By Bill Boyarsky
“Abortion is a civil rights issue, and I’m not open to compromise on that,” Jim Broestler told me. I didn’t agree with a word he said. But he was smart, thoughtful and likable and we talked about politics in a mutually respectful way.
The conversation took place during my week in conservative Appalachian Ohio. On my way there, I thought I had three strikes against me: I am a journalist, a liberal and I live in Los Angeles. But people like Broestler were friendly. What struck me was how different this was from the America of the McCain-Palin campaign, a divided place where the Republicans pit one part of the country against another with vicious robocalls at the dinner hour. These computer-generated phone calls convey, in a variety of ways, a divisive message: “Barack Obama and his liberal Democrats are too extreme for America. Please vote—vote for the candidates who share our values.”
Many others share my feelings about the divisive nature of the McCain-Palin campaign. One is someone I also don’t agree with, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, a Republican, who last weekend endorsed Obama for president. He, too, is offended by the robocalls, particularly the one linking Obama to ex-terrorist Bill Ayers.
On “Meet the Press,” Powell told Tom Brokaw: “Why do we have these robocalls going on around the country trying to suggest that, because of this very, very limited relationship that Sen. Obama has had with Mr. Ayers, somehow Mr. Obama is tainted? What they’re trying to connect him to is some kind of terrorist feelings. And I think that’s inappropriate,” he said. “I’m also troubled by, not what Sen. McCain says, but what members of the party say … such things as, ‘Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim.’ Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim, he’s a Christian. He’s always been a Christian. But the really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer is no. That’s not America. Is there something wrong with some 7-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president?”
In Ohio, I met Jim Broestler at the McCain-Palin headquarters in Ironton, an old industrial town across the Ohio River from Kentucky. It is located in a fairly new shopping center on a hill above the town. His daughter, about 2, was happily trying to dust the furniture. Broestler cares for her during the day while his wife works. He works nights in a manufacturing plant in neighboring West Virginia.
I introduced myself, explained that I was from California, wrote for a liberal Web magazine and wondered if he had time to talk. He said he’d never been interviewed before but it sounded interesting.
“A lot of registered Democrats have been coming in here,” he said. “They are socially conservative for the most part. I’d say half the people I talk to … they don’t trust Obama. A lot of them are afraid of him, his economic policies and his social policies. A few say race is the issue … abortion is a big thing.”
Broestler opposes abortion and is not, as he put it, “open to compromise on that.” And he added, “Society is changing and people are frustrated. There are things that should be right and some things wrong.”
Finally, he feels that the rest of the country is selling his region short. “People around here don’t want to be talked down to,” he said. “The idea that they will see a 30-second commercial and vote on it, that’s not true. People I find here are willing to listen to opposing points of view.”
I also visited with the Democratic county chairman, talking with him in his law office in an old bank building in the center of town. A man in his late 60s, Craig A. Allen grew up in Ironton and has practiced law here for many years. He is calm and reasoned, definitely a lawyer to consult if you are in trouble.
Allen admitted that Obama’s race is a problem for some of his fellow townspeople. But he told me that Ironton had a two-term black mayor in the 1970s, a black councilman and presently has a black school board member. “Younger white people have grown up with a different view than their elders,” he said.
Many residents are veterans of the U.S. military, America’s most integrated institution. White athletes have played on teams with African-Americans and see them as team and school leaders, Allen said. “Attitudes have changed, perceptions are different.”
Obama does not have to win towns like Ironton to carry Ohio, Allen said. He just needs 40 percent of their vote, and he needs to carry the more Democratic parts of the state. That is also true in other Republican states with substantial white rural populations, which is why Obama seems to be leading in North Carolina, Missouri, North Dakota and Virginia, as well as Ohio.
I certainly am not an expert on America’s small towns. But I have a feeling that Allen was correct in his analysis and that Jim Broestler was telling the truth when he said that people in Ironton are willing to listen to other points of view.
Rural America is too smart to listen to a robot calling at dinnertime.