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Tempers flare in polarized Akron

Posted: Monday, Nov 5th, 2012


The Romney Victory Center, in Stow, Ohio. (Photo by Daniel Linger).


AKRON, Ohio — I’m staying in a Westside house on a beat-up street near Krispy Kreme, an Akron landmark dating from 1939. An old high-school acquaintance asked me, “Don’t you know that’s a dangerous neighborhood?” This tongue-in-cheek question referred to the fact that the area has become overwhelmingly African American and thus is often presumed by white people like me to be inherently perilous.

You can easily buy donuts around there, but to buy real food you have to travel miles. The near west side has hollowed out, as vast gleaming zones with supermarkets and malls have spread beyond the city limits. The far-flung areas are largely white. Much has changed since I left Akron at 16, but Akron remains a highly segregated city, its residential patterns still painted in stark black and white.

In the Krispy Kreme domain, there are blue Obama signs, but there and in other neighborhoods that I explored, Romney is nearly invisible. The Obama campaign office on West Market Street is a bright hive of activity. Volunteers of all ages and colors make calls and sign up for canvassing, and visitors come from all over.

One day when leaving there I ran into Kamala Harris, California’s attorney general. “Vote early!” has been the Obama team’s guiding principle. There is no Romney campaign office in the city of Akron. At the Summit County Board of Elections, where early voting is taking place, I found Obama volunteers at each entrance, handing out sample Democratic ballots. Most cars stopped and took one. No Republican workers were present.

So where are the Republicans? I walked over to the University of Akron Student Union, looking for telltale signs of student Romney supporters: a button, a T-shirt. Nothing. There was no Romney campaign table, but Obama volunteers had set up in the union concourse. One told me there was a Romney advocate who often walked by. “There he is!” she said, pointing to a young, thin man in an orange shirt and glasses. It was like spotting a rare bird in a Watsonville slough.

Ted Talevski, 20, is a junior majoring in computer information systems. Like Bob Ferguson, the shoemaker I wrote about previously, he’s a graduate of Akron’s Ellet High. Economically speaking, Ellet is an average Akron neighborhood, but it’s atypical in terms of race: Ellet is more than 90 percent white (Akron as a whole is just over 60 percent). Mitt Romney’s arguments have persuaded Ted. He preferred Ron Paul, but anyone would be better than Obama.

Ted recently lost a good friend on Facebook over a political posting he made. He thinks the campus is biased. His business teacher once informed her class that she was a Romney supporter, shocking the students. Ted announced, “I’m cool with that,” and they looked at him as if he were crazy too. He thinks Romney will win Ohio and the election, maybe by a landslide.

In Akron’s more affluent enclaves, there are more Romney backers. I drove out on Portage Path, past a row of mansions. Romney-Ryan signs appeared. In Fairlawn Heights, another tony area, there were more. If you want to find evidence of Romney support in the city of Akron, go to the one-percenter neighborhoods.

North of Akron is a band of white, well-off suburbs including Cuyahoga Falls (alias “Caucasian Falls”), Munroe Falls, Silver Lake and Stow. All have incomes well above the Akron city average.

Romney recently visited Cuyahoga Falls to drum up votes, and last week Ann Romney staged a Women’s Victory Rally in Strongsville (94 percent white). The GOP’s Summit County Victory Center, the Romney campaign office closest to Akron, is in Stow (95 percent white).

The day I visited, the Victory Center had a somnolent atmosphere. Nine or 10 middle-aged and older people, all white, were making calls to registered independents and Republicans. Lance Reed, the director, suggested that I speak with “Doc,” one of the volunteers.

Doc was Harvey Weil, 75, a retired gynecologist and obstetrician from Fairlawn Heights. Campaign workers in both parties were often cautious around me, but Dr. Weil was candid.

“Obama’s a scumbag,” he declared. Jews vote overwhelmingly Democratic, but not Weil, a member of the Jewish Republican Coalition. Weil’s two main issues are the economy and foreign relations. Obama “puts everyone on the dole.” He’s blown our tax money and raised the debt. He’s abandoned our allies and has lost all credibility in foreign policy. He’s an “amateur with a group of hippie friends.” And all those Jews supporting Obama are “oddball left-wing nut jobs.”

I exactly fit his profile of an oddball left-wing nut job, but I let it pass.

The election, Weil prophesies, “will be nip and tuck, but we’re going to fire Obama.”

So where do things stand in Ohio? It’s a bare-knuckle fight. Class and race seem paramount, though philosophies, sensibilities, obsessions, and social and religious concerns play their part. Akron and other gritty northern Ohio cities will vote Democratic.

The white suburbs, rural areas, and southern Ohio will mostly go for Romney. Ohio is split, down to neighborhoods and sometimes neighbors. Antagonisms are close to the surface. A woman told me only half in jest that she is “taking notes” on those who have yard signs favoring an enemy candidate.

There have been egregious attempts to suppress votes. Ohio Republicans tried to nix voting during the pre-election weekend. The courts rejected that Republican move, and Sunday’s lines were very long, in Akron and elsewhere in the state. Ohio’s early voting has reportedly strongly favored President Obama. But the election day turnout is uncertain, and the air here is thick with premonitions of confusion, challenges and chicanery at the polls. The lawyers are gearing up.

Tonight — let’s hope! — Ohio’s votes will be counted, and counted fairly, and we will finally know, at the end of this draining, tense campaign, who is to be our next president.

•••

Daniel T. Linger is a semi-retired anthropology professor from UC Santa Cruz and lives in Santa Cruz. He thanks “all those in Akron who confided in and assisted me in this series of reports.”

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