San Antonio Express-News (Texas)
October 17, 2004, Sunday , METRO
Showing their independence ; Folks in Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin
could tip the balance of the election.
by Jaime Castillo
STATE CENTER, Iowa – Doug Lively ducks his 6-foot-5 frame into a
tractor, while his father, Jim, steers a combine through the 600
acres of soybean and corn they planted this year.
One smoke-belching hunk of technology chews up rows of 2-foot-tall
soybean plants and spits out bushel upon bushel of pebble-size beans
into a bin being pulled by the other.
The father-and-son tandem harvested 60 acres on a recent Sunday,
displaying a farming harmony that comes from working land that has
been in the Lively family more than 50 years.
Compared to the commercial operations with $250,000 John Deere
mega-harvesters and plots of land the size of some small towns, the
Livelys are part-timers in a global economy that is changing life,
culture and politics throughout the Midwest.
“It’s just gotten to the point where it’s tough to have enough acres
to make a living off of it,” said Doug Lively, who also runs a
trucking company and a used car lot.
Having entered the business world once foreign to farm life, Lively,
42, has made a decision equally foreign to his parents. He’ll vote
for President Bush on Nov. 2, a choice at odds with his parents’
history as lifelong Democrats.
It is an example of the independent politics that typifies the
crucial Upper Midwest states of Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin, an
independence that could turn the presidential election.
Each of the states has a recent history of supporting Democratic
presidential candidates, which would seem to favor Sen. John Kerry.
Minnesota has voted Democratic in the last seven presidential
contests, while Iowa and Wisconsin have done so in each of the last
But coming off the third presidential debate, polls show a
statistical tie in Iowa, and Kerry holding a slight lead in the two
neighboring battleground states.
The states are being bombarded by a seemingly endless stream of
negative TV ads, which has made relaxing in front of the tube a thing
of the past. Midwesterners don’t like wearing their politics on their
sleeves, much less having to digest it in their living rooms night
>From the suburbs of Minneapolis to the industrial sector of southeast
Wisconsin to rural Iowa, the regular folks of this region defy easy
That is because the region has gone through a few political
transitions in the past century, said Dennis Goldford, a Drake
University political scientist in Des Moines.
One hundred years ago, the Upper Midwest was a Republican stronghold.
When the Great Depression devastated the region, Democrats thrived
during the New Deal.
Today the two parties are neck-and-neck and emblematic of an evenly
“The Upper Midwest has much more of a balance between conservatives
and progressives,” Goldford said. “These states, in a sense, are a
microcosm of the nation.”
To know how much times have changed, Lively said he only has to think
back to his high school graduating class of 60 students.
“There are only three full-time farmers, and better than half of the
boys grew up on farms,” he said.
Knowing that farming opportunities were limited, Lively headed off to
Iowa State University after high school. There he studied marketing
and began a slow transition from the political traditions of his
parents, Jim and Katey.
When he returned home 17 hours short of a degree to buy the trucking
business, he became a bona fide Republican after becoming frustrated
with small business regulations.
“I just started to see things differently,” Lively said.
At Cecil’s restaurant in Marshalltown, Iowa, population 26,000, the
shifting political dynamics aren’t in full view, but just ask folks
their opinion on the presidential race – or anything else – and
they’ll tell you.
Loyal customers get their morning cups of coffee poured by Ruth
Johnson, a gabby, salt-of-the-earth waitress whose son bought the
establishment from her late husband.
A Democrat by birth, as some people around here like to say, Johnson
became a Republican later in life. She said she will vote for Bush
partly because of her anti-abortion beliefs and partly because
“there’s too much gimme, gimme, gimme in society.”
The 81-year-old cancer survivor said she pays for her own health
insurance and believes people shouldn’t rely on the government for
But politics never comes up between her and 76-year-old Charles
Willer, a retired lineman for the old Iowa Electric Co. who is
bellied up to the counter for breakfast and the 60-cent bottomless
cup of coffee.
He will be voting for Kerry this November after giving Bush his vote
Wearing a mesh baseball hat that makes him look like a truck driver,
Willer said Bush tries to come off as a strong leader, but he doesn’t
like the way he approached the Iraq war without first getting
He also blames Republicans for not fully funding the No Child Left
Behind education law.
“Bush is a good man, but he’s not good for the American people,”
It is a scene that is played out often in the working-class areas of
At Q’s Ham N’ Egger Restaurant in Racine, Wis., four old friends
gathered around a booth for a morning bull session hours before Bush
rolled through town on a recent bus tour.
There is no shortage of things to ponder in this city of about 82,000
people south of Milwaukee. Racine, an odd mix of an old blue-collar
industrial town and a quaint lake community, has been hit hard in the
last 15 years as hundreds of good-paying jobs have gone overseas.
The county has one of the highest unemployment rates in the state.
Michael Vidian, a former Racine city alderman for 15 years, is
resting his hands on a cane he uses to get around these days. He said
security is the biggest issue.
“Bush is definitely a better leader,” said Vidian, 81, his son, Gary,
48, nodding his head next to him. “An incumbent knows what’s going
on. There’s no flim-flam there.”
Seated across from the father-son Bush supporters are Harry Akgulian,
74, and John Mikaelian, 60, both retired skilled laborers who, in the
Midwestern way, don’t interrupt their political opposites.
They patiently wait until the Vidians are done talking before they
tick off several reasons why they’ll vote for Kerry. The reasons
include jobs, the economy, geopolitics and, especially important to
Mikaelian, the senator’s interest in recognizing the mass killings of
hundreds of thousands Armenians by Ottoman Turks between 1915 and
1923 as genocide.
“I believe when (Kerry) gets elected, he’ll change things around.
There will be more jobs,” said Mikaelian, a retired wood-pattern
Akgulian agreed, noting with a hint of sadness that the days are gone
when young people can find good-paying jobs without a college degree,
as he did 54 years ago when he arrived in Racine.
Akgulian, a former high-speed spindle repairman, proclaims that he
has “never voted Republican in my life.” He said more needs to be
done to keep jobs from leaving America.
As for security, both he and Mikaelian said they believe Bush’s
go-it-alone strategy in Iraq has weakened the United States.
“We’re isolated from the rest of the world,” Akgulian said.
No clear choices
For some in the Upper Midwest, the choices are not so apparent,
making it clear why these states are battlegrounds for the campaigns.
Take Brooklyn Park, Minn., a city of about 67,000 people outside of
Minneapolis that is dotted by parks, walking trails and enough open
space to invite flocks of Canadian geese to swoop in for landings.
To the outside world, it is probably best known as the city that
elected former pro wrestler and onetime third-party poster boy Jesse
Ventura as mayor, setting him on a path to the Minnesota governor’s
But in terms of the presidential election, it is the ultimate swing
Brooklyn Park is sandwiched between polar political opposites. Inside
Interstate 494, which rings Minneapolis-St. Paul to the south and
west, Kerry will likely win by 25 points in an area still dominated
by New Deal Democratic traditions.
Outside I-494 and beyond the established suburbs like Brooklyn Park,
exurbs have sprouted where tax-conscious, more affluent residents
will favor Bush by 20 points, said Larry Jacobs of the University of
Minnesota’s Center for the Study of Politics.
That is why the Republican and Democratic parties are focusing so
much time in places like Brooklyn Park, which are still a toss-up,
Laqueece Penn and Erin Carlson are the living embodiments of the
volatile political area. They live only blocks apart in Brooklyn
They each have a young son. They share the same corner public
And while Penn and Carlson will likely choose different presidential
candidates this November, they have misgivings about their
“We all have the same feeling,” said Penn, unloading groceries with
one hand and clutching her 18-month-old son, Christopher Davenport
Jr., with the other. “My mother, my family, even the people who you
conversate with at the store, they all say the same thing. We’re all
In her estimation, Penn, a single mother who lives in a
government-subsidized home, said she should vote Democrat. She blames
Republican budget cuts for eradicating her son’s health benefits at
the end September.
The full-time cosmetology student says she is “75 percent sure” she
will vote for Kerry. But one thing eats at her – the war in Iraq and
the thousands of lives on both sides that already have been lost.
“It’s kind of scary to change over in a war situation,” Penn said.
Carlson is more committed to the man who led the country into that
The 30-year-old nurse and her husband have a 3-year-old son. They are
Christian, anti-abortion advocates and voted for Bush four years ago.
And those beliefs will likely lead them to vote the same way two
weeks from now.
But Carlson said she can’t help but feel like she’s choosing between
“the lesser of two evils.”
As a medical professional, she said she watches every day how an
ailing health care system impacts society. She wonders if things
would be different under Kerry.
“My husband and I will vote for Bush,” she said, sounding
unconvinced. “That’s more based on moral issues rather than I believe
in all of his positions.”
Mixed emotions are a common refrain for a region that could decide
the next president of the United States, once it makes up its
Edward George, a 37-year-old chef who lives in St. Paul, said what
makes the region more difficult to call is that “Republicans here
aren’t as right-wing as some places and Democrats aren’t as left-wing
But the two groups seem to share equal numbers of followers.
“I’ve been voting since 1986 and I’ve never seen things this
divided,” he said.