On the streets of the Bronx, they favour Obama. But not with the passion they had four years ago

Speaking to voters from the poorest part of New York, our writer encounters affection and respect for the President but huge, lingering concern about job prospects

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Clemente Matos poured brown liquor from a bottle hidden in a paper bag into two cups. He sipped it and passed the other to Petey Porcher, a friend with whom he works jobs in construction now and then. Late on a Tuesday afternoon in mid-October in the East Tremont section of the Bronx, they sat on the hood of a grey camper van with green stripes, smoking Newport cigarettes and making jokes. The sky darkened as the day waned and Jéan Ebbesen, 83, watched the two younger men chatting. The conversation turned to politics, something they said they talk about often.

Matos, 39, expressed concern that Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney pledged in the first debate to cut back on funding to public television. He said that Republicans were a party that represented “the rich.” He then said that the last Republican in office, President Bush, had gone to war representing the oil interests of the wealthy and big corporations.

“It’s like the ’hood,” he said, imagining U.S. Government officials’ attitudes when they entered Iraq. “They’re like: why are we going to spend ours when we can take theirs?”

Porcher, 33, said that he supported President Obama because of his social agenda. “Obama’s trying to raise the middle class up,” he said.

At one point, Lydia Rivera, 22, walked by. Matos called out to her: “What do you think about Obama?”

“To be honest, I think he’s the spawn of Satan,” she responded.

“You know if Romney win, he’s gonna take away your benefits,” Matos replied.”

“I want Obama to win, then,” she replied.

Outside the West Farms subway station nearby there is a sculpture that is made out of wooden doors. Door upon rotting door is stacked in a card house pyramid. If the pyramid were a map of social structure, the residents of the Central Bronx would be placed somewhere near the bottom — according to the New York City department of health and mental hygiene, more people live below the poverty line in this district than the average for New York City and for the Bronx, New York’s poorest county.

Apathy

When Romney talked about the “47 per cent”, he was talking about areas like these. The Central Bronx contains a diverse mix of politics and opinions — apathy, fierce partisanship and even conspiracies abound. After the 2010 Congressional Elections, a George Mason University study showed turnout to be the lowest in the nation at 30.9 per cent. New York City’s was even lower, at around 28 per cent, according to a report by NYU’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. The same report shows that the Bronx has 14 census tracts that are in the bottom 10 per cent of voter turnout in the U.S.A.

According to the New York Board of Elections, only 3.37 per cent of one of the assembly districts in the Central Bronx, district 87 which includes West Farms, voted in primary elections in September 2012. In another, Assembly District 80, north of West Farms, which includes Morris Park and parts of Norwood, just under four per cent voted. Mark Gjonaj, who is the Democratic nominee for district 80 said that there is a great deal of voter disaffection in his district and that this is reflected in the figures.

“They may vote in a primary on Friday and the same problems will be there for them on Monday morning,” Gjonaj, 43, explained. “They no longer really think or believe that elected officials will deal with their problems such as quality of life, crime and education.” He said people must hold their politicians accountable, and that if elected he will try to listen to the needs of the community.

Even so, Costas Panagopoulos, a professor of electoral politics at Fordham University in the Bronx said a lot of minority voters, such as those in the Central Bronx, “still appear to be engaged in this election cycle.” He said voters in the area would still come out for the President even if they had doubts about the last four years. “Ideologically speaking, the President comes closer than the alternative, even though they may not be thrilled with the President’s performance,” he said.

A poll of 27 registered voters in the area in mid-October reflected these viewpoints. Only five said that they felt involved in the local political debate, while 17 indicated they felt involved in the national political debate. These people and others asked said that they believed Obama needed four more years to complete his job. Stacey Seville, an East Tremont resident who will vote for Obama, said:  “If he got four more years, he would make changes on a level that would permit people to survive.”

When asked why some voters were apathetic, some people said it was because politicians didn’t speak to the issues that concerned them. Just under half of the people interviewed thought that politicians spoke for issues specific to them. “They don’t really care — they want attention to detail, they want to be mentioned,” Sammy Martinez, 25, an insurance broker at State Farm on East Tremont Avenue explained. He and his colleagues, his brothers Darwin, 23, and Stalin Vasquez, 25, are all originally from East Tremont, but studied upstate at SUNY Binghamton where they were friends. They said young people in the area were getting more motivated politically because of the reach of social media and Obamacare provisions that affected young people directly such as the extension of the age that young people can stay on their parents’ insurance plans to 26.

“Being a direct beneficiary of something that Obama has done strengthens my inclinations to vote for him,” Darwin said.

Decline

Students make up a very different young demographic in the area. On the evening of the third debate, Gaby Ryan, 22, was watching in Mugz’s Bar on Arthur Avenue. Known as a Fordham student hangout, two rams’ heads, symbols of the University’s athletic teams, adorn the wall behind the bar. Ryan, who served for two years as a medic in the Army and is now studying at Fordham, was wearing a Romney pin, and berated the President’s performance on the television as well as the students playing beer pong on the tables behind her. “I think a lot of students fall along party lines — they vote for Obama because they think it’s cool,” she said. But Panagopoulos, the political science professor, said that he had been “impressed” by students’ political involvement.

John Walton, 27, also an Army veteran and a student at Fordham, agreed with Ryan that veterans’ rights were important, but said he wanted a third party option because he was worried about future wars. In the poll, twenty-three people said they supported Obama and two said they supported Romney — those two were business owners on Arthur Avenue, an enclave of people of Albanian and Italian descent. Many Albanians are Democrats. Gjonaj was “born and raised” on Arthur Avenue and is the first ethnic Albanian assemblyman in the Bronx, and Frank Halili, 26, explained that many Albanians favor the Democrats because, under President Clinton, the U.S. helped Albanians in Kosovo in the 1990s.

Others, like Patrick Domgjoni, 28, a partner in Michaelangelo’s Café and Restaurant, said that the economy concerns him the most of all, since he was forced to sell his diner in Detroit and move to the Bronx three years ago. “The economy is declining and it wasn’t the best three years ago,” he said. He said he thinks that the Republican Party will be the best one to revitalize the nation’s finances after the recession.

Twenty four per cent of residents interviewed said the economy was the most important issue in the upcoming election. Twenty-two of them said they thought Obama will be the best candidate to handle the recession. Even though Shawn Luke, 26, said that Romney might be a better economic leader, he said he was voting for Obama for ideological reasons. He lost his recording studio three years ago, and said that when the recession hit, his contracts just “dried up” and he had to change his spending habits. “You start making decisions with nothing but frugality in mind,” he said. “Every dollar spent is being monitored.”

And even after looking at his $12.75 bill for dinner at Pete’s Diner on Fordham Road, he said he had to be optimistic about the future and his dream to be “known for making great pieces of audio work.” Said Luke: “It can’t stay like this — we’re so far on the bottom that the only way is up.”

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