US presidential election 2008: How will Obama play in Peoria?

Scotland on Sunday, 2 November 2008

By Kenny Farquharson

IN THE Twin Towers Barber Shop in downtown Peoria, not everyone who walks through the door is looking to get a haircut. More often than not they’re looking to ease themselves into one of the shop’s big brown leather sofas and spend a while in idle conversation, solving America’s problems.

Putting the world to rights this particular morning are three men in their late 50s. Jim, small and wiry, is a lawyer. Wayne, carrying a little weight, is a book-keeper. John, sharp in a light suit, is a securities broker. “And I’m a neurosurgeon,” says Ron Aberle, the 71-year-old barber shop owner.

He has been giving the gentlemen of Peoria the same short back and sides for 50 years. “People come in here every day and share their opinions, solicited and unsolicited,” says Aberle. “That’s one of the nice things about a business you’re never going to get rich on. We have one or two Democrats that we allow in here just so we’re not completely one-sided. We wanna be fair and balanced, like Fox News.”

His customers chuckle. Liberal views are as rare in the Twin Towers as moisturiser and manbags. In the Marx Brothers film A Night At The Opera, Groucho asks: “How will it play in Peoria?” The question has been asked since back in vaudeville days. Promoters who were developing a show would often test it out in Peoria first, believing that this small, conservative town in central Illinois typified the instincts, enthusiasms and prejudices of Middle America.

In more recent years Hollywood, multinational corporations and political strategists have also come seeking Peorians’ views. It’s the reason I have come here, too. With the US poised for an election that could resonate down through history, installing a black man in the White House, how is the Barack Obama phenomenon playing in Peoria?

At the mention of Obama’s name, the atmosphere in the Twin Towers hardens. Are there people in this town, I ask, who will not vote for Obama because he is black? “Absolutely,” says Aberle. “There’s a lot of long-standing, card-carrying Democrats won’t be able to do that. They won’t admit it, except in the privacy of the booths.” Or the privacy of the barber shop? “Yeah. We occasionally hear views in this room that wouldn’t be expressed out in public,” he says.

Aberle is a man with a steady gaze, a boxer’s stance and opinions you could strike a match on. “I have no trouble voting for a black man, but I do have trouble with people voting for a black man because he is a black man. And we are getting a lot of people going to the polls in early voting that are minorities, Afro-Americans, that are voting just because of that and have no idea what any other issue is.”

There is a quiet anger in this barber shop, leavened by rough humour, about the way the presidential election is heading. “An awful lot of people have been very willing to swallow a bill of goods here,” says Jim the lawyer. “A lot of people have been fooled and don’t care to find out what they ought to be trying to find out.”

He sits forward in his seat. “The population of America has a desire to be post-racial,” he says. “It’s a very strong desire. They want to put this behind us once and for all. Over. Done with it. That’s why they’re going to vote for one of these candidates, right, wrong or indifferent. It’s a very powerful thing. And you can’t get a look past it.”

In the view of these men it shouldn’t be like this. The election should be about experience and record and low taxation and strong defence. It should be about electing President John McCain, a veteran who suffered torture for his country. As the US heads for polling day on Tuesday there are two Americas: one that has wholeheartedly bought in to the Obama dream, and one that just ain’t buying.

Particular scorn is reserved for electoral registration groups such as Acorn (the Association of Community Organisations for Reform Now) which have signed up hundreds of thousands of African-Americans and poor whites and turned them into voters. Many of the Acorn registration forms — 20% in some areas — have been found to be fraudulent.

It has become one of the most contentious issues of the campaign although Acorn officials stress all the discrepancies were spotted and there was no danger of voter fraud. In the Twin Towers, however, there is a feeling that this election is somehow being taken away from them. They feel they are being cheated of the presidency.

Panera Breads is a baker’s shop to make your mouth water — a sticky wonderland of maple syrup, icing sugar and confectioners’ custard. Showing great willpower, Jackie Petty avoids temptation and opts for a simple cup of coffee. Maybe this is the reason she looks barely 55 when in fact she’s 66.

She’s an African-American woman with a no-nonsense attitude and hair dyed the colour of gingerbread. A leading light in the Democratic Party in Illinois, Petty knows Barack Obama well. She describes how she once had to introduce him at a meeting in Peoria when he was running for senator. He took questions after he spoke and there was an elderly white woman who kept waving her hand in the air. When Obama took one last question it was from this lady.

The exchange, Petty recalls, went like this.

Lady: “Do you remember the story Roots?”

Obama: “Yeah, of course.”

Lady: “Remember when Kunta Kinte was born and his father took him outside and raised him up to the sky and said: ‘You’re the one’?”

Obama: “Uh-huh.”

Lady: “Well. You’re the one.”

Petty’s eyes widen at the memory of it. “I just felt this tingle go up my spine. She was right. He’s destined.” I ask what he’s like. “He’s like hope,” she says. “If he was sitting here with us now he would be so interested in what we had to say. He’s caring, and that comes across. He’s intelligent, and that comes across. He’s compassionate. He’s everything we haven’t had for the past eight years.”

Petty is scornful of critics of the voter registration programmes that may be the key to an Obama victory. “It’s hogwash. They’re trying to discredit the whole election because it’s not going their way. But most people are above that and intelligent and they know better.”

For 20 years Petty has been trying to get young blacks in Peoria to register to vote. “You run into so much apathy. People say: ‘Why should I bother; my vote isn’t going to count; it’s not going to help me.’ I haven’t run into that this time. We have had people seeking us. The last day of registration was October 10. We had a tent we put up and we stayed open to midnight, and we had 740 people that last day and night.

“It was raining the whole time. There was this young man who was 20 years old and just out of prison after four years inside. When he heard it was the last day he ran all the way from South Peoria in the rain, and it’s miles and miles, just to register. This week we had a car going round reminding people they could vote early and as we went past the little kids were yelling: ‘Obama! Obama!’”

She smiles in delight. “They know what this is all about.”

The Obama church has a wide range of worshippers. Through a Facebook group called ‘Peorians Who Support Barack Obama’ I make contact with Molly Jones Waller and arrange to visit her at home. On the taxi journey the houses get gradually more expensive and the signs backing Republican candidates for a range of local offices thicken on manicured lawns.

Waller’s home is an impressive ranch-style house with a swimming pool. A sign on the lawn informs passers-by which security company has the house under its watchful protection. Waller is a 36-year-old mother who runs her own yoga school.

She makes some Earl Grey tea while sons Ryne, two, and Benny, one, watch Alvin And The Chipmunks on TV. Her family and friends, she says, have made clear they disapprove of her support for Obama.

“I told my dad. He told me that I came from Republicans, my grandfather was a banker — and that this was the reason I have what I have. Now he’s telling me he’ll be taxed more heavily, which will mean I don’t get as much money when he passes away.”

Locally, the young mothers hang out together and enjoy each others’ company and support — but the election has caused strains. “We’ve decided not to talk about politics because it would not go well. Anything not conservative angers them,” she says.

At a recent neighbourhood gathering Waller heard Obama described as “evil”. Race, she says, divides her prosperous and overwhelmingly white community. “People here are a little more closed-mind conservative and Republican. They probably haven’t left Peoria much. They haven’t, say, travelled with all kinds of people on a bus or on a subway, and just been OK with it. Here there is a bus, but everyone drives. You don’t mix.”

Wealthy parents resent the fact that the district authority imposes a quota of black children on schools in white areas, bussing in African-American kids from South Peoria. Waller is well aware of the incongruities of being a rich liberal. She is, however, determined to keep on campaigning for an Obama presidency, believing it will make for a better America. It will also secure “a woman’s reproductive rights”, one of her core moral beliefs.

“I’m exited,” she says. “I’m excited to see what he’s going to do. We’ve been on such an upswing with the economy, with the rich getting richer. There’s an abundance in the upper class. And I think that’s how a lot of people think of Americans and America. But there are so many people who are impoverished, and who don’t have health care. There are women and children suffering. I feel that Obama will help make it right.”

The symbolic power of an Obama presidency, and the place it will secure in history, is one that Americans are slowly beginning to comprehend. Even moderate Republicans have to concede its force.

Jim Ardis is mayor of Peoria and his office is in City Hall, a handsome 19th-century building of Lake Superior red sandstone. In the gardens there is a small sign stuck into the ground with one of those civic slogans that tries a little bit too hard: ‘Pride in Peoria is Picking Up (Put Litter in Its Place).’

Inside, City Hall feels like it should be the set for one of those sentimental James Stewart films they put on TV at Christmas-time, with its polished wooden counters, 1930s filing cabinets and lazily rotating fans.

In the mayor’s office there is a framed photograph of him welcoming President George W Bush off a plane at Peoria airport, but Ardis is not a partisan Republican. Friendly and smooth, he wears his politics lightly. Like many of the Republicans I speak to, he talks about the election with an air of resignation, as if Obama is a force of nature no one can do much about.

Faced with a Democrat president committed to policies he opposes, Ardis prefers to accentuate the positive. “We’ve come a long way in really acknowledging the diversity of our country,” he says, “and the sheer fact that Senator Obama is where he is now speaks volumes about the United States. Twenty years from now, looking back, this is going to be the election that really opened minds to the acceptance of people. Twenty years from now I’ll be in a minority, as a white person. In an election a lot of things can change about a country. We can only guess how much.”

An essential part of the Obama dream is a hope that his presidency can help heal America. But the message from Peoria suggests that caution is required. Yes, Obama’s campaign has attracted a vast alliance of good faith and fine hopes. This in itself is a remarkable symbol of how far America has travelled. But a post-racial society? There may in fact be a danger that an Obama presidency will throw issues of race into sharper relief, and polarise opinion. Along the way it may harden some hearts.

For now, however, there is the feeling to be savoured of history in the making. In the city of Peoria there are 69,500 people registered to vote. By this weekend almost a fifth had already done so at early voting centres at selected locations.

At the Electoral Commission offices the queue is taking up to an hour. The city is about 80% white, but the queue is mostly black. Waiting to cast her vote for Obama is mother-of-two Gail Turner, 32, a home care worker wearing a 101 Dalmatians smock. She has a gold tooth, braided hair and the most infectious laugh in the Mid West.

“The thing I like about Obama is he’s been where I’ve been at,” she says. “He’s been poor, where we have to struggle for that dollar. Obama has family like we have family. He wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth. “It’s not about black or white, it’s about what’s right.”

I leave her to her place in the queue and she calls after me: “Be blessed, now.”

I fall into conversation with a black man who is wearing a voluminous baseball jacket and oversized cap. He is curious about where I come from and asks: “They got Jesus Christ in Scotland?” I assure him that those who want him can have him.

The man’s name is Lee Love. He is 42 and has five sons, and his passion is his music. With his friend Joe Raw he has a rap act called Bread Winners, and they are working on a new number. It’s a work in progress but I’m treated to a preview.

I pledge allegiance to the flag, of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands.

A nation divided is one that cannot stand.

Ain’t nothing constant but change.

The world constantly change.

Let’s concentrate on some change.

Try to get us some change.

It’s time for change.

It’s time for Barack Obama, Barack Obama, Barack Obama…

It seems I’ve found what’s playing in Peoria. There is a new rhythm to life in the land of the free. But does all America want to dance?