Democrats Divided, Even at Dinner Table

By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 9, 2008

Jennifer Robinson's husband remained quiet when she lauded the virtues of Sen. Barack Obama, explaining how the Illinois Democrat's vision inspired her and gave her hope, how he, if anyone, could bring bipartisanship to a split country.

Paul Robinson never hushed his wife, never tried to dissuade her. He simply declared in an e-mail this week during a business trip that he would vote for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) for president.

"I sat there for a moment. Then I just wrote back 'Wow' in all caps, 'WOW,' " said Jennifer Robinson, 36, a politically active Fairfax City homemaker. "Just to see it in writing, to see it so final. You have a rumbling and a thought, but that shattered everything."

Just as Super Tuesday revealed a divide among the nation's Democrats, many households are finding loyalties split as the capital region prepares to vote in Tuesday's primaries.

Political experts measure the divide along gender, racial and ethnic lines. But a look at families shows the unbounded complexities of individual political identity. Within homes, lines have been drawn, sides picked. Paul Robinson, 37, a black man, chose the white female candidate. His wife, who also is black, chose the African American male candidate.

Political passions also divide generations.

Michele Chapman, 52, drove up to her house in Alexandria a few days ago and found two signs planted on her lawn: one for Clinton, whom she supports, the other for Obama, whom her son backs.

"I wish I smoked at that time, so I could get a lighter out" to burn the Obama sign, Chapman joked. The house is next to a traffic light, she said, so most people who stop see the signs. "They are sitting there saying, 'These people are confused.' "

As a woman who raised two children alone, Chapman said she likes Clinton because she has done a lot for children and lower-income families.

"I just feel she has more experience. She's had 35 years working for change," said Chapman, a retired school administrative assistant. As she spoke, her son, John, 26, sat next to her, laughing and shaking his head, a move that did not go unnoticed. "See, it just makes him crazy," she said.

John Chapman, president of Alexandria Young Democrats, said he and his mother were united in support of Clinton until he was drawn by Obama's energy and message.

"It's something new. What we've been doing in the past hasn't worked," he said.

As the director of a Fairfax after-school program, Chapman said he sees how the educational system is broken, and he believes that Obama would be the one to overhaul it. Clinton, he said, is more likely to maintain the status quo.

A few years ago, John Chapman was a gamer who spent hours in front of the television and cared little about politics, he said. Now he is immersed. As results from Super Tuesday rolled in, Chapman phoned his mother at midnight to brag about Obama taking more states.

"Here I am thinking he's been in an accident," she said. "He knew I was asleep. He knew I was getting up early the next morning. He's like, 'He's beating her, he's beating her.' "

The next morning, she fired back about Clinton taking more delegates.

The Garcias, Bolivian Americans who live in McLean, watch political coverage on separate televisions in separate rooms. Hortensia Garcia, 65, is for Obama now that former senator John Edwards is out. Her husband of 49 years, Zenon Garcia, 73, is for Clinton.

Zenon Garcia said that with the country in a critical economic moment, with the national debt about $9 trillion, he believes that Clinton's knowledge and willingness to compromise are needed.

"When we have these types of problems, can Obama manage it? My answer is no," he said in Spanish. He added that he agrees with his wife that Obama is intelligent and a good speaker but said he would make a better preacher than president.

"Please," his wife replied. "This man is going to run a country, not a church."

Whoever wins, Zenon Garcia said, it's going to be close.

"When you see two boxers in the ring, and you see a lightweight with a heavyweight, you know the heavyweight is going to win," he said. "In this case, you have two equal weights."

Hortensia Garcia said that Clinton is strong but that Obama has more enthusiasm. "Even though they may be equal weights," she said, "he'll win because he has a lot more strength."

Jennifer Robinson does not hide her political allegiances and, in truth, is loud about them. A framed picture of her and former Virginia governor Mark R. Warner (D) hangs in her office. A pile of yard signs for state Sen. J. Chapman "Chap" Petersen (D-Fairfax) sits in her driveway. The back of her minivan is dotted with Democratic-themed bumper stickers.

She said she knew that her husband was a strong supporter of New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, now out of the race, and that he liked Edwards. But to find out that Clinton would get his vote surprised her.

"I really did think at the last minute he'd see the light," she said, laughing. "I kind of assume he always agrees with me, but I'm finding out that's not a good assumption."

Paul Robinson sent the e-mail from Detroit in reply to a query from his wife. "I'm an Obama girl," she wrote. "Are you an [Obama] boy?"

That he wasn't, he said, came down to who could best play the political game.

"Hope is great," he said. "But I'd rather have someone who has been around the block."

He remembered casting his first vote ever for Bill Clinton, impressed that he "wasn't afraid of going to black neighborhoods and embracing people who didn't look like him." The couple keeps an autographed picture of the former president in the home office.

Whichever Democrat wins the nomination, Jennifer Robinson said, she revels in the possibility that a woman or an African American could win the presidency. "Susan B. Anthony and Martin Luther King are probably up there dancing a jig together," she said.

The couple's daughter Sydney, 6, the oldest of their three children, said she had heard of Clinton and Obama. When asked which she liked better, she played it smart.

"I don't know," she said, hopping downstairs to watch the Wiggles. "I can't decide."

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