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Tradition Meets Change in Oxford

September 30, 2008

TheDebateStartsHere

Oxford, MS –

A long line of people waits chattily in front of Taylor Grocery’s food stand, in anticipation of their plate of fried catfish, hush puppies and French fries. Taylor Grocery is a back-roads favorite for locals and tourists alike and one of the many Oxford restaurants that set up shop here to cater to the few thousands people gathered on Friday to watch the first presidential debate between John McCain and Barack Obama.

With the two presidential candidates set to do battle at the University of Mississippi’s (or Ole Miss as everyone here likes to say) Ford Center for the Performing Arts, the University officials have set up two big screens on the Grove, the lawn at the heart of the campus for those who could not make it inside. In the hours preceding the event, a line-up of local bands takes the stage to play classics from the American tradition.

Seventeen year-old Courtney L., who is not even eligible to vote yet, wears a t-shirt that says: “No socialism, no communism, no Obama.” She came because she thinks that the country is experiencing some of its toughest moments since the Great Depression and she is worried that people do not grasp the gravity of the situation. “I really wish I could vote,” utters Courtney, who is one of four children, a small blond girl with fair skin and freckles. If she could, she would cast her ballot for Sen. McCain, because she agrees with his stance on issues such as abortion, immigration and the economy.

Only a few feet away Tonya Redmond is talking with a few friends. Ms. Redmond is a 35 year-old African-American woman and a pre-kindergarten teacher. She is wearing an Obama for America t-shirt and she emphasizes that indeed “it is time for change.” Among her grievances Ms. Redmond stresses that she is tired of seeing the budget for education being cut.

FamiliesforMcCain

She believes America must learn to live within its means and not above them and she is convinced that Barack Obama represents a “fresh face.” Ms. Redmond’s biggest concern is the economy. She and her husband, parents of two, are trying to buy their first home. “It’s become really hard; with the credit crunch it’s very hard to get additional loans when you need them,” Ms. Redmond notes.

Foreign policy, the topic of tonight’s debate, is not an important issue to her. “I don’t follow it much, to be honest,” she confesses, “I just believe that if we can make things better here at home, then the rest will follow.”

FamiliesforObama

It doesn’t take long for an outside observer to notice that, in this college town in northern Mississippi, political divisions run along racial lines. Although most people give evasive answers on the topic, Tonya Redmond admits candidly that race plays a part in her decision to support Sen. Obama: “The African Americans want change, that’s certain,” Ms. Redmond asserts, “I’ll vote for Obama because of where he stands on the issues as well as because he’s black, probably it’s a fifty-fifty.”

A few feet away, Melissa Harwell is sitting on a comfortable picnic chair next to her husband Ricky. They are silent, watching the bands playing. Leaning against her legs is a hand-written sign that says: “Sarah Palin is a fox.” The Harwells, now retired, are originally from the area. Melissa used to be a florist while Ricky worked as a forester for the State of Mississippi. “Sarah really is a fox,” Ms. Harwell maintains, “She is smart and I respect her ability to handle her family, her career, and even this challenge of the presidential campaign.” Ms. Harwell also feels profound admiration for John McCain’s war record: “I’m a graduate of Ole Miss. I remember being in college and watching McCain as he stepped off the plane that brought him back from Vietnam,” she recalls emotionally.

Although she is pleased with McCain’s pro-life record, what really draws Ms. Harwell to the Republican ticket is national security. “I have a son who is on active military duty,” she says. “I certainly don’t want to send anybody to war, but I also know that sometime you have to defend your country,” Ms. Harwell argues pointing out that her son has already served a tour in Iraq.

As one talks to people assembled on the lawn, it slowly emerges that the political divide along racial lines is not only a question of Republican versus Democrat, but one that encapsulates some strong disputes on the issues and which is the most important. While most African Americans on the Grove point to the economy as the number one priority, Caucasians seem far more worried about terrorism and homeland security.

Felicia Butts came to Oxford from her native Sardis, a town about thirty miles to the west. To get here tonight, she hopped on a bus organized by Unite Here to carry union members to the debate site and show support for Sen. Obama.

Ms. Butts is drinking sweet ice tea, the signature Mississippi drink, and is proudly wearing a Unite Here for Obama t-shirt, although she is not a member. A 29-year-old African American woman, Ms. Butts works for a small accounting firm in Memphis, Tennessee. Engaged to a hair-cutter and a mother of two children, Ms. Butts is apprehensive about the economy and confesses that she can already feel the impact of the crisis. “Up until not too long ago, I’d have considered myself middle-class, but not anymore; I’m poor now,” asserts Ms. Butts.

WaitingontheGrove

The increase in gas prices above all has negatively impacted her standard of living: “I certainly don’t go out as much anymore, I try not to buy clothes and I can’t afford health care,” Ms. Butts comments. Asked about foreign policy, Felicia Butts admits to not knowing much about it: “I know it has to do with the rest of the world and the war in Iraq. But I’m more concerned about poor people here at home,” she claims.

“My grandson is draft-age and John McCain knows what it means to send people to war,” argues Lynn Wall Sykes, a business counselor and Oxford resident. A large woman in her sixties, who dyes her graying her back to the original strawberry blond, Ms. Sykes believes that America needs a real leader like John McCain, and “not someone who came out of nowhere.”

The economy is a concern, but according to Ms. Sykes the impact of the crisis hasn’t trickled down to the people yet. As a result, as long as the government acts swiftly, she feels that the situation can be kept under control. The same however is not the case in the foreign policy arena according to Ms. Sykes and she values the fact that John McCain has many years of experience in international relations. She’s also impressed with Sarah Palin’s credentials: “I love her,” Ms. Sykes avows, citing the fact that Gov. Palin runs Alaska and that she has had exposure to Russia and the Pacific Rim countries. Ms. Sykes also shares with Gov. Palin strong pro-life views.

These striking differences in the opinions of African Americans and Caucasians are, according to Robert Mongue, the result of years of political tradition and consolidated voting patterns. “I don’t think it is because Barack Obama is black, I think it would be the same if the Democratic candidate were white,” explains Professor Mongue, who teaches Legal Studies at Ole Miss and just recently relocated here from Maine. “White people in Mississippi are republican simply because their parents were republican,” he believes.

Deeply rooted beliefs and partisan politics would also explain why people who came to the Grove to watch the debate seemed to have already decided whom they will vote for. As they stream out after the night is over, most say that they leave with the same opinion they came with. During the debate, Republicans cheered Sen. McCain when he talked about cutting taxes. “The more you tax the rich, the less there is money trickling down to the rest of the people,” argues Mitchell Dale, a recent graduate of this University and here with his girlfriend, “In the realm of economics, McCain is head and shoulders above Obama.”

Democrats meanwhile cheered Sen. Obama when he promised to withdraw from Iraq. “Even I didn’t know we were spending this much money in Iraq,” says Jasmine Peg recalling the $10 billion that Sen. Obama quoted as the monthly cost of the war.

Despite entrenched positions, things are slowly changing even in deep-red Mississippi, at least according to Professor Mongue. Although acknowledging that racial separation and an economic divide along racial lines is still very much prevalent, Professor Mongue also highlights the effort that people, and particularly students on campus, are putting into trying to bridge the gap.

With the Grove emptied out almost entirely, a group of four middle-age women are still lingering around and getting ready to hit the bars downtown. They grew up together in Mississippi and three of them, Larke Landis, Mary Garrett and Ann Marshall, are self-proclaimed Republicans.

However, their statements sound out of sync when compared to their professed political party of choice. Mss. Landis, Garrett and Marshall dislike President Bush and the war in Iraq, they agree that better health care needs to be provided to the disadvantaged and, they hold strong pro-choice views. The fourth woman of the pack, the only Democrat, and who asked not to be identified by name, laughs in the background while her friends keep arguing: “And they still think they are Republicans,” she comments rolling her eyes.

Only Ann Marshall, a teacher in a private preparatory school in Jackson, Mississippi, finally confesses to be, for the first time in her life, “on the fence”. “When I was growing up, if you were white, in Alabama you were a Republican,” she explains. However, this year she is unsure of her own feelings towards Senators McCain and Obama. “My son moved to California a few years ago, to work in the software industry,” Ms. Marshall says, “and since then he’s only voted for Democrats.”

Apparently, he calls her every day to try swaying her towards Sen. Obama. As a result, Ms. Marshall is seriously considering voting for a Democrat for the first time in her life. Born in a family of doctors, Ms. Marshall has one remaining doubt stemming from the fear the Democrats may want to create a public health care system modeled on European countries. “I’ve seen some of those systems and the problem is that nobody wants to be a doctor anymore, because it pays so poorly,” Ms. Marshall contends.

Originally reported and written for Washington Prism

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