Sunday, May 11, 2008

Hillary's volunteers

Georgetown University law professor Heidi Li Feldman hits the road for Hillary, cross-posting at Taylor Marsh's site:
I am passing through Boonsboro, on the cusp of West Virginia. Not 100 miles from DC and we are in the Shenandoah mountains. Farms, cows. More cows. Getting out this way sparks many thoughts. ...
Actually, Dr. Feldman (since Boonsboro is just a few miles down MD-66 from my house) you're in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The Shenandoah Valley (like the river for which it is named) is south of the Potomac River, on the Virginia/West Virginia side.

But yeah, "farms, cows" -- although most people in rural areas nowadays aren't farmers and don't live on farms. They live in the small towns or in the new developments. Many are retirees, but others commute to jobs in bigger places like Frederick, Hagerstown, Martinsburg or the Dulles region. I commuted all the way from Hagerstown to DC (about 150 miles round-trip) five days a week for nearly five years. Dr. Feldman continues:
Literally just crossed into West Va. Crossed the Potomac after Antietam Battleground. Not far from Harper's Ferry where John Brown made abolitionism famous. Not a bad jumping off spot to fight for the cause. ...
Antietam National Battlefield Park, to be exact. I'd be happy to give you a guided tour sometime (my Facebook profile picture was taken at Burnside's Bridge). And abolitionism hadn't been exactly obscure before the perpetrator of the Pottawatomie massacre showed up in the Old Dominion. But I digress. Back to Dr. Feldman:
Headed straight to the Clinton campaign office. Just saw the first Clinton yard sign just outside of Shepardstown.
Shepherdstown, where I covered Hillary and Chelsea on Wednesday. Back to Dr. Feldman:
Campaign staff in Charlestown: Clinton roaring in other parts of West Va., but in this pocket, eastern area, things are tighter. So they were delighted to have us turn up. We headed out with signs and spirit. ...
Hit the campaign office in Charlestown, West Virginia at 3:30 or so. Focus for the day: visibility. Paint the town with a presence for Senator Clinton.
This is what's called a "honk-and-wave." Perhaps not the ideal way for a campaign to utilize the skills of a Georgetown law professor. The Eastern Panhandle is the most affluent part of West Virginia (lots of prosperous retirees), it's home to Shepherd University, and also has a larger black population than the rest of the state, so it is one of the better Obama regions. Other Obama bastions in the state are Morgantown (where the state university is located) and the state capital, Charleston (not to be confused with Charles Town). Dr. Feldman continues:
Erin and I, another out-of-stater who had arrived to help, gear up. I put stickers all over myself, grab a placard. Erin, grabs a big triple sign. The campaign asks us to go to Martinsburg, a town about 20 miles away. Nisha, the campaign rep, explains that there is a major mall there and they need us to get people's attention. . . . I slap a sticker on my forehead. But Erin makes me take it off, which I do only because she sticks some extras on my back.
At this point in the narrative, I was wondering: "Who's Erin?" Is she the "loyal spouse" referred to as providing "crucial help" in Dr. Feldman's personal blog? One of those "Massachusetts marriages"? Couldn't find enough biographical material online to confirm or deny such a suspicion, although Dr. Feldman does refer to her "calico catties," which means she's definitely . . a cat blogger. (Lesbians I can cope with. Cat-blogging law professors? Shudder.) Dr. Feldman continues:
Erin is a champion hand-waver. She just connects with the drivers who see her waving. Meanwhile, in my demure and shy way, I'm jumping up and down with my placard. Right away we get positive feedback: many folks -- of all ages and races (many blacks, many whites, some browns) -- give us a thumbs up. If they honk for Hillary, I do a little jig for them and that seems to make the next car inclined to honk too. Meanwhile, the brave Erin kindly continues to act like she knows me and is not afraid.
Of course, not everybody who sees us is so thrilled we are there. Most are courteous, a very few quite rude. The occasional person shouts to us, in a not unfriendly way, "I like Obama." To anybody who shouts out this difference of opinion in a civilized manner, I shout back: "Free speech -- I love that!" And I do. Often, the other person gives me a smile and a wave.
I like how Dr. Feldman makes mention of the diversity (blacks, whites, browns) of the passersby in West Virginia, as if to point out it's not all toothless hillbillies. I wonder if the "few very rude" reactions are (a) Obama supporters, or (b) Republicans who haven't gotten the "Operation Chaos" message yet. Dr. Feldman continues:
Martinsburg is a like a lot of towns in this country. There are literally two sides of the tracks. We are at the mall on the less wealthy side. The area is not poverty-stricken, but it is just the sort of place that needs somebody with Senator Clinton's economic plans and commitment to universal healthcare. And it is easy to see why Senator Clinton can win West Virginia in a match up against John McCain. These people seem down to earth, they know about needing energy and commonsense to solve problems. Senator Clinton's style and ideas definitely seem to resonate with them.
Among the reasons Martinsburg is not "poverty-stricken" is that, for starters, it sits alongside I-81, about 20 miles south of I-70 and about 40 miles north of I-66.

That is to say: Taxpayer investments in transportation infrastructure have helped spur economic development in the lower Shenandoah Valley. Down in Georgia, where I come from, every small-town Chamber of Commerce is all about roads, roads, roads, because they know that means jobs, jobs, jobs, which in turn means growth, growth, growth. Build good roads, keep the taxes low, educate your workforce, and the jobs will come. (Right-to-work laws are also a big help.)

Martinsburg has benefitted economically from its proximity to Virginia, which has followed the same "Sun Belt" growth strategy as Georgia, while politicians in West Virginia have been slow to figure it out. For so long, West Virginia was all about resource extraction, and seems to have developed a class-warfare politics with the mine operators and the UMW as the dominant competing interests.

But once coal-mining was mechanized (resulting in greater efficiency and fewer of those pick-and-shovel jobs) West Virginia seems to have had a hard time letting go of the industrial-era politics of the past. Thank God that Georgia had forward-looking political and business leaders, or Georgians would still be sitting around, poor as dirt, complaining about low cotton prices and the closing of the textile mills.

OK, so much for the lecture on political economy and post-industrial development. Back to Dr. Feldman:
I drove a a 30 or 40 mile circuit around the area today. Lawn signs everywhere: in front of homes, at intersections, alongside farmers' fields. Signs for mayoral candidates. Signs for people running for sheriff. Signs for people running for county clerk. And in one patch, big signs saying "No Zoning" - obviously in that area there's a ballot question on the issue! . . .
God bless the anti-zoning people. Zoning is fascism, a violation of property rights. Back to Dr. Feldman:
Saw some [signs] for Senator Clinton, some for Senator Obama. No clear majority either way, based on my entirely unscientific viewing. What stood out loud and clear was an absence of McCain signs - although there were a fair number of ones for Ron Paul. Guess what this means? Based on what I can see of their signs, the people of West Virginia are not jumping to vote for John McCain. But the Democratic Party has to give them a candidate they can get behind, who will bring them to the polls to vote Democrat in November.
We'll see. Counting yard signs in May isn't likely to tell us much about election returns in November. Paying too much attention to broad trends in partisan alignment can lead to overlooking the fact that elections come down to the candidates. A good Democratic candidate can win in a Republican state (e.g., Webb in Virginia) and a good Republican candidate can win in a Democratic state (e.g., Schwarzenegger in California).

Dr. Feldman's comment about the number of Ron Paul signs echoes the remarks of an Obama operative in West Virginia I spoke to last week. This operative, a young Harvard grad, was impressed with the level of support for Ron Paul he'd encountered in the state.

A big part of the Ron Paul boom is anti-war conservatives, and another part is hard-core First/Second Amendment types who don't appreciate being muzzled by McCain-Feingold. A big part is undoubtedly the libertarian "Potheads for Paul" factor: People who (a) like low taxes and (b) don't want The Man kicking down their doors to seize their weed. West Virginia is apparently home to a goodly number of these free-market aficionados of the illegal smile.

Ultimately, the 2008 presidential race may boil down to whether Ron Paul's "Weed, Not War" vote can be corralled by the former CIA man, former federal prosecutor, former Republican congressman, and National Rifle Association board member who authored the first congressional resolution to call for the impeachment of Mrs. Clinton's husband (before the Monica Lewinsky scandal). And Bob Barr is holding a press conference Monday.

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