07/12/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Defining "Patriotism" In A San Francisco Suburb

A row of elementary school children dressed as American heroes sat with their parents facing an outdoor stage for the opening ceremony of Foster City's annual July 4 celebration. It looked like they were ready for Halloween, except that instead of being princesses or vampires, the kids became the Statue of Liberty, a policeman, a firefighter and a soldier. They held one sign reading, 'We Love Our American Heroes,' and one saying 'Happy Birthday, America!'



The moms wanted their children to learn to show love of country and to think of the soldiers who are overseas. But "if I had it my way," said one mom, "my signs would say very different things about the war." Since they're only young kids however, the parents did not want to make their July 4 experience one of political protest.

A suburb of 30,000 people on the San Francisco peninsula, Foster City hosts an annual patriotic all-day celebration on Independence Day, complete with an arts and crafts fair, dog show and arguably the best fireworks in the county, because the city can set the explosions of color over numerous manmade lagoons and waterways that flow out to the San Francisco Bay. Part of California's Congressional District 12, the residents have voted overwhelmingly Democratic in every presidential election as far back as most in the area can remember.


Sure, the day was mainly about eating burgers, getting temporary tattoos of the flag, jumping in inflatable castles and dressing up dogs, but this presidential election year produced a heightened awareness of politics not normally seen on this picturesque day of flag-waving.

Mike Caggiano, president of Peace Action of San Mateo County, said, "People that wave the flag are not necessarily the patriots." Caggiano emphasized that showing patriotism is about supporting the ideals that make America great, rather than implying unquestioned support of government. Peace Action has been in existence in San Mateo County for twenty years, and Caggiano's presence at a booth between arts sellers and food vendors was one of peaceful protest of the current administration, as evidenced by the t-shirt on display: "Peace is Patriotism."

About twenty paces apart were booths of the San Mateo County GOP and Democratic parties. For a city that votes San Mateo County Republicans, noting that Republican candidates are hardly competitive. "And that's just not a true democratic process." Maletic knows it's an uphill battle for John McCain to win California if at all, so his goal by appearing at the fair was more about image than anything else. While McCain attracts the more moderate conservatives and independents, Maletic said McCain doesn't draw excitement from the base of the party. But that's not a huge problem in this part of California, where Republicans are less likely to be the evangelical-type, and more likely to be the lower-taxes type of voter.


Maletic wanted to attract moderates and independents at the booth, and to build acceptance of the Republican Party here in the Bay Area, where he said he felt there was sometimes an undercurrent of disdain, especially in San Francisco proper, that liberals would think of conservatives as "idiots". One of his favorite experiences on the McCain campaign trail, he mentioned, was when he sat with a bunch of Clinton folks on a plane from Manchester, New Hampshire, to Charlotte, South Carolina. He said that he met Bill Clinton's cousin and many of the Clintons' friends from Arkansas. Maletic is not a fan of Hillary Clinton's politics, but said he really enjoyed debating policy on that plane ride because there was a "decency between people," which he'd like to see more of in the Bay Area political environment.

While Republican registration has gone down in the county to which Foster City belongs, registered Democrats have hovered at around the same number, which means the "declined to state," or independent voters, have increased substantially. Both McCain and Obama table volunteers worked hard to register more voters today, and as of noon, there were piles of applications from at least 50 new voters. Many of those who walked by the Democrats' Obama booth included foreigners who were not U.S. citizens; 35 percent of Foster City residents are foreign-born, according to the Association of Bay Area Governments.

"There are so many ways to show patriotism," said a volunteer for Obama's campaign. She said her first name was Marva, last name "wait for it - Bush." Bush observed the patriotism of the day in the families' efforts to share the festivities with their kids, and even from the foreigners who couldn't vote but stopped by the table to talk about the election. Bush had never volunteered for a campaign before this year, because she "never thought it could be so grassroots. I thought you had to be somebody" to help out. For her, the 2008 election motivated her to participate in the American democratic process, enough to stay longer at the booth, well past her two-hour shift. "As long as people are happy and I'm not tired," Bush said.