Michael Sokolove






Warrior Girls

 

 

 

The Transformation of Levittown

Published in New York Times "Week in Review"
November 8, 2008

Early on Election Day morning in the Philadelphia suburb of Levittown, Pa., Joe Sinitski, 48, stood in a long line inside a school gymnasium, inching his way toward three blue-curtained voting machines. He wore jeans, a sweatshirt and a National Rifle Association baseball cap. He said he would vote for Barack Obama, a choice that some months earlier he could not have imagined.

“I have to admit, his race made my decision harder,?he said. “I was brought up that way. And I don’t like his name. I’ll admit to that, too.?br>
Mr. Sinitski, a heating and air-conditioning technician, repeated a joke he had heard back in the spring about the choice in the Democratic primary between a black man and a woman (Hillary Rodham Clinton), and he used a crude term for each. But when I asked him how he might feel to wake up the next morning to the reality of a black president-elect, he said: “I do think it’s an historic election. Part of me feels like it would be really cool.?br>
Political pollsters track trends and changes within big blocs of voters. What they do less well is catch the complicated, ever-evolving and often conflicted feelings within individual voters.

Levittown had been Hillary country all the way ?it gave Mrs. Clinton roughly three out of every four of its votes in the Pennsylvania primary in April. In doing so, it conformed, in some ways, to its history and stereotype. William Levitt built the vast postwar development in the shadow of a giant United States Steel plant, some 17,000 homes sprawling across three Pennsylvania townships and one borough. He would not sell to black families.

According to the latest United States census, just 2 percent of Levittown’s current 54,000 residents are African-American; about an equal percent are Hispanic. The community is overwhelmingly Democratic, but filled with older whites who did not attend college ?the so-called Reagan Democrats who in recent presidential elections have been the voters most likely to swing between parties.

I grew up in Levittown, and in the spring had returned there before the Democratic primary to write about how Mr. Obama’s message of hope and change was connecting with its blue-collar population. It wasn’t. My article in The New York Times Magazine reported that his words were coming across as lofty and abstract to people more attuned to concrete concerns like the hourly wage and the monthly car payment. The article was published on the morning before Mr. Obama made his one big gaffe of the campaign, telling attendees at a San Francisco fund-raiser that some blue-collar voters have been so beaten down that “it’s not surprising that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion... .?br>
The timing of those remarks and the article were not coincidental. That evening in San Francisco, in the instant before committing what he would later call “my biggest boneheaded move,?Mr. Obama had been ruminating on his struggles to win over white working-class voters, and said, “there were intimations of that in an article in the Sunday New York Times today ?kind of implies that it’s sort of a race thing.?What I wrote had seemed to hit at a deep frustration of Mr. Obama’s ?his inability to reach a certain segment of voters. Some of the reason for that was his manner of speaking; but in some measure, for sure, his failure to persuade white blue-collar voters was based on his mixed-race heritage.

I traveled again to Levittown on Election Day to see how people would vote and how they would respond to what looked like an imminent Obama victory. The contrast from the spring ?and, in fact, this new vision of Levittown compared with what I had known in my childhood ?was almost breathtaking.

“Obama,?said the ironworker, when I asked how he’d be voting.

“Obama,?said the plumber.

“Obama,?said the chef.

And on and on. Military moms. Vietnam veterans. Abortion opponents. College students and retirees. Bank tellers, pipe fitters, officer workers, machinists, meat cutters, boilermakers and carpenters.

I spent Election Day at a voting site inside the Magic Cottage preschool in a section of Levittown called Appletree, where Mr. Obama would defeat Mr. McCain, 682-388, a ratio slightly higher than the Democratic registration edge in that precinct. Not a single one of the more than 60 Obama voters I talked to said they had voted for him in the spring. Some said they had come around slowly, and many reported that they had been open to Mr. McCain.

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These were the voters whom Mr. McCain was targeting when he made a big bet on Pennsylvania, investing money and a substantial amount of his time and the time of his running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin. But Mr. McCain’s message, to the extent it was received at all, irritated them. The Democrats of Levittown did not defect ?they stayed in the fold, and then some. Over all, in the four municipalities that Levittown spans, Obama got a slightly higher percentage than John Kerry did in 2004, and because of higher turnout, emerged with a 3,200-vote greater margin of victory. (Levittown is defined by ZIP codes and Levitt-built homes, but is not its own incorporated town. Large parts of it extend into towns with large white working-class populations ?Bristol, Middletown and Falls Townships, as well as Tullytown Borough ?but it does not make up the entirety of any of those places. In those four jurisdictions, Obama defeated McCain, 41,110 to 25,034 ?contributing to his resounding 11-percentage-point victory in Pennsylvania.)

“McCain pointed a lot of fingers instead of giving answers,?Steve O’Connor, a plumber, told me.

Mr. Obama’s message, on the other hand, seemed like it had entered some voters by IV injection. “I don’t want a clone of George Bush,? Mark Maxwell, 47, a corporate chef, said. “With McCain, that’s exactly what we’d get.?br>
Said Lisa Winslow, a 20-year-old college student: “I’m not rich. I can’t afford to vote for McCain.?br>
What had changed for Mr. Obama? The financial meltdown obviously made a huge difference. Five more months of exposure to him, and his millions of dollars worth of advertisements, engendered a comfort level. And Iraq, to a much greater extent than the pre-election polls implied, mattered. Nearly every Obama voter I talked to mentioned it, and many linked it to the economy.

“We’re like a trillion dollars in debt and spending what, $10 billion a month on the war??said Andrew Brehaut, 25, a waiter.

Levittown is filled with a great many veterans of the Vietnam War, not all of whom served happily. “I didn’t want to be there when I was told to go,?said Frank Carr, 62, who recently retired from his shipping job in a corrugated box factory. “I know how the boys feel. I believe Obama is a man of his word.?br>
When Mr. Obama says he is going to bring home the troops, “I believe him,?Mr. Carr said.

Before Mr. Obama emerged on the national scene and began winning primaries, few people would have predicted Americans were on the verge of elevating a person of African descent to the highest office in the land, or that they would have to confront any reluctance they might have about accepting black leadership. The nation was transformed on Tuesday, but what had to occur first was the transformation of individual voters.

A lot of people in Levittown needed the five months between the primary election and Tuesday to get used to a new idea. After Mrs. Clinton’s defeat, followed by a financial crisis that shook Americans to the core, they came to terms. If Mr. Obama’s race had been a factor, they eventually had to weigh it against other concerns.

“For a long time, I couldn’t ignore the fact that he was black, if you know what I mean,?Mr. Sinitski, the heating and air-conditioning technician, told me. “I’m not proud of that, but I was raised to think that there aren’t good black people out there. I could see that he was highly intelligent, and that matters to me, but my instinct was still to go with the white guy.?br>
Mr. Sinitski said what pushed him toward Mr. Obama, more than anything, was McCain’s vice-presidential choice of Mrs. Palin. “She might be a great person, but I had never heard of her before and I couldn’t see how such an unknown should be put one heartbeat from the presidency,?he said, “especially with all the problems we’ve got. I didn’t feel it spoke well for McCain. It didn’t demonstrate intelligence on McCain’s part and it just didn’t reflect well in general on him.?br>
Tina Davis is the council president in Bristol Township, which has the highest concentration of Levittown voters. She said she had endless conversations with constituents who said they would not vote for Obama. “Most of them couldn’t give me a real answer why,?she said. “I had some of them reciting those stupid e-mails saying he was a Muslim. I’m pretty blunt. I would just say to them, ‘You’re against him because he’s black.??br>
She thinks some of those who argued with her and insisted till the bitter end that they would vote for Mr. McCain just stubbornly did not want to acknowledge they had changed their minds. In the end, she believes they ended up voting out of a different kind of fear ? fear for their own economic survival. Self-interest trumped racism. “They had to ask themselves if they wanted a really smart young black guy, or a stodgy old white guy from the same crowd who put us in this hole,?she said.

The people I met in Levittown were not on Mr. Obama’s e-mail list or among his donors, but they may be more likely than his younger supporters and more affluent ones to give him what he most desperately needs: time and patience. Like characters from the songs of one of Mr. Obama’s celebrity endorsers, Bruce Springsteen, many Levittowners have been weathered by life. They haven’t benefited from a lot of quick fixes. Others of his supporters say they’ll be patient, but I sensed these people really mean it. They were harder to sell, but they could end up being pretty loyal.

“How long did it take Bush to get us into this mess??Mr. Carr, the Vietnam veteran, asked. “It’s a lot easier to screw things up than to make them better.?br>
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: November 16, 2008
An article last Sunday about blue-collar voters in Levittown, Pa., who gravitated to Senator Barack Obama in the presidential election misstated the month of the Pennsylvania primary. It was April, not May.

Copyright ?2008 Michael Sokolove
 


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Michael Sokolove
author of The Ticket Out: Darryl Strawberry and the Boys of Crenshaw
and Warrior Girls
A contributing writer to The New York Times
Copyright ?2004-2013 Michael Sokolove

Drama High
to be released September 2013

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