By Mike Littwin, Rocky Mountain News
Published August 9, 2008 at 12:05 a.m.
“Gah-dayem, son,” Mudcat says. “It’s not about race. It’s about the gah-dayem culture.”
He offers up this pearl of socio-political wisdom as we cruise through the hills of western Virginia – Mudcat driving, me riding shotgun – to test his theory of how culture trumps race here. It’s not just any theory. All that’s at stake is quite possibly who becomes the next president of the United States.
We’re taking “The Crooked Road” music trail – an aptly named back road that, I’m told, will lead us directly to music heaven, which is apparently located on a stage in the back of the Floyd Country Store. Every Friday night, when they hold their gospel and bluegrass and old-timey-music jamboree, this town of 432 turns into a festival of banjo-pickin’ and flat-footin’ – a mini-bluegrass Woodstock, except with no nudity in evidence but, as compensation, some mighty nice-looking store-bought coveralls.
The pickers and the flat-footers and the whoopers and the hollerers spill out from the store and onto the streets and over to the ice cream store (it’s a dry county) and onto the benches and wherever else they can grab a seat or, even better, grab a partner – no age requirement, but it seems to help if you’re on the, uh, north side of 60.
The pickers who drive out of the mountains to jam here in the streets set the beat, and while I’m not sure exactly where they invented toe-tapping and knee-slapping, it couldn’t have been far from here.
If that’s not culture, well, gah-dayem, what is?
Driving this road, hard by the Blue Ridge Parkway, where the view is right out of a Virginia Is for Loversbrochure, you can just about make out the lonely call of the mountains echoing from banjos and mandolins and even washboards. And on a moonlit night like this, if a man croons It Takes a Weary Man to Sing a Weary Song, you believe him. By God, you do.
Mudcat says these are his “people.” They’re the Scots-Irish who settled here in the early 1800s, and the only American ethnic group, in Mudcat’s words, without a parade.
“We believe in guns and God and fightin’,” he explains. “We’ve always fought America’s wars. That’s the Scots-Irish culture. It goes all the way back to before William Wallace. It’s why Hadrian built the bleepin’ Hadrian’s Wall.”
These are Mudcat’s people and they’re Barack Obama’s bitter people, and they live in and among the Appalachians, the spine of mountains that take you through parts of Tennessee and Kentucky and North Carolina and Virginia and West Virginia and Pennsylvania and Ohio, where their ancestors worked the mines and the mills and where they now watch as their towns struggle and many of their children move away.
There are maybe 30 million people who might fit this category, although most of them, stereotypes aside, have never been within shouting distance of a working washboard. And, besides which, you’ll find nearly every ethnicity represented here.
While this is only one part of America where the issue of race can’t be ignored, it is the region that played most heavily in the latter stages of the Hundred Years Obama-Clinton primary wars. Everyone is paying attention because it is generally understood that Obama must win some combination of Reagan Democrats/Hillary Democrats here to win the election.
Mudcat, as any cable-hooked political junkie could guess, is Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, the Democratic consultant who’s as hillbilly (his word) as James Carville is Cajun, with an accent that’s as rawboned (or mountain-honeyed, depending on your tolerance level) as the creek that runs by his house.
He lives up on Bent Mountain in Roanoke, not far from one of his daughters and, nearly as important, not far from the woodlands he owns and hunts and fishes on. You can find antlers in the living room, animal pelts hanging from the porch and moonshine in the freezer.
For reading material, there are framed accounts of Mudcat’s life scattered around the place, articles produced in newspapers from New York to London that tell you how Mudcat made millions in real estate and how he lost the millions and how he made them all back again. How he was a drunk who was, in his words, 0-67 in bar fights and how he went up a mountain one day to kill himself and how he came back down determined to get sober.
He didn’t find Jesus up on the mountain, but whatever he found he eventually turned it into a life as a part-time political consultant and a speed-dial guest on Hardball or whoever else requires that rare breed – an iconoclastic believer who will tell you that Republicans, as well as many Democrats, are “dumb as oysters.”
I’ve known him for 35 years, and I know that, whatever else, I can trust him. You have to trust a man who didn’t make it to work one day in the early ’70s – we were working at the same Virginia newspaper back then – because he’d loaned out his car battery. For a friend’s boat.
He’s got the resume. He was John Edwards’ adviser on rural affairs in this primary season, and he helped lead Bob Graham’s ill-fated presidential campaign in 2004. He had a better time helping Mark Warner get elected as Virginia governor and Jim Webb as senator. He famously got a NASCAR car for Warner to sponsor and wrote him a bluegrass song that was played, he says, on 53 radio stations “because the songwriter accidentally sent it to each one.”
The reason I came to see him was not just because he knows and loves this place as well as anyone, but because he’s the only person I’ve met who could take me up to the Wood Brothers stock car museum in Stuart to hand off a custom guitar from his friend Dr. Ralph Stanley – No. 21 in a series, of course – to give to Glenn Wood to put in his museum.
Mudcat is yelling, “Momma, Momma,” as he rushes through the museum doors, and Momma Wood is calling Glenn Wood, who’s 82 and is a stock car legend, and who arrives in time to escort me to the back of the garage to see the Wood Brothers’ No. 21 car that David Pearson and A.J. Foyt raced to victory at Daytona. And that was just in the first hour.
“Glenn says he never ran moonshine,” Mudcat says, in a stage whisper, as Glenn looks on. “But he never said he didn’t fix up no cars for some boys who did.”
And here’s the thing: If you don’t know the legendary Ralph Stanley or the legendary Wood Brothers or how every town around here once had a dirt track and how it all began when the revenuers were chasing the moonshiners through these hills or how you can find a fiddlers’ convention every weekend along the crooked trail, you don’t get the culture.
“If Obama wants to win the Bubba vote, he can do it,” says Mudcat, who was the first (and possibly only) person to ever call me Bubba Mike. “He can win Virginia easy. He’s just got to show up and be himself.”
This is Mudcat’s official Bubba-wise, professional-political-consultant advice for Obama, not that the Obama campaign has asked:
“I’d have him come down here to a diner, no tie, and get him to say exactly this: ‘I’m Barack Obama and I’m a black guy and there’s not a damn thing I can do about that.’ ”
He laughs at his own line and then riffs on his riff.
” ‘The only one I know who could was Michael Jackson, and I’m not going through that.’ ”
The laugh is actually more like a snicker. He pulls out an unfiltered Camel, lights up and proceeds.
” ‘I’ll tell you what I can do. I can tell you the truth. And the truth is, the problems y’all are having here in Appalachia are the same exact problems we’re having in the ghetto up there. Why are our children fighting all the wars? Do you know you’re 70 percent more likely to be killed in Iraq if you’re rural than if you’re suburban?’ ”
This is Mudcat’s point – and he leaves Obama for a moment as he takes me on a detour to Martinsville, a town falling away, the textile factories closed, the furniture factories closed, the downtown stores mostly boarded up.
“It burns my ass every time I come here. The Democrats don’t come here because they think they can’t win. The Republicans don’t come here because they figure they’re good on guns and they’re good on God and so they’ve got it all wrapped up. All I want is for both sides to be fighting over these voters so someone will pay attention to what’s going on here and in rural places all across America.”
Mudcat asks me to read a piece by Jim Webb, who’s all Scots-Irish, who’s all Marine, who dissed George Bush on about his first day in the Senate, who’s a writer/politician of more than little note. Mudcat is not just a Webb political adviser. He says he’ll vote for Obama for president, but he’d vote for Webb for king. Anyway, Webb wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal, a piece that mirrored his book Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America, saying that “the greatest realignment in modern politics would take place rather quickly if the right national leader found a way to bring the Scots-Irish and African-Americans to the same table, and so to redefine a formula that has consciously set them apart for the past two centuries.”
Was he talking about Obama before there even was an Obama?
Mudcat thinks Obama might be in trouble in this race, but he tells me how Warner won here, saying that Obama can do the same. “Warner’s worse than a black guy. A Yankee from Connecticut? I mean, really, in this culture? Where I’m taking you today, you’re going to see rebel flags everywhere, but Warner still won out here.
“What Obama has to do is talk about the commonalities and say who he is. It’s the damndest thing I’ve ever seen. The national media is ‘Shh, he’s black. Shh, somebody’s gonna find out.’
“Let me tell you something. Don’t run from your culture. Embrace it. Obama needs to bring Matt ‘Guitar’ Murphy down here – he breaks into, ‘Come on baby, don’t you want to go to that same old place’ – and get him to sing Sweet Home Chicago. You talk about people going nuts (that’s pronounced nu-uts) . . . My people love black culture. Look what I had for breakfast – biscuits and gravy. That’s black food. The banjo is an African instrument. Go to the beach and tell me what kind of music do you hear?”
He pauses. These are rare pauses because usually he’s telling me how Jeb Stuart was overrated and Stonewall Jackson was not, and it’s as if he’s talking about last night’s ballscores because there are some people here who still talk about the Civil War, except it’s the War Between the States.
But the sticking point, he tells you, in this part of Appalachia is not between race and heritage, but between religion and racism. “Christianity and racism are oxymorons,” he says.
“People talk about issues,” Mudcat says. “People don’t vote on issues. They vote for the guy they like.
“We vote for us.”
Burying Jesse Helms
The issue of race is, of course, unavoidable in this race. But you’d think there were limits. And yet, whenThe Wall Street Journal runs a fluff piece about Obama being too skinny, Slate magazine responds with a piece saying the Journal should have known some would see it as code for a discussion about race.
If you’re looking for subtext, here it is: This campaign is about race even when it’s not about race.
According to my calendar, it wasn’t until July 30 that the race card was officially played in the McCain-Obama race. It began this way: Obama was speaking to a very white audience in Missouri about how the McCain campaign was trying to scare them – about the candidate with the funny name, the candidate beloved by Europeans, the candidate, Obama said, who “doesn’t look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills.”
And the cable TV news boys were off and running.
“He gave them an opening,” said Ron Walters, a political science professor at the University of Maryland who happens to be black and who has written extensively about racial issues and politics. “Obama said he wasn’t talking about race, but I don’t think he was talking about his ears.”
The red-blue divide has always been mixed with the black-white divide. What’s different is that there is now a candidate born of a white mother and a black father and the old rules no longer apply. We know the history and the politics and how both could change in 2008. But maybe you didn’t know this: For generations, the South was the Solid South, as solid as the pact the Democrats had made to sell their souls to the segregationists. Here’s history: In 1936, South Carolina voted 98.57 percent for FDR. Mississippi came in at only 97.06.
The South is now a Republican stronghold. I was in Raleigh, N.C., when they buried Jesse Helms, and there seemed to be some kind of symbolism in the timing – or maybe that’s too easy. In any case, when Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, he said Democrats had lost the South for 50 years. It’s 43 years later. An African-American is running for president. And North Carolina, which hasn’t gone Democratic since Jimmy Carter in 1976, is suddenly in play.
Race matters, but it matters differently, depending on your vantage point. If you were looking at it from, say, Cincinnati last month when the annual NAACP convention was in town, you could have seen political science professor Walters on a panel noting that Obama spoke for only 20 minutes before the group and that John McCain spoke longer and took questions afterward.
This is a point Walters has made before – that black voters were letting Obama off easy, understanding there’s only so much he can say about race in America without risking white votes.
“I got a few boos on that,” Walters said.
Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory, who is black, ran for office in the wake of terrible racial tensions there. We were talking about race and southern Ohio and how it might play here. He told me, “Race is always a factor, but I knew in my race if race became the issue, then I’d lost.”
It’s complicated, and it’s not simply about race. It’s about geography and sociology and demography. And it also can be counterintuitive. In 2000, it was McCain who was the victim of racism in South Carolina. He had adopted a dark-skinned Bangladeshi child, and the viral rumor – in the days before viral e-mails – was that he had fathered a black child. Of course, in that same year, McCain had embraced the Confederate flag in South Carolina, for which he later apologized and said his ambition was to blame.
Bill Clinton, as comfortable with the issue of race as any white politician of our time, also knows the peril here. He knows something about ambition, too. And he was slammed – “They played the race card on me,” he insisted – for trying to marginalize Obama as the black candidate, particularly during the South Carolina primary.
And so there are questions: Can you attack a black candidate and not appear racist? If you’re black, can you defend yourself against attacks and not appear to be playing victim? Is calling a black candidate “presumptuous” or “arrogant” simply code – as Walters believes and even presidential adviser David Gergen seconded – for “uppity?”
The questions got louder as McCain went negative on Obama just as Obama was getting rave reviews in Europe. But when McCain’s campaign offered up the “Celebrity” ad, linking Obama humorously (McCain said) to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, I started to wonder whether the comedy wasn’t a little too close to the joke in Blazing Saddles– the classic in which Cleavon Little, the black sheriff of Rock Ridge, asked, “Hey, where are the white women at?”
New York magazine writer John Heilemann deconstructed McCain’s ad showing Obama sinking his 3-pointer with the troops and suggested the goal was to “foster an unconscious simile: Obama as a blinged-up, camera-hungry, NBA shooting guard, Allen Iverson with a Harvard Law degree.”
Yeah, it is complicated, particularly when Iverson – The Answer – becomes part of the question. Pull out your pocket map of the U.S. and you can see just how complicated.
If you’re white and live, say, in Montana, where there aren’t many black people, race doesn’t seem to be much of an issue at all when voting. But in West Virginia, where there also aren’t many black people, 20 percent of Democrats told exit pollsters that race was pivotal.
In Mississippi, which is one-third black, white Democrats voted 90 percent for Hillary Clinton. In Virginia, which in 1989 elected the country’s first black governor since Reconstruction in Doug Wilder, Obama won a majority of the white Democratic vote.
In California and Texas, Hispanics were heavily pro-Clinton and talk began of Obama facing a black-Hispanic divide. And yet polls now show Hispanics supporting Obama 2-to-1, for which – you don’t have to ask why – Obama can probably thank Tom Tancredo.
There are no easy answers when it comes to race and politics. And if you think you’ve figured this out, check the recent polling showing Obama trailing McCain by around 10 points among white voters. That seems significant, but maybe not in the way you’d guess. Kerry lost the white vote by 17 points and Gore lost it by 12. Obama would seem to be actually doing better among white voters.
How can this be? I consulted a pair of prominent political scientists who have done all the calculations and mined all the data and – surprise – came up with altogether different conclusions. One has a model showing that Obama has to overcome an 11.5 percent bias factor. Another says that the reason the race is so close is that voters are so entrenched that red-blue means more than black-white and says bias, while obviously in play, won’t turn the election.
I don’t do polls, but with the company credit card in hand, I can hit the road to ask the questions. I went in search not of only answers, but to try to learn how people were framing the questions in their own minds.
In North Carolina, could a large black turnout turn a red state blue? Is Virginia, with its new mid-Atlantic urban population, about to secede from the Republican South? In 2004, Ohio was the new Florida, with its own voting-machine questions, but in 2006 Democrats won big, and no Republican has won the White House in modern times without Ohio. And, finally, I went home, sort of, to Clairton, Pa. Well, there’s a bar and there’s a big-screen TV and . . . I don’t want to get too far ahead of the story.
But I will tell you this: I found, as you’ve probably found, that during this campaign people are suddenly talking about race as they haven’t in at least 25 years – and not always in a good way. It’s as if we’ve moved past the old political correctness into a new, undefined era.
I also found that for every answer I thought I got, a new question popped up. As Walters told me, “Every now and then, we ought to have a frank discussion about race. How can we have a frank discussion if people are afraid to even mention the word? Maybe we’ve gone to a new threshold.”
Maybe. But that doesn’t mean that we know what’s on the other side.
We begin with breakfast at Big Ed’s because every political story here begins with breakfast at Big Ed’s. And it’s where Ferrel Guillory, an expert on Southern politics, asked me to meet him, because it’s only at Big Ed’s – where we both get the tomatoes and grits and both pass on the brains and eggs – that you can get a mixed-race crowd at the tables and artifacts celebrating the Confederacy on the walls.
For your dining pleasure, there’s a Robert E. Lee portrait and there’s a clock in stars-and-bars motif. There are Civil War guns and swords in a case, and there are blackstrap molasses and buckwheat pancakes on the menu. And there’s a chair still marked for Big Ed – who sold the place years ago – whose granddaddy (never grandfather), we’re told, was a mess sergeant in the Civil War.
And depending on whom you talk to, they’ll tell you North Carolina was the last, reluctant state to secede, or they’ll tell you that North Carolina was at the center of civil rights demonstrations – most famously the Woolworth’s sit-in in Greensboro, where a black person could be served but couldn’t be seated.
It’s also where Terry Sanford was elected governor in 1960 and worked against segregation in the days when some Southern governors were standing on the steps blocking black students from going to school. It’s where on this day they were making the final funeral arrangements for Jesse Helms, the longtime senator once called by Washington Post columnist David Broder “the last prominent unabashed white racist politician in this country.” You can’t see the New South except in the relief map of the old.
Can Obama win in North Carolina? The polls show him trailing by a few points. The state is nearly a quarter black, and the Obama southern strategy – which includes Virginia and maybe Georgia – requires a massive registration drive of blacks and for him to score well among the more affluent and educated white populations that have moved here in recent years and for his young supporters to turn out in record numbers.
This is how Guillory sees it: “For a Democrat to win in North Carolina, he or she needs to get 40 percent of the white vote, assuming a solid 90 percent of the black vote. Let’s say Obama can push the black percentage of voters to 25 percent – and that would be a lot – he’d knock down the white threshold to 37-38 percent. The margin of error is very small.”
It’s a very, very small margin. In 2004, fewer than 20 percent of the voters were black, and Kerry drew less than 30 percent of the white vote.
“We all know there are racists out there, unfortunately,” Guillory said, before adding: “But those people who say that racism is forever and that things haven’t changed for the better in the South are just wrong. Whether it’s a restaurant like this, with a little Confederate memorial but a whole bunch of black folk having breakfast with a whole lot of white folk and and lot of them at mixed tables, this society has changed.”
Guillory is an old newspaper guy who went straight and now writes and teaches at the University of North Carolina. He has seen the changes – the emergence of a strong middle class, the migration of high-tech workers to the Research Triangle, the young people attracted here and who go to school at nearby Duke and North Carolina and North Carolina State.
Still, he said, “I think it’s a longshot. I think Virginia is a little further along than North Carolina. I told my students that North Carolina is teetering on the edge of being a swing state.”
The next day, the church is packed for Jesse Helms’ funeral. I sit in the back and listen to sermons about how he was a man who always stayed true to his beliefs. As Giullory said the day before, “They always say he was unwavering in his beliefs. They just don’t say what those beliefs were.”
After church, I talked to Linwood Parker, who owns several White Swan BBQ restaurants in eastern North Carolina. “Most of the people here are elected officials,” Parker says. “And most of them wouldn’t be here except for Jesse Helms. He made this state a two-party state, and whatever else anyone says about him, we’re a better state because of that.”
Helms was a five-term senator who never got more than 56 percent of the vote. In 1992, in a close election against Harvey Gantt, the black mayor of Charlotte, Helms ran an ad showing two white hands crumpling a job rejection letter and an announcer intoning that “you were the best qualified, but they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota. . . . ”
The next day, when I tell state Rep. Daniel Blue that I had gone to Helms’ funeral, he smiles thinly. Blue was the first black Speaker of the House in North Carolina. He ran for the U.S. Senate – and lost – in 2002. He has studiously avoided saying anything about Helms.
But he loves to talk politics. He is working for Obama now. He ran state campaigns for Jesse Jackson, for Mike Dukakis, for Bill Clinton.
“Race,” he predicts, “won’t play the role it has historically played here. They’ve coined this term post-racial. I really think people see Obama that way. Somehow that gives us the opportunity to debate the real issues as the first priority, not as the second priority. The first priority was always jumping over the race barrier – and then we get to the issue. I think he’s sort of leaped over that.”
A confessed optimist – by nature and maybe by profession – Blue grew up on a tobacco farm, got a scholarship to college where he majored in math, decided to go to law school after Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were killed, and became one of four African-Americans in his law school class at Duke, which may or may not explain why this was the only conversation I had during the trip involving a long discussion of Hegel.
Blue, 59, grew up outside Lumberton, near the South Carolina line, in Robeson County, which is, give or take, one-third white, one-third black and one-third Native American (the Lumbees are the largest tribe east of the Mississippi). It was the perfect setting to fully appreciate the absurdity of the apartheid South.
“Where everyplace else in the South, they had two of everything, we had three of everything. Three bathrooms, three water fountains. In some places, we even had four. This was a big tobacco market, and a lot of foreigners would come to buy tobacco – Middle Easterners, Asian, Indian.
“This is how it would operate: Bathrooms would be marked White, Colored, Indian, Other.”
“Four of each. No, wait, it was eight of each. Four for women and four for men.”
He laughs again, even while saying, “So when I’m telling you that racial attitudes have changed in North Carolina, I’m not telling you from reading the stuff. I lived it.”
He feels an urgency now. He believes Obama can win in North Carolina – even if that’s the optimist he was talking about – but he thinks something more important is happening.
“I think there’s an overwhelming desire to move beyond the racial divide. I’m absolutely convinced of that. I know people don’t want to be hung up on the same kinds of things that have shackled the South – the same issue that serves as the leg irons and the handcuffs that shackled this region for a century. I think there’s an overwhelming sentiment to move on to the next chapter – a chapter not defined by race.”
A quick story. I’m having lunch with two guys in hard hats, iron workers who are putting in a staircase at the art museum here in the semi-thriving downtown, where there’s a great daily farmer’s market and where people are crowding the streets. They actually built benches so you can watch the Norfolk Southern trains still run by.
As I said, I’ve been surprised all during this campaign by how openly people talk about race. It’s as if all the old rules are slipping away and we’re trying to figure out what the new rules are.
Anyway, I walk up to these two guys and we begin to talk.
I ask about the election and Rob Vane says: “I’m not a racist, but I don’t want a black man for president. I shouldn’t say a black man, but I don’t want to vote for him. I don’t think he’s capable of running the country. You know I get most of my information on the Internet from my Republican buddies. I belong to a union, so I’m supposed to vote Democrat, but I’m not going to vote for Obama. Is it race? I just don’t think he’s smart enough to run the country.”
I turn to his co-worker, Aaron Bennett, who’s finishing up his lunch. He gets the same question.
“I like Obama myself. I like his speeches. I like what he talks about. I think he’s got good ideas. I switched from independent to Democrat so I could vote for him. I don’t think race has anything to do with it. I just think that anyone with a “D” after their name is going to win this year.”
It is less a newspaper interview than it is a poll interview. Neither seems surprised that I have come from Denver to Roanoke to ask these questions. Neither seems surprised by the other’s answers.
I write it all down. They leave the diner and go back to work.
It is the day before the big Taste of Zanesville event, one of the highlights of the annual pottery festival. The timing is so good you’d almost think I’d planned it that way.
But even with the chance to see the pottery toss – you’ll have to trust me on this – that isn’t why Ohio is a can’t-miss state on this tour. Ohio, or some combination of the Michigan-Ohio-Pennsylvania axis anyway, could well be the main event in this election.
I came to Zanesville because it’s on the tip of Appalachia – to drive here from Roanoke, you go through West Virginia twice – and because Obama had just been here to give a speech on faith-based initiatives. Obama promises he’ll be back to visit this town of 25,000. McCain will be here, too. It’s that kind of year.
The Obama event, though, was nearly a disaster – and not because the Eastside Ministries, where Obama spoke, happens to be entirely uninterested in receiving government money.
No, the problem on this day was that Obama’s visit was a closed event and a crowd had gathered outside, waiting less and less patiently to see him. The mayor, Butch Zwelling, had to intercede with Obama’s people to get him to wave to the crowd. He waved. The crowd went nuts. Nobody fainted.
“He promised me he’d be back,” Zwelling says. “Southeastern Ohio, which is usually a Republican area, was very influential in getting Democrats elected in 2006.”
It helped get Sherrod Brown elected senator and Ted Strickland elected governor.
“Sherrod Brown was here eight times,” Zwelling says of the 2006 election season. “That’s unheard of.”
It’s where Obama has to do well to win Ohio this year. Zanesville is famous for two things. There’s the Y bridge that crosses – or doesn’t cross – the Muskingum River. If you take a left in the middle – yes, at the Y – you wind up on the same bank where you began.
And Zanesville is also the self-proclaimed pottery capital of the world, even though nearly all the pottery factories – there was a special vein of clay that ran through here – have left. What’s here on Main Street, where the architecture is mostly pre-World War II, is a string of antique stores, selling all the old pottery you could ever want.
I walk into the Clossman Antique Market, which was Clossman Hardware from 1876 to 1983. The store’s motto was once: “Where they are always busy,” but they’re not busy today.
Owner Mike Kapust has too much time to talk. There’s the slow economy and high gas prices and how customers are staying away. He talks of how he loves it here, the commitment he made, the beautiful building he owns, the taxes he’d have to pay even if the business went under.
He has photos for sale that show Main Street 50 years ago, bustling with pedestrians and traffic. When I ask him how the slow economy might affect the election, he says it should help Obama.
“He’s the one talking about hope, and this town needs some hope. But I don’t know. I think Virginia has a better chance of going for Obama than Ohio.”
Part of the reason, Kapust says, can be found on his computer, where the viral e-mails come in every day. That Obama is a Muslim. That Obama went to a madrassa. That Obama wears African garb. That Obama hates America.
“The funny thing is that people who walk in here and say this stuff, a lot of them are educated people,” he says. “I’d say I just can’t believe it, and they’ll be adamant. You ask for proof, and they say they read it on the Internet.”
He says he sometimes argues but that, more often, he doesn’t. The rule in retail, of course, is that the customer’s e-mails are always right.
When I leave the store to go find the pottery toss, I see two couples in their 70s, and one woman telling the other of how she and her husband came to begin dating: “He asked me whether I wanted to walk down to the hardware store. There was snow up to here (she points to her knee). I told him, ‘Not likely.’ ” And they all laugh.
When I tell them I just came from the hardware store, we start talking, and when the talk gets to politics, they say they’re all Democrats and that they all voted for Clinton in the primary – and that none of them were yet ready to vote for Obama. It’s a nightmare conversation for those in the Obama camp.
They all voted for Kerry, they all voted for Gore, they all voted for Clinton. They all say it would be a big deal not to vote, and yet, they all say they might not.
So, why not Obama? It’s an easy question, but one for which I couldn’t quite get an answer.
“I can’t say I think much of him,” says Harold Clayton. “I just worry about his experience. I don’t know. I may not even vote.”
“I think I told him that first,” says his wife, Patricia Clayton. “I don’t think I’m going to vote.”
His friends agree that they may stay home. One said he did once vote Republican – for Reagan. It sounded like it was the first time he had admitted it.
“I don’t think we need another four years like the last eight years,” Harold says. “I know that much.”
At the risk of being repetitious, I ask again why he’s reluctant to vote for Obama.
“It’s not his color,” he says. “I can tell you that. I’m sure that’s an issue for some people, but it’s not for anyone here.”
Patricia Clayton adds, “I just wish we had another chance to vote for Hillary. Maybe when the time comes, we just won’t vote.”
I’m here because I had to come back. I was here at the Brass Monkey last March, during March Madness, which turned inevitably into April Madness – the six-weeks-long Pennsylvania primary.
Clairton is the rare mill town along the Monongahela River that still has a mill, the Clairton Works, which is the largest coke producer in the country. On my first tour here, I was informed that waking up and smelling the sulfur was how someone in Clairton knew he was still alive.
Of course, I had to come back. I needed to know how it would all turn out.
This is a largely Democratic town and, on that day at least, a largely Democratic bar. And in the hours I spent there, I met only one Republican. And every single Democrat in the bar was voting Clinton, even the two guys who played in a Reggae band.
What would these voters do now that it was Obama-McCain?
The answer to that question could decide Pennsylvania. The answer could determine the entire election.
The generic Democrat is beating the generic Republican by 12 points in most polls. Non-generic Obama and non-generic McCain are running about even, although Obama leads in Pennsylvania.
How much of a role does race play? How much of a role does McCain’s appeal to independents play?
I came to Clairton to ask. This is a town of a little over 8,000 – about a third of what it was in the 1960s. It’s a struggle here. You can even find a large Catholic church boarded up in a city that calls itself The City of Prayer.
It’s early afternoon on a Saturday, and the Brass Monkey isn’t open yet, but I find the bar’s owner, Dave Prosperino, who is voting for Obama.
“He should win – unless prejudice gets in the way,” Prosperino says. “I just don’t think it’s going to matter that much. There are a lot of important issues out there. Gas prices. The war. The economy.
“I just don’t think it’ll matter in the end.”
Prosperino is a guy who looks like he’d own a bar – well muscled and drives a Prius and a Harley. He tells me he bought the bar so his fiancee would have something to do. The fiancee left, but the bar is still here.
It’s a bar with a big-screen TV and an even-bigger screen TV in the back that is reserved only for Steelers game. “One guy wanted to watch a hockey game,” Prosperino says. “I told him, my bar, my rules.”
He explained why his bar is doing so well. “It’s a friendly bar. In this town, white people would go to one bar and black people would go to one bar. My bar, everyone gets along. It bothered some people that everyone comes here. But I said, This is America, right? I mean, it’s ridiculous, right?”
Clairton is about a quarter black. Greg Hampton, the reggae singer, was telling me, “There are a lot of people in this town who wouldn’t vote for a black guy.” You hear a lot of that – and from white people, too.
But if you look hard enough, you find the unexpected twist in the story. I find Sam Mincone in Rich’s Barber Shop, reading the paper and waiting his turn.
He’s 73. He was a high school gym teacher and assistant football coach in a high school football-mad part of the world. He was at Clairton High for 34 years, and he’s wearing the shirt – a Clairton High physical education shirt – to prove it.
When I say I’m here covering politics, he says immediately, “I’m an Obama man.”
He explains why: “I think he’s intelligent. I think because of the way he was brought up. I think he can make a difference in the Middle East, where most of our problems are.”
And then we begin to talk. His parents were from Italy, and his mother spoke Italian. He got a scholarship to play football – a way then, he said, for kids to get out of town. He went to school in Ohio, but Mincone came back to coach at his alma mater.
“Now,” he says, “it’s a new way of thinking. All kids want to do is get to the pros. Do you know the odds are of a kid getting to the pros?”
We start talking – about sports, about Clairton in the old days, about the mill when it employed 5,000 people.
“Those days are gone,” he says.
And then, from nowhere, he tells me, “I hate to say this, but I’ve got to bring it up – the Afro-Americans, the majority of them in this town, they’re ruining everything.”
He looks at me and continues: “There are a lot of good ones – good athletes, good academics, but they leave and they don’t come back. What you get are babies having babies. Twelve years old, 13. It’s not just Clairton. And I’m not saying all of them, but the majority of ’em. They take from this town and they don’t put nothing back.”
He stops and then goes for the kicker: “But I’m going to witness something here. Barack Obama is going to be the first Afro-American president of the United States. And that’s something.”
He talks of how Obama went to NAACP and “told those people” that making a baby didn’t make you a man – that raising one did.
“He as much as said – speaking of blacks – we had to quit blaming whitey. I hadn’t heard that since Martin Luther King . . . It’s like what Bill Cosby said, ‘The white man is not holding you back now. You’ve got to go out and make a living and you’ve got to be a responsible person if you want to be accepted.’ But there are people he’s not reaching because the mentality is not there.”
I’m looking at him, and I wonder now what my expression must have been.
“You’re getting a real chuckle out of me, aren’t you?” he says. “I’m real interesting, aren’t I?”
“I surprised you, didn’t I?”
He did. And I still don’t know how it ends.
We’ll go back to Floyd, to the flat-footin’ and to Marty Miller playing upright bass with the Milestones. He comes from over the hill, down in North Carolina, near Mount Airy, which is where Andy Griffith comes from and where tour buses come to this day to see where Opey got his hair cut.
“I’d play every night somewhere if they let me,” says Miller, who identifies himself as “Marty from Mayberry.”
In the crowd, there are people from as far away as New Zealand.
I spot a black couple, and there aren’t many couples here, and there certainly aren’t many who live in Floyd.
“We’ve lived here a month,” says Ivan Anderson, who found Floyd on the Fine Living Channel. He and his wife, who both work at home via computer, lived in Philadelphia. They were looking for scenery, for land they could afford, for someplace without traffic.
It’s a place with some old hippies, some organic farms and bluegrass. Think Paonia if you moved it to the Virginia hills.
“We visited here off and on for two years,” Anderson says, “and then we decided to make the move.”
As we talk, Mudcat – you remember Mudcat – comes in and immediately delivers the big question.
“Let me ask y’all a personal question if you don’t mind,” he says, and Anderson, curious, listens to what he has to say. “You hear all this stuff about racism in the Appalachian Mountains and all the stereotypes that the Yankees put on us.”
Anderson nods, waiting.
“You haven’t experienced anything negative, have you?”
“No,” he says, “not at all.”
“People are friendly to you, right?”
“Absolutely,” Anderson says. “But that doesn’t mean racism doesn’t exist here, does it?”
And then he tells a story about a bar named Ray’s where he was planning to go one night but heard there was a meeting. “It was the brothers or the mothers of the Confederacy,” he says, laughing. “I thought I’d better stay away.”
“It’s the sons,” Mudcat says. “I’m a member.”
If you’re expecting an awkward moment here, you don’t know Mudcat. He jumps right back in: “Our camp has zero tolerance of racism. Zero. Our camp saved Booker T. Washington’s memorial.”
Then Mudcat writes down his cell phone number, gives it to Anderson and says, “You should come to a meeting. Call me. We’ll go together.”
Ivan Anderson isn’t sure what to think, but it seems like a happy ending, culture trumping race. Mudcat and I go back to listening to the music and then head home. On the way out, we see some band members putting away their instruments. Mudcat knows the bass player.
Mudcat asks him who he’s going to vote for because he asks everyone that question.
“Not Osama Obama, I’ll tell you that,” the bass player says. He adds: “This is just the start. You watch. Those blacks all stick together. They get Osama elected, and then all the presidents are going to be black.”
I point out that the blacks, even if they stick together, make up 12 percent of the American population.
He doesn’t seem fazed. “You watch,” he says.
Mudcat had made it his goal to show me race wasn’t the issue here. It had been a great night – if you’re ever near Floyd on a Friday, you need to go – but Mudcat looks as if his best hunting dog had been run over.
“I don’t understand that,” he says as we get back into the car. “I just don’t understand how people think that way. I really don’t.”
And then we pull away to take the crooked road home.