Working-Class Whites

Blue-collar workers, such as these at New York's Ellis Island, have generally favored Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, but many in Bayonne, N.J., say they are not sure they will vote for her.
Blue-collar workers, such as these at New York's Ellis Island, have generally favored Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, but many in Bayonne, N.J., say they are not sure they will vote for her. (By James Douglas -- The Jersey Journal Via Associated Press)
By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 3, 2008

BAYONNE, N.J. -- Roxanne Zygmund is in many ways a typical daughter of this fading factory town. A descendant of Polish immigrants. "Bayonne-born and -raised," as the locals like to say. Enlisted in the military right after graduating from Bayonne High School. Worked for 15 years at the Military Ocean Terminal here before it shut down in 1999. Shuttles to a federal job in Manhattan. Worried about the high taxes. A die-hard Democrat.

And with Tuesday's primary almost at hand, she can't make up her mind.

"It's really tough," said Zygmund, who is 50 and divorced, with two grown children. "This is like the first year I'm so undecided."

She likes Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois. "He's so well-spoken. I think he'd be good at the job," she said. And she said she respects Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, but has reservations about former president Bill Clinton. "You know, he was good for the economy; the country was in good shape when Clinton was in," she said. "I had issues with that whole intern thing with Monica. . . . I didn't like that about him."

Voters such as Zygmund in cities such as Bayonne have been the backbone of Hillary Clinton's support in the Democratic primaries. Exit poll results from contested primary states so far show that she regularly scores better among working-class white voters -- those without college degrees, and those with incomes under $50,000. Obama's voters, by contrast, tend to be the more affluent, the college-educated and African Americans. Clinton has the beer drinkers; Obama has the wine connoisseurs.

But a random sampling of voters in beer-drinking Bayonne showed that many are lukewarm about her candidacy. And some of these hard-core Democrats seem to be willing to give Obama a serious look.

"I was brought up pure Democrat -- my dad was in politics for many, many years," said Brian Ahern, 40, who works for the local redevelopment authority and was enjoying an afternoon pint of beer at the Big Apple Sports Palace on Broadway Street, Bayonne's main drag. "When [Sen. Edward] Kennedy came out and endorsed Obama, that made a big impression on me. . . . I'm leaning towards him only because of that."

Bayonne, on a peninsula in Upper New York Bay, is a city of 60,000 people, mostly the descendants of Irish, Italian and Polish immigrants, with a median household income of $41,566. This is a city of long-timers and stayers, people who still live in the houses where they were born.

Once a major oil refinery and storage center, and home to the military shipping terminal, which employed thousands of people, Bayonne has fallen on hard times. The refineries are long gone, the terminal shut down as part of a military restructuring, and several factories have closed their doors.

Now Broadway Street hosts mostly fast-food chains and discount stores: $5 Shoe Factory, S&J 99 Cent Store and Broadway Dollar, boasting "everything $1 or less."

The biggest concern is the economy. Almost everyone mentions New Jersey's high taxes -- about to get higher if Gov. Jon S. Corzine (D) wins support to increase tolls on state roads. "They're taxing us to death here," said Joe Walejko, 57, a customer at the Big Apple who does construction work on houses. Walejko, from nearby Jersey City, rides a Harley, and is a hunter and a member of the National Rifle Association. He is undecided in the election, saying, "I'll see which way it flows."

Bob Fitzgerald, 52, will lose his job March 31, and his wife lost hers at the end of January. They both worked for AGC Chemicals Americas, which announced in September that it would be closing its Bayonne manufacturing plant and laying off 157 employees. The company blamed "poor market conditions and changing market structure." The city's former mayor blamed competition from Chinese and Russian chemical plants.

Over pints at the Big Apple, Fitzgerald, a registered Democrat, said he's paying close attention to the presidential contest, watching all the primary race results on Fox News. The main issue for him, he said, is the economy. "The war is receding now," he said. "It's like done and over with."

He prefers Obama. "I don't like Hillary," he said. "She's old school, and I don't like her demeanor. I think we need fresh ideas, and I think [Obama] has fresh ideas." He added: "A lot of my friends just don't like Hillary. We voted for Bill, but we don't like Hillary."

It's hard to pinpoint the reason Clinton is disliked here. Fitzgerald, when pressed, offered: "She flip-flops in her opinions too much. And I don't like national health care."

Next to Fitzgerald at the bar, his friend Rich Wisolmerski isn't convinced. "Obama will be eaten up by the rest of the world," said Wisolmerski, 55, whose family has been in the soda and beer distribution business here for three generations. "Most likely the Democrats are going to win. Whoever wins this is going to be the president."

"I don't like Hillary," he continued. "I don't like Bill Clinton. But at least she'll have a backup there to help her out. Obama will be eaten up."

Wisolmerski calls himself an independent, and he said that for the general election, "I think McCain is the man."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company