, but there was also a nonpartisan voter registration drive headed by prominent local progressive activist John Lynch set up between the sidewalk and the Republican area which had been donated by the bed and breakfast in front of which it was situated.

The Republican representatives were pleasant and readily agreed to answer a few nonpartisan questions, even knowing where my report was likely to turn up. They told me that they were having a good day buttons and promotional material had been given out. In fact, while I was present, they turned away several butto- seekers, explaining that they had completely run out. They also mentioned that many people were quite happy to have their photograph taken with the fake McCain, though they didn't use those words. The Coastside (wealthy "elite" and hispanic agricultural workers and service industry workers is a very blue-green area (in terms of its residents, but not necessarily "the powers that be" )and it was noticeable how readily their presence was accepted. There were absolutely no confrontations with Mr. Lynch and his friends though, as Lynch noted with a smile, they didn't really speak to each other. The famous hospitality of the festival clearly includes even the most divisive politics without any nastiness.

I didn't try to do any polling or surveying of the crowd. But on the basis of all the people I spoke with, it is clear that Obama has the support of a very sizable majority. For those who like real world indicators, I'll close with the comment from Bill Gillespie, of the Half-Moon-Bay Brewery, that their special Obama Ale was vastly outselling the McCain Ale. I can personally attest to the quality of the Obama offering, but of course have not tried the McCain version, which I fear is likely to taste old and a little bitter. But I just had to ask Bill whether the ale inside the different bottles was in fact different beer. I was greeted with a big smile. I carpooled home to first half of the baseball game with my newly acquired skulls-and roses shirt suitable for Halloween teaching, New Years Eve in San Francisco and perhaps Valentine's Day. That's what the Pumpkin Festival is all about, after all. Next year will no doubt be sunny and warm as everyone talks about how things have improved under President Obama.