By Kevin Merida
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 1, 2008
CHASE CITY, Va. Highway 47 winds past Elke's Dog Resort, past the big yard full of old tires and shiny hubcaps, and the barren, barbed-wired fields with horses in the distance. Like many small towns in rural America, this one has a Main Street, which you'll come to soon enough, and right there next to the Municipal Building is the first presidential campaign office that longtime residents can remember seeing.
Sen. Barack Obama's field office here was once a dress shop but is now the hub for a four-county voter turnout operation in Southside Virginia, where Democrats typically get clobbered. The roster of Democratic politicians who have been whipped in this region is impressive. Take Mecklenburg County, where Chase City is located: Jim Webb was beaten here by 19 points in 2006, Tim Kaine by 12 points in 2005, John Kerry by 16 points in 2004, Al Gore by 16 points in 2000. Even Mark Warner, the most successful Democrat of note in Southside Virginia, lost in Mecklenburg County en route to winning the governorship in 2001.
That Obama would open an office here, one of at least 49 across the state, is as much a curiosity as it is a symbol of the campaign's efforts to stretch the electoral map well beyond traditional Democratic territory. It is a strategy that is testing the relationship between politics and community, especially in small towns like Chase City, where the canvassers are local volunteers who often eat, pray and shop with those whose votes they are soliciting.
Gayle Clancy, who has lived here for 22 years and owns the Main Street Cafe, views the Obama office as a marvel, even though she never votes, will not vote next week, and considers politics a dirty business "all the way down to town politics." Still. "This is the first time I remember seeing a presidential campaign office since I've been living here. Absolutely. I was very, very surprised. I was like, 'Wow!' They're there until 10 o'clock at night sometimes."
Recently, the Obama campaign office had a bomb scare -- false alarm -- and the mere fact of it became a happening. A package received in the mail contained a smudged return address from Chevy Chase, Md., and because volunteers weren't expecting the parcel -- and had been alerted by the campaign hierarchy to report suspicious mailings -- local police were called. This set in motion a five-hour chain of events that included evacuating the office and an adjacent building, yellow-taping the block, calling in the Virginia State Police, the Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Department and the city's volunteer fire department and rescue squad, and notifying federal authorities.
"They even sent in the little robot," said Clancy. She was referring to the state's bomb-detecting robot, whose presence elicited oohs and ahhs from the gathered crowd. In the end, all the commotion was over a padded manila envelope containing Obama buttons and bumper stickers donated by a Montgomery County couple.
Volunteers working long hours to mine votes in Southside Virginia -- the region east of the Blue Ridge Mountains and south of the James River -- have had bigger problems than false bomb scares. Barry Carter, a small-business owner and chairman of the Occoneechee tribe in Virginia, bought 200 signs through the Democratic Party and put them up in the Clarksville area of Mecklenburg. He soon discovered that more than 150 of them had disappeared, and a handful more were slashed, he said. The peculiar thing, Carter noted, was that the Obama signs had been placed next to those of Democratic congressional candidate Tom Perriello, and his signs were untouched. "Both are Democrats. They're running on similar issues," Carter said of Obama and Perriello. "In our mind, it's a racial issue."
Carter reported the signs as stolen to the Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Department. "Every campaign, we have problems with signs somewhere," said Maj. James Snead, the chief deputy sheriff, who said patrols had been beefed up in the neighborhoods where the Obama signs had disappeared.
While a recent Washington Post poll had Obama with an eight-point lead in the state, the difficulties in Southside Virginia cannot be underestimated. Democrats have long struggled in rural America. According to polling data, Obama trails Sen. John McCain among rural voters both nationally and in Virginia, pulling 40 percent in the nation and 43 percent in the state. Those percentages roughly match Sen. John F. Kerry's performance in 2004.
The 5th Congressional District contains the heart of Southside, landscape that is both flat and hilly and steeped in history. This is where Robert E. Lee surrendered and Harry Byrd resisted school integration, where textile mills died and tobacco production is mostly a romantic memory. The district's politics are conservative, as embodied by six-term congressman Virgil Goode. Elected as a Democrat in 1996 -- perhaps the most conservative House Democrat in the nation -- he soon found political life too uncomfortable under his own party's banner and ran for reelection in 2000 as an independent. He switched parties in 2002, and has been running successfully as a Republican ever since.
McCain has but 21 offices in the state, and no heavy presence in Southside, but he has Goode and George Allen and Jerry Kilgore, all Republicans who have done well here. "We think we're going to do very well in all of Southside," said McCain spokeswoman Gail Gitcho. "They're always going to have more offices than us, more staff than us, more money than us. But we have our battle-tested staff and volunteers who know how to win Virginia."
Not many political observers are betting on Obama in Southside -- even Obama supporters are uncertain. But campaign spokesman Clark Stevens said making the effort is the point. "It's important for us to have a presence in as many communities as we can. We are out in areas that may be traditionally more Republican, but we are interested in connecting with as many voters as possible. Offices are about giving members of the community the tools they need and the information they need to make a decision on November 4th."
* * *
Chase City, 80 miles southwest of Richmond, is where the Obama campaign decided to concentrate its forces for the Southside battle. It is a town of 2,457 people, according to Census Bureau figures, and is 54 percent white and 45 percent black. Those demographics have not put a dent in the GOP hold on the region, but Obama volunteers are hoping that a surge in black voter turnout will help this time. Not to mention some surprises. Former longtime mayor A. Duke Reid, whom volunteers had counted as a McCain supporter, recently indicated he was backing the senator from Illinois instead. Looking back on his 10 years as mayor, Reid linked his service to what he believes Obama is trying to do through his candidacy. "I guess the biggest thing I've always wanted in Chase City is to make sure we had no racial divides," said Reid, who is white. "There's not a single black person in town who could say I'm pro-white."
Chase City sees itself as an ideal retirement community: simple but affordable, with Main Street all spruced up, courtesy of a state grant and a $1.2 million renovation. The downtown streets are freshly paved, the concrete sidewalks redone to look like painted brick, the new street lights are fastened with flapping banners that read: "A city for all seasons." Amid the modern polish is the gritty country charm: Mom-and-pop general stores where you can get gas and fried chicken. A pawnshop that advertises loans without credit checks and cash in 15 minutes. The hot debate in town is whether to back or derail a planned ethanol plant in the county. And the hot item at the Main Street Cafe is the pulled-pork sandwich.
Finch Parker remembers when Chase City had three car dealerships, a shirt factory, a shoe factory, a soft-drink bottling factory, a department store. Of course, Finch Parker is 92. "Years ago, you'd ride the street to find a place to park," he said. "People would come from other counties to shop. Every Saturday. You don't see that no more."
Things changed, and Parker bought a farm four miles outside of town, but he still comes into town. Every morning at 7, you can find him at the Main Street Cafe eating breakfast in his jeans and boots. That's been his ritual since his wife died in spring of 2007. Breakfast in town, life on the farm. And he still trail-rides horses.
"I don't get tied up in politics," Parker said. "I leave that to the other man. That way I won't make a mistake." But that doesn't stop the people in politics from coming to see him.
Obama volunteers have been to his farm on multiple occasions, trying to lock down this one vote. Parker, whom everyone in town seems to know, might bring others with him, the reasoning goes. The volunteers usually catch him out in his yard, sometimes playing with his dogs or horses. "They tell me I've gotten too old to be fooling around with horses," Parker recalled. They also tell him "how the United States is in terrible shape," courtesy of the Bush administration, he said.
Parker set up a ring in his yard so local kids could be taken around for a loop on one of his steeds, just like at a carnival. One day Obama volunteers showed up with their children to ride Parker's horse. You've got to give them credit for initiative, Parker said. But he's not sure about voting Obama, or voting at all. "I've just got to study it out. Figure it out," he said.
While Finch Parker was being worked on, Obama volunteers were also paying visits to William Thomas, who has one dental practice in town and another nearby. The first visit was about a month ago. He wasn't home; they talked to his wife. The second time was a couple of weeks ago. Thomas was out cutting his grass. He told the Obama volunteer then that he was undecided. "I think what I'd like to see is a little bit of both of them," Thomas said, referring to Obama and McCain. Of course, a split vote is not possible. Joe the Plumber and concerns about taxes going up in an Obama administration has Thomas leaning toward McCain.
The Obama volunteers -- as many as 100 work out of Chase City -- are not easily discouraged. Some put in eight to 10 hours a day. Some make 600 to 800 calls a day. Some wonder how they even came to be there. Madolyn Hayne had been retired for 12 years when she got a cold call from Obama field organizer Steve Spencer in August asking for her help staffing the office.
"What do you need me to do?" Hayne replied.
"Come up to the office," Spencer said, "and we'll let you know."
What she didn't want to do, she told him, was canvass neighborhoods, or work phone banks. But she used to be a secretary, and Spencer said that was exactly what the campaign needed: someone to log into a computer the record of voters reached by phone and whether they are for or against Obama or are undecided. That she could do, Hayne said. "I've never been involved in a campaign before. Never." She figures Spencer must have found her name on some Democratic list. "I never meant to work this hard," Hayne said, but the work somehow became infectious. "It's the best job I've ever had and the hardest I've ever worked for the least amount of money." Which is to say no money at all.
Some Chase City residents consider their participation a calling. "How did we get involved? We basically obeyed the spirit," said Jean Goode. "When the Lord says move, you move."
And move is something her husband does well, all over town, but slowly, deliberately. When the Rev. James Goode of Silone Baptist Church comes calling, folks listen.
* * *
Goode cruised past the Tastee Freeze, turned on Washington Street and pulled his silver '95 Bonneville to the curb. He left the motor running. Goode is 82 with curly white hair combed back. He has been a Democrat all his life, always remembering what his mother told him when he was a boy, after the family had suffered through the Great Depression: Never vote Republican because it will get you in trouble. "She was pretty much right," he said.
Curtis L. Jones, 69, was mixing paint on his porch when he saw Goode's car pull up. He came to the street to chat.
"I know you to be a Democrat," the preacher began, holding his lists of voters.
"I'm a Democrat," Jones replied, "but I told you I don't vote for nobody."
"You going to vote this year?" Goode continued.
"I'm too old now," Jones said. "I'll put it to you this way: I came up the hard way." And Jones started into his rap about the hard way, the odds growing up, the segregation, the lack of opportunity, etc.
Goode listened for a bit, patient, but finally cut him off. "Let's get back to Obama." Goode knew Jones, knew he was stubborn. Jones cut grass down at the church. Goode appealed to Jones's sense of history, and pleaded a better life for future generations.
"I know what you're saying, Rev. But I don't vote. My wife vote, but I don't. I ain't giving you no short answer."
Finally, Goode conceded. "Okay." He turned to leave and opened the door to his running Bonneville. One final thought, Goode had. "Will you say a prayer for him?" he called out to Jones.
Jones promised to pray for Obama, and mentioned again that his wife and sister-in-law would be voting for Obama, and then went back on his porch to stir paint. "No hard feelings," he shouted to Goode. "I hope y'all win."
Goode would make several more stops, hearing from a woman wearing a tattered robe who said she'd "probably" vote for Obama, and hearing from a man who desperately wanted Obama yard signs that were in short supply. He stopped to see Marvin Hatcher, the local fire chief who has a medical transport business and promised to provide rides to the polls. But as he was cruising back to the office, he kept thinking about Curtis L. Jones.
"He's a good guy," Goode said. "I thought he always voted. I can't figure out why he doesn't."
The preacher was thinking that maybe he'd make one more run at Curtis L. Jones before Election Day.
Polling director Jon Cohen contributed to this report.