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Local voters weigh in on Obama victory

The 2008 presidential election in Savannah

By Leigh E. Rich

If the local election-watching parties were any indication, the 2008 U.S. presidential election held few surprises for Savannahians.

Civility dominated the low-key atmosphere at The Mulberry Inn on Bay Street, where Chatham County Republicans waited for results. A small but hopeful crowd gathered in the hotel’s lobby, engaging in quiet conversations and, at times, wandering down the hall to visit with local GOP candidates who watched election returns in private suites.

It was a win for U.S. Congressman and incumbent Jack Kingston, who beat Democratic contender Bill Gillespie in the 1st congressional district (CD), but a loss for John Stone, who went up against U.S. Rep. John Barrow in the 12th CD. Chatham County Commissioners Helen Stone, Patrick Farrell and David Gellatly held onto their seats, while David Lock lost to Larry Chisholm as district attorney.

Although they walked the crowd at various points during the evening, the Republican candidates—and any enthusiasm for presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain of Arizona—were kept under wraps for most of the evening.

Less than a mile away on River Street, Savannah Democrats couldn’t contain themselves. Hundreds convened at Malone’s and celebrations began shortly after the polls closed. An upbeat din filled the bar, as Barack Obama supporters ate, drank, danced and posed for pictures with a life-sized cutout of the U.S. senator from Illinois. The political party-goers cheered at even the slightest indication Obama was taking a state or pulling ahead.

Gillespie and campaign finance director Natalie Von Loewenfeldt joined the revelry before returning to their headquarters on Tybee Island. Other Democratic candidates were absent, with Barrow at the Marshall House on Broughton Street and Chatham County Commission Chairman Pete Liakakis, who beat Republican John McMasters, at the Hilton DeSoto on Liberty Street.

Despite unrealized hopes that Georgia would go blue on Nov. 4, festivities at Malone’s spilled into River Street just after 11 p.m. when Obama was projected the winner.

But some Hispanics in Savannah, even those elated by his win, are approaching Obama’s victory in the presidential race with caution.

Patricia Zaldivar of El Salvador wasn’t surprised by the outcome of the election and believes the United States is ready for a change from the Bush-Cheney years. “People are so tired of everything that’s been going on.”

An Obama supporter, even though some of her family in Florida pulled for McCain, she nonetheless gives President George W. Bush a little leeway. “Obama reminds me so much of FDR and Bush reminds me of Hoover. It wasn’t all Hoover’s fault the country went downhill.”

Zaldivar is also reserving judgment about the next president until after Obama takes office on Jan. 20, saying she is looking forward to hearing more concrete plans for the country, especially in relation to the war in Iraq, health care and education.

“He hasn’t been specific about this change rhetoric he’s using,” says this future teacher who will complete a degree in middle-grades education from Armstrong Atlantic State University in the spring.

Chomba Bonita of Panama, who voted for McCain, agrees. Bonita, who asked to use a pseudonym, has lived in the United States for more than 20 years and was glad to see so much interest in the recent election, calling voting a “civic duty” and a “privilege.” Still, Bonita cautions, “We cannot put all our dreams and everything all on one man. He’s not God. … He is a regular man.”

Change, she adds, has to come from within each of us. “We cannot get it all in the elected person.”

Pro-life and family-oriented, Bonita says she bases her vote on the platform and the issues, rather than the party or the person. For her the 2008 election was not an issue of race but, rather, whom she felt was the best candidate for the country. And while she is concerned how a Democratic majority in Washington will affect abortion and gay marriage, she appreciates Obama’s roots and his work as a community organizer.

Because of the president-elect’s close relationship with his grandmother, who died the day before the election, Bonita is hopeful Obama will prioritize the issue of health care in the United States, especially for the elderly.

“It’s hard for them (to) make ends meet,” Bonita says of her elderly friends. “(Obama) knows this firsthand, and I know he’s going to work on that.”

According to Mariela Orellana of Chile, the most pressing issues for families in the United States are the economy, health care, housing and food—“Maslow’s basic needs”—especially for the working class, whom she deems the foundation of American society.

It’s similar to growing flowers in a planter, she says, which require good soil and nutrients in order to thrive. “We need to till that garden.”

Because of Obama’s background as a community organizer and his wife’s push for volunteerism, Orellana sees both Barack and Michelle putting the basic needs of American communities first and helping, rather than punishing people who are less fortunate or overwhelmed by social challenges.

“I am feeling rather proud these days of being a Democrat,” Orellana says. “Bush never, in my opinion, put country first. I feel prouder than ever about my views.”

How the current U.S. economy will affect people also worries Ana Zurita, a teacher at Savannah Country Day who is originally from Spain. Many Hispanics, she says, particularly those working in the service industry, landscaping, gardening and construction—“everything not under contract”—are often “the last in the chain” and “the first to suffer.”

Such industries and services “are luxuries in times of crisis.”

Orellana, who has lived in Savannah for 10 years and is the president of Community Navigators and Interpreters, liked former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina in the primaries, mainly because Edwards made tackling poverty a priority.

Rafael Sánchez of Puerto Rico, who asked to use a pseudonym, was originally pro-Edwards as well, in part because he felt that Edwards, as a Southerner, would bring in Southern votes for the Democrats. “It turns out Obama has done that.”

“I connect with people who are eloquent,” Sánchez adds, emphasizing that being well spoken and educated are very important in a leader. “Obama is a close second (to Edwards).”

Similarly, Zaldivar deems Obama’s victory not just a win for diversity but also a celebration of literacy and education. “He’s also an image of that, and I think that could get us on the right track in education.”

Together with new First Lady Michelle Obama, Zaldivar thinks Obama’s election is “giving us room to change who we admire. … He’s real but he’s an intellectual, too, and I think it’s about time to have an intellectual running this country and not a frat boy.”

But it’s not just about the United States, the Democratic supporters say. Electing Obama has positive repercussions internationally, as well.

“It’s more than Americans can grasp,” says Zurita, who supported Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York in the primaries. People in the world “want a change” in the U.S. government and its policies for the sake of international security, the global economy and worldwide issues such as the war in Iraq and global warming.

“The rest of the world is looking at this election as if it’s their own election. … I vote for Obama just for the hope the rest of the world can have.”

As for how an Obama administration will affect Hispanics, both Democrats and Republicans lament that U.S. politicians often lump Spanish-speaking people together, with no regard for cultural, generational and individual differences.

“I don’t know about Obama,” Bonita says. “I don’t know if he knows anything about Latin America. … Latin America is not Mexico. Even though we speak the same language, we have different customs and they can’t bunch us all together.”

Bonita suggests political leaders learn more about Spanish-speaking cultures worldwide. Census reports estimate Hispanics will make up 25% of the U.S. population by mid-century and 40% by the end of the century.

On the other hand, Zurita emphasizes that “Latinos are the same as any American,” explaining that, within any community, differences occur based on socioeconomics, class, education, religion and power.

Voters’ and candidates’ views on immigration are also a moving target, these Savannah Hispanics add. What media pundits once thought would be a primary—and polarizing—issue in the election was quietly ignored.

“I can’t find an answer to it and I know the government can’t either,” says Zaldivar, who’s been in Savannah for nearly four years. “But they have to. They can’t keep people in limbo.”

While immigration isn’t her main concern, one aspect does bother Bonita: “Separating families, that’s very hard.”

And despite stereotypes that all U.S. Hispanics are religious and therefore pro-life and anti-gay marriage, differences occur on these issues, too. Zaldivar is pro-choice and supports gay marriage, and Orellana and Sánchez both wish U.S. politicians would be more respectful of people’s personal lives and separating church and state.

“That’s the one thing I don’t like about politicians, even Obama. They bring in religion,” Orellana says. “I wouldn’t want the government to be telling my church what to do. I wouldn’t want my church leaders telling my government what to do. That’s a big problem I have with this country.”

Like Zurita, Sánchez also takes issue with compartmentalizing populations into ethnic groups, which he believes leads to tribalization. He likes Obama because of the president-elect’s multiracial and multicultural upbringing. “(Obama) knows what it’s like not to fit in and to be different.”

That can be generalized to other groups, Sánchez adds.

Zaldivar calls Obama “proof that our government is becoming more representative of the people we have living here. But he needs to take it a step further.”

Regardless of whom they supported, all agree that electing Obama marks a new path for the United States.

Orellana was proud to be a poll watcher at the First African Baptist Church, which was a stop on the Underground Railroad during the Civil War. As for whom she thinks will be the first Hispanic U.S. president, she couldn’t say. But “it will probably be a Republican.”

The 2008 election even reminded Bonita of stories her father tells about working for the Canal Zone Government in the 1950s when the Jim Crow segregation the United States brought to Panama separated whites from blacks and local workers. Even their pay was demarcated: Beginning in 1903, the former received gold and the latter silver.

Bonita says her father would tell his U.S. coworkers: “One day you’re going to have a black president.”

Rich, L. E. (2008, December 3). Local voters weigh in on Obama victory. La Voz Latina, pp. 28–30.

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