Sometimes, Lucas Gallegos needs a couple of eggs, so the long-retired baker, who still rustles up big batches of cookies for his Sunday-school students, goes next door to Stephanie Niedringhaus’s place, where she’s happy to oblige, even if she does believe the country is slipping into a dangerous selfishness because of people who share her neighbor’s politics.
He thanks her kindly and tells her she’s the first person he thinks of when he’s in need, and it’s true, even if he believes America is hurtling toward socialism because of people like, well, her.
Both neighbors believe deeply in their views of the world. And both would drop everything to help the other. That’s what neighbors do, after all. Even if one has signs for Mitt Romney and George Allen on his lawn and the other has signs for Barack Obama and Tim Kaine on hers.
On one block of 1950s split-
levels on Wrightson Drive in McLean in the battleground state of Virginia, the lawn signs tell the nation’s story of division in these final days before the election: There are four houses with Obama signs out front and four with Romney signs.
But the signs on Wrightson Drive do not reflect the friction or anger that seems to drive so much of politics in Washington. Most everyone on the block gets along well, just like Gallegos and Niedringhaus. There are certain things they have all learned not to talk about, just like relatives at a holiday dinner.
But for the most part, it’s something of a puzzlement to many on the block that they are so politically divided, because, in almost every other way, their values and goals seem so similar.
Democrat or Republican, most of them paid a premium to move to this block so their kids could go to McLean High School, where, as Kathleen Delano puts it, “it’s cool to be smart.” (Older folks on the block, including original owners such as Gallegos, paid as little as $27,000 for their homes; new arrivals paid north of $700,000 for the same houses.)
Left or right, they believe they have an obligation beyond themselves, whether it’s Delano hurrying out after work to buy roses for Senior Night at the high school, or Ellie Wegener organizing the neighborhood crime watch.
Gallegos and Niedringhaus, for example, are both Catholic, both doting parents, both committed to service — he travels to Eastern Europe to teach baking through a U.S. government-funded nonprofit, and she works at a Catholic social justice lobby. But their politics could hardly be more opposite.
Gallegos believes the federal government is poking its fingers into too many aspects of life, such as contraception — he was appalled by the Obama administration’s move to require religious organizations that oppose birth control to cover its costs for their employees.
“Little by little, they encroach and tell us what to do, and soon the country won’t look the same,” says Gallegos, 90, for many years a McLean fixture as the owner of Lee Bakery. (He used to pick blackberries where the Tysons Corner Center mall is now; back in the 1950s, that land was available for $100 an acre, but, as Gallegos laments, “I didn’t have $100.”) “I talk to people on the other side and I just don’t understand how they can believe what they do.”
Niedringhaus, 63, believes the government is right to protect the rights of women to make their own decisions about their health; in fact, she wishes President Obama had been more forceful about protecting rights, such as those of immigrants.
“It’s sad that it’s all become so divisive,” says Niedringhaus, who was raised Republican. Her adult son is autistic, and she drives him to an acting class with a woman who has Down syndrome and is a strong Romney supporter. “Every time I pick her up now, she says, ‘It’s okay, we can still be friends, right?’ even though we’re supporting different candidates. I have to reassure her every time: ‘Yes, of course we’re still friends.’ ”
Up and down the block, people have theories about why their neighbors support the other party. Some Romney voters think Niedringhaus is a Democrat because her son needs support. Some Obama voters think Gallegos is a Republican because he’s wedded to church doctrine.
Obama supporters on Wrightson Drive are still enthusiastic about the president, although most say he has fallen short of their hopes — by failing to push for immigration reform, by not being more assertive in his support of Israel, by not putting more emphasis on job creation from the start of his term.
Romney supporters along the block are even less enamored of their candidate. They were for Rick Santorum or Herman Cain or Just Somebody Else during the primaries, but they’ve made their peace with Romney, and they like that he was successful in business. Mostly, they’re ready for a change.
The reasons people give for their choices aren’t necessarily born of policy or personal philosophy. Sometimes, political leanings are inherited or acquired by marriage.
Sandra Buckman will vote for the first time next week; originally from Costa Rica, she’s a new citizen and is for Romney in part because she sees eye to eye with her husband, a native-born Republican, and in part because she’s frustrated by the economy’s stagnation, which has left her family with “zero equity in this house even after we’ve been here for seven years. We’re stuck, and President Obama hasn’t done anything. I thought he had great charisma and could bring everyone together. I don’t understand why he never even tried to do that.”
Next door, Kathleen Delano, who bought her house out of foreclosure two years ago, grew up in northern New Jersey, where her family taught her that the Democrats were the party of the common people. She has stayed with the party even though she realizes that “my personal well-being might be better served by Republicans. I just can’t see voting just for what’s better for me. I see this wave of intolerance and suppression of women and speech and opposition to gay marriage and other rights, and I can’t see how people can accept that from the Republicans.”
Delano, who directs business development for a law firm, cannot fathom why some of her neighbors blame Obama for stagnant home prices. “I mean, people whine a lot,” she says. “It’s ironic that they blame the Democrats for the economy when this all happened under Republicans. But you know, it’s all a matter of looking at the world from different directions.”
Her son, Sam, who is 15, has lots of friends from Republican families and came home one day upset about the national debt and the burden it will place on his generation. His mother sat him down and talked about the obligations government has toward people who can’t do for themselves. Still, she was glad he was learning how other families see the world.
“Civil discourse is alive and well in McLean,” she says. “I moved here because I wanted my son to grow up in a place where people talk to each other and care about each other. People here appreciate a hierarchy of values where the Golden Rule is higher than any political divide.”
And if the wrong party wins, well, the older folks on Wrightson Drive have seen administrations of every stripe come and go, and there’s one thing they can agree on: The politicians will do their thing and life will go on.
Wegener, a die-hard Democrat: “It won’t be as dire as some think it could be. The system has a way of curtailing excesses.”
Gallegos, a rock-ribbed Republican: “Home prices will come back, things go in cycles. The Chinese have a proverb: You got a big problem, just give it time.” With that, he offers a visitor a just-baked cookie. It’s the neighborly thing to do.