January 27, 2008

Prospect of change, hope drives local voters to the polls

Through the cold air, with steamy breath, came three words. "Change." "Hope." "America."

Those words were said over and over again at the Boyd Hill community center voting precinct. Those words came from the driver's side window of a Mercury Marquis, where inside at the wheel sat 70-something year-old Margaret Leach. In the passenger side sat her son, Bernard. Both disabled. Both black. Both were so committed to vote, even though they couldn't walk inside, they happily let poll workers bring the machines out to them.

"A voteless people is a hopeless people," Bernard Leach said. "You don't vote, how can you complain? I want change in this country. I want hope for people."

Both voted for Barack Obama.

"One person can change things in America, and he's the one," Margaret Leach said.

Then from a white SUV driver's side window the words "hope" and "change" came again. Added in was "history." This time, from a 32-year-old nurse named Shakina Middleton. Saturday's Democratic presidential primary had a black candidate, a woman and a white Southern son of a mill worker.

"So many barriers are coming down, in this election with an African-American like me and a woman like me," Middleton said.

Middleton and her friends and co-workers of both races talked for days about how to vote, and why. Race was an issue, she said, as was gender. The discussion went into late Friday night. The only issue that trumped all was America.

"It all came down to who can bring change and hope to this country," Middleton said. "I voted for Hillary. But this is a win-win situation. Regardless of the outcome. I am so proud to be a part of it."

In the Rock Hill City Council election last year, not a single voter came to the polls at Boyd Hill. None. On Jan. 19 in the Republican presidential primary, 268 people voted there. Hundreds more came out Saturday. The precinct encompasses apartments and houses, with a mix of black and white voters.

I asked many about why they came, who they voted for, whether race made a difference. There was a consensus -- and this was no scientific survey by any means -- that race played a role for many. But "change" and "hope" and "America" was far more important.

Take voters Jennifer Gray, 32, and Tim Schleining, 33. Both are white. She chose Hillary Clinton, him John Edwards. Each said they only chose after taking an online questionnaire about all three candidates late Friday night.

"A truly unbiased decision, based on who I liked best for America," he said.

Sam Dixon, 48 and his wife Glenda, 46, are black voters. Sam Dixon said he chose Obama, but not because of race. Because it is his duty to vote, a duty he said was rekindled for many Saturday.

"I know so many people who either registered to vote, or voted for the first time in years, because this is a historic election," he said.

Gloria Staley, 76, said having a black candidate was important to her and she voted for Obama.

"My great-grandparents couldn't vote because of their race," she said.

Her husband, Bobby Staley, 76, a 20-plus year Navy veteran, said race didn't affect his vote.

"My concern ... for all these years that I have voted has always been what is best for my country, period," Bobby Staley said.

And Bobby Staley didn't say who he voted for. He pointed at his wife. "I'm not even telling her."

A lady named Debbie Smith, who is black, said she had her neighbor watch her children for a few minutes so she could run out and vote.

"Too important for America not to," she said. "I voted for Barack Obama. He deserves a chance."

I started to ask about race. "Race had nothing to do with it," she said.

She left to care for her kids, who will inherit the America of all of us.

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