Journal: Looking for Republicans on Manahattan's Upper West Side

10/14/2008 12:09 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Grace Babakhanian is an OffTheBus grassroots correspondent. Each week she contributes a campaign journal documenting her life out on the trail.

Those of us who plan to vote for Obama in November tend to talk only to each other. We read the same newspaper columnists, tune in to the same radio and tv shows and stand in one big echo chamber where we make phone calls and circulate emails, many of which go round and round to the same addressees. It's sometimes hard for us to realize that on the other side of the park, the same merry-go-round carries a different message.

So, as we head for the home stretch in this seemingly endless presidential campaign, I set out to find out how many of my friends and acquaintances, mostly senior citizens, are still undecided. Have any of them changed their minds about who they'll vote for? And how have they been affected by the explosive issue of an economy in nosedive?

Here on the Upper Westside of Manhattan, it's hard to find anyone who will own up to being a card carrying Republican. Time was when New Yorkers proudly wore campaign buttons-- I even have a few I've collected over the years--but I haven't seen anyone sporting such a button this year. Some youngsters wear t-shirts with candidates' pictures but, needless to say, few in my 'demographic' would be caught dead in such an outfit. So how can I locate enough Republicans to make my sample significant?

I start by calling Marvin Simon (not his real name) who I first met a half-century ago when we both lived on the northern fringes of Greenwich Village. He was then a young lawyer who was active in the Village Republican club. From the start of our friendship we argued about politics, but he had so many other virtues--a lover of music, art and fine antiques, as well as being the first person I ever met who had read all of Proust--that we bridged our differences.

Marvin is now a retired judge with a silvery head of hair and a handlebar moustache, who remains remarkably slim and fit, despite living in a handsome brownstone that is even closer to Zabar's than I am. Is he still a Republican? "Yes, although I'm registered Independent," he says, admitting to occasionally splitting a ticket. "So who are you voting for this year?" He surprises me by revealing that, not only will he be voting for Obama-Biden, but that for the first time in his life he has made a political contribution - to the Obama campaign. I ask him why.

Always a great talker, Marvin launches into a long tale about how in Puerto Rico voters keep changing party affiliations because they believe that any party in power too long becomes corrupt. "Let's throw the rascals out and bring in a new crew," he declares. When I ask if this means that he keeps rotating his votes from one party to another, he dodges the question as deftly as if he himself were a candidate. Anxious to pin him down to more specifics, I ask about his reaction to McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as a running mate. "A marvelous PR stunt,' he says, "but unfortunately one he hasn't been able to top." Marvin says he'd love to have the Alaskan governor as a neighbor because she's so "cheerful," but insists she shouldn't have anything to do with running a government. And besides, "she lives in Alaska so she couldn't very well be my neighbor, could she?"

Marvin's wife Elizabeth, a former magazine editor who is a registered Republican, thinks that Sarah Palin probably appeals to members of the working- and lower-middle classes because of her folksy qualities, implying that more educated voters will see through her fake charm. For Elizabeth, McCain's choice of Palin as a running mate was "the nail on the coffin." Somewhat begrudgingly, she offers her take on Obama: "He seems okay, appears to be vigorous and does have some ideas." Despite having great respect for McCain, Elizabeth says he is too old to be running for president. (It's funny how a lot of people in our age group voice this sentiment.) She's also concerned about the Republican nominee's medical condition. The Simons, who have a son working on Wall Street, cite the ever-worsening financial crisis as another reason for supporting the Democratic ticket. Both husband and wife (who have always favored the liberal Javits/Rockefeller wing of the party) seem satisfied that they are making the right choice this year, with no visible regrets. All the same, they ask me not to use their real names.

So will it be possible, I wonder, to find a Republican who fully backs McCain here in the blue state of New York where Democrats reputedly outnumber Republicans 4:1? Desperate in my quest, I track down Katherine Kerr who I met shortly after she and her husband moved to New York a few years ago from, of all places, Arizona. Andrew was transferred by his company to their New York office where he expects to remain for a few years. But their chief residence is in Arizona. So can I even count them as part of my New York sample? Katherine assures me that, although they could have supported Romney, they are very enthusiastic about McCain whom she first met when he returned from his internment in Viet Nam. As she is packing to go back to Arizona for a few weeks, we postpone our discussion. Anyhow, I don't know where she votes and, strictly speaking, she doesn't belong in my senior category, being years younger than most of the people I plan to interview. I later receive a fascinating email from her, detailing her political opinions, and I decide to save her for another occasion - maybe a forum on some of the issues she deems important, such as environment/energy, immigration and 'truth in journalism.'

You will have gathered by now that most of my friends are Obama supporters, although some of them started off favoring other primary candidates. Vivian Dee, a retired administrator with the NYC Board of Education, says that Representative Dennis Kucinich is the only one whose platform she fully endorses. When he dropped out of the race, this lifelong progressive says she "did for a time support Hilary, even though I disagreed with her on the war." Vivian feels that Clinton is more of a fighter for things she believes in than Obama, whom she now backs-- albeit not wholeheartedly. "I think Obama isn't that far from McCain on some issues, and from the beginning I found him 'too glib.' But what choice do we have?" She thinks Obama goes "just so far, but not far enough," pointing to his health care platform. A universal health care plan, she says, is the only way to accommodate the vast number of un- and under-insured Americans. Vivian agrees that to solve the current financial crisis we need more controls, but she worries that, in unraveling this mess, the tax payer will bear the biggest burden.

With views so far to the left of both candidates, did Vivian ever contemplate voting for Ralph Nader or Cynthia McKinney? Having voted for Nader in the past, she's surprised to learn that he is not the Green Party candidate this time. She hasn't been following that scene so closely. "This time I'm not entertaining the prospect because he doesn't represent a movement. There has to be a movement behind anyone who seeks office, or there's no chance of making changes." Like everyone planning to vote for Obama, Vivian Dee was aghast at McCain's choice for a running mate. "The idea that such a person could be foisted on the voters is unthinkable." For Vivian Dee one of the most important issues in this campaign is Social Security. "There is nothing really wrong with the system as it is now. In the past we have been able to adjust it when needed, and we can do that again. This is no more than a trumped up issue to scare younger voters."

Vivian's husband John Goubier, a retired engineer, is even more passionate about voting for Obama, his dislike for Bush being greater than hers. The two married five years ago - a second marriage for both - and they travel back and forth between his home in Martin County Florida and her apartment in New York. His legal residence is in Florida where his vote counts much more than hers in New York, as he is surrounded there by hardcore Republicans. I ask Vivian if, among her many progressive friends and acquaintances, there are any who intend to vote for one of the third party candidates rather than Obama, and she can't think of any. It's all too critical now, she says. "The stakes are higher and the danger is much greater."

Another Obama supporter, a former art teacher, puts me in touch with her friend Diana Hochman, who retired from the same junior high school two years ago.

At this late date, Diana and her husband, who live in Queens, are still 'undecided,' although each seems to be leaning in a different direction. The former sixth grade social studies teacher says she is an Independent who in the past has voted for both Republicans and Democrats. She personally likes both Obama and McCain - "they have such great stories" - and she was seriously considering voting for McCain because he was the more experienced candidate, until he picked Palin for the VP spot. "It's not that I dislike her, but I don't think she's qualified to be vice-president." Before the current financial crisis became the No. 1 issue in the campaign, Diana was most concerned about our country's security. That certainly made McCain seem the stronger candidate, she says. "But now, when I look at McCain and Palin, I think they don't know any more about economics than I do."

A pro-choice voter, she is troubled about the possible reversal of Roe v. Wade in a newly constituted Supreme Court. "I don't agree with Scalia's views but I find him a fascinating man," she says in wonderment. "I hate the way this country has become so divisive, and I guess I feel that Obama is more likely to bring people together." One thing that holds her back, however, is the recent chatter about Obama's ties to the "terrorist Ayers" which she's heard on talk radio and Bill O'Reilly's television program. "And I didn't like the earlier stuff about the Reverend Wright either," she adds. Still, she bristles when many of her Orthodox Jewish neighbors in Kew Gardens, insist on using Obama's full name whenever they refer to him, with the emphasis on his middle name, Hussein. "You know what that means," she says. "I ask them why they don't use my middle name when they talk about me." So, at the moment, she is inclined to vote for the Democratic candidate, but her husband Marty, a retired math teacher, doesn't share her views. He definitely favors McCain. Diana agreed to talk to me again, just before November 4, to let me know her final decision. This time maybe we'll talk about 'race.'

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