It was election season 2008, and the flitting gaze of the nation’s political bloggers had rested — flittingly, albeit — on Philadelphia’s own neighborhood of Fishtown. It all started when an Obama canvasser wrote to Politico blogger Ben Smith, reporting that he had met a number of Fishtowners who’d used openly racist language — but who were nonetheless undecided when it came to who they’d support for president.
The tidbit was tantalizing for a few reasons, among them rampant speculation at the time over the so-called “Bradley Effect,” in which white voters misrepresent to pollsters their willingness to vote for a black candidate. Fishtown seemed to present a weirdly opposite scenario, in which (a few) white, working-class urban voters weren’t being particularly shy about race, but were possibly willing to overlook their own prejudice.
Intrigued, this reporter spent a few days in Fishtown right before that year’s election (“The Fishtown Effect,” Oct. 29, 2008), encountering not only cringe-worthy quotes — “It’s not that he’s black … it’s what the blacks will do if he wins that bothers me,” and, “First of all, he’s not all-black,” being a few examples — but also what seemed to be a genuine willingness to vote for the guy anyway.
This reporter also encountered, post-article, a hearty backlash from Fishtown residents who felt the characterization of their neighborhood as more racist than any other was unfair. Andrew “AJ” Thomson, then a Democratic committeeman in the neighborhood, was particularly annoyed, promising me that I’d see: Fishtown would come through for Obama, big time. At least, he was pretty sure it would.
He was right. The 18th Ward, which contains most of Fishtown, went roughly 80 percent for Obama, 20 percent for McCain, about the same level of support that it had given to the very white John Kerry in 2004. It might have been something of a Philadelphia moment — Fishtowners shuffling off stereotypes in an act of Democratic unity — but there were a lot of moments happening on election night, and the mood within Fishtown itself was hardly celebratory. As the sounds of jubilation exploded around the city, I remember very well walking through a Fishtown that I had never seen so utterly silent.
Well, it’s been four years — four long, hard years that have been especially long and hard for working-class people like many of the denizens of Fishtown, where unemployment is high and many good blue-collar jobs have vanished. So I wondered: Were Fishtowners still aboard the Good Ship Democrat?
“It’s mixed,” opined Billy, who was to be found last week, as he often is, holding down the bar at Bob’s Happy Hour Tavern on Frankford Avenue. People were disappointed in the last four years, he said, but he didn’t think they were about to rally for Mitt Romney. “I’m for Obama,” he added. His brother Brad agreed immediately, but nodded his head backward to their mother, who goes by “Mom” and owns the bar.
“Mom’s for Romney; ask her why,” Brad said, grinning wickedly and adding, in case I was missing the subtlety, that it had to do with race.
Mom denied this: “I don’t like Obama because he’s ignorant, he’s no good, he doesn’t know anything!” she declared, citing the president’s handling of the recent attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya, where four Americans were killed. Mom then told me that her son had been killed by a black man. It was a profoundly sad story — it had been a robbery, the shooting pointless — but its relationship to the rest of the conversation went unelaborated-upon.
Joe Wisniaski, 76 years old and a Vietnam War veteran, would have none of this. “Four people [dead in Libya]? Obama brought the troops back home from Iraq!” he declared from across the bar. “Romney wants to get us into war with Iran.”
He added beseechingly, “It’s better to make peace than war, Mom.”
Mom: “Yeah, yeah, yeah.”
More conversations — and a couple more bars — yielded commentaries that might not mean much statistically, but seemed to reinforce the idea that Fishtown was, more than anything else, weary.
Susan Chiancone, who grew up in the neighborhood, said she couldn’t bring herself to vote for Obama, though she had in 2008. “Four years that nothing changed?” she asked, shaking her head. “Uh-uh.” Her neighbors, she thought, would vote Democratic — but grudgingly.
Sharon Cervantes, serving beers at Les & Doreen’s Happy Tap, said she’s been a proud Democrat her entire life — but isn’t sure whether she’ll vote for Obama or not. “I don’t want Romney to win,” she said slowly (she has voted, carefully, in every election since she was 18). “I think he’s for the rich people.” But the mention of Obama caused a discernible scrunching of the face. Of her neighbors, Cervantes said, “They don’t know what they’re going to do.”
That the neighborhood might be in need of some political bucking up was suggested by a sign, posted prominently on the front door of the Fishtown home of now-former committeeman Thomson — the same person who had so lamented the attention paid to Fishtown last time around — in a kind of paean to Democratic values.
“This family was for Roosevelt; This family was for Kennedy; This family was for Clinton; This family is for Fairness; This family is for President Obama,” it reads.
The idea, said Thomson and his wife, Megan, was to emphasize the neighborhood’s general affinity with Democrats and Democratic values — over, one might surmise, the neighborhood’s particular affinity with Obama.
“The Democrats aren’t doing a good job reminding voters why this is the party for them,” Megan Thomson said. “I think the Republicans have led people to believe they’re going to create programs for them. But they won’t.”
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