Ticket to Nowhere…On the John Edwards campaign trail

February 18, 2010

I’m related to an English Queen Tammy says as she pads barefooted around the deserted Kerry/Edwards campaign headquarters in Robbins, North Carolina. Her ancestor was Mary Stuart. Have people in England heard of her? she asks.

Slap bang in the middle of North Carolina, far from the beaches on the East coast, or the mountains in the west that have now become a wealthy centre of alternative medicines and lifestyles, Robbins has a population of little over a thousand. It’s a community still devastated by the closure of the local textile mill a decade ago and resentful of the more successful golfing communities that have sprung up further south in the same county. On a hot summer day the town is shut-up. The single storey shops on the two intersecting main streets look neat, but firmly closed. Cars are parked in a diagonal formation outside the post office and fire station but no one is out on the sidewalk. Only two 1950s style glass-fronted restaurants, Amy’s Café and Carolina Fried Chicken, are doing any business. Somewhere an over-sized American flag is flying. Robbins is John Edward’s home town.
Driving through town, there is little evidence of their now famous native son. Unlike the bigger, and more liberal, university towns to the north, there are no Kerry/Edwards placards on front lawns. One noticeable sign supports him, with “Kerry/Edwards for a Stronger America” spelled out in big letters at the side of the road, but it turns out to be beside his parents’ house.
John Edwards announced his place on the democratic ticket in Robbins, but at noon the campaign headquarters is as closed as the old mill its housed in. This is the mill where Edwards worked his way through college, and where his father became general manager. Theirs is the well worn story of a family who lived the American dream of hard-work, opportunity, and some tragedy.

After a few minutes a battered Chevrolet truck pulls up and Tammy gets out to open the campaign office. Wearing a pink singlet and shorts, she drives around town showing off two bumper stickers. One says ‘Axis of Evil: Ashcroft, Cheney, Bush’ The other ‘Trim the Bushes’ On the outskirts of town faux-rustic pottery shops wave customers inside with large rainbow flags that in New York or London would signify somewhere gay friendly. But in this Republican heartland both the flags and bumper stickers are without irony.

While Tammy makes a call from her cell phone to some higher authority in the democratic party, a lone Hispanic man pushes his daughter on a pink bicycle across the otherwise empty parking lot. Weeds poke through the concrete. In the last few years the Hispanic population of Robbins has risen from virtually nothing to an astonishing 43%. The only lively shops in town have makeshift signs hanging outside in Spanish “Boy you should see them on a Friday night at the post office” Lydia the chair of the Democratic committee says. She purses her lips “All sending their money home to Mexico” Lydia has arrived in a new cream-coloured Lincoln Town car. Mizz Daisy, her son – the chauffeur – calls her. The family has lived most of its life in Pennsylvania where its easier to get work. They are the only black people to be seen in town that day. Until the Hispanic influx, North Carolina’s racial tension was firmly black and white. Now Lydia and Tammy busily print and distribute voter registration forms in Spanish. Not that most are eligible to vote. “My husband has one in his factory. They call him Mr Green Card” Tammy lights a cigarette and sits down at a trestle table bisecting the empty room that she says will soon become a hub of campaign activity “His first name stays the same, but every two weeks he disappears and comes back with a new green card, with a new last name stamped on it”

Lydia and her sons lay out small American flags that flutter in the breeze of a fan. This room was once the office that controlled the Milliken Mill, and consequently the town. In those day being a registered Republican was a requirement for employment. Now one wall is covered by an outline of North Carolina. The map is entirely blank but for one single dot. Robbins. Lydia oversees Tammy as she put the final touches on a hand painted a sign exhorting people to vote democrat in Moore County. In the corner a trash can is full of sawn off wooden posts, ready for supporters and banners – when they arrive. Everyone jumps when the Bill Clinton doll, placed prominently on the main table at the entrance, springs to life. The former President wiggles his hips to sound of tinny saxophone music. This is a county that never voted for Clinton, nor even for John Edwards in the congressional elections of 1998.

Tammy has a hard sell touting a democrat ticket around Robbins “I tell them when they ask why I’m voting democrat that we live to week to week on my husband’s pay check. All our jobs have gone. What if he gets sick? I ask them – What has Bush done for you?” The NAFTA treaty is at the heart of many of the grumbles down here. The long declining textile and furniture industries are moving to Mexico and China. New service sector jobs pay less than half the hourly wage that could previously be earned in manufacturing. Tobacco farming is on its last legs, even though most North Carolinians smoke on defiantly – giving a middle finger to the rest of America. Beyond the liberal universities and technology parks of the major cities, in towns like Robbins times are hard. John Edwards did not get his slogan about two Americas from nowhere. Here there are two North Carolinas, and the one that Tammy lives in, with vanished jobs, no healthcare, and unobtainable college costs, is living the American nightmare. But curiously the Democrats can’t turn it to their advantage, and no one else seems to be blaming the President much. In fact, ordinary people in Robbins seem strangely embarrassed by politics; unsure about the Democrats’ position on many things, and downright confused about the rights and wrongs, and flip flops, over Iraq. Outside the outraged liberal minority the truth is that people are blasé about Bush.

In a state that hasn’t voted for a democrat president since Jimmy Carter, local candidates can’t run away fast enough from the Kerry/Edwards ticket. Addressing a veteran’s group, would-be North Carolina Senator Erskine Bowles confesses he didn’t attend the democratic convention in Boston because didn’t want to hang out with a group of ‘fat cats’ and claims not to remember what John Kerry said to him the last time they talked beyond saying that he would be a good senator. When Kerry makes a rare visit to North Carolina that same week Bowles is out campaigning, meeting the folks, too busy to see him. Its all nonsense of course. In a state where one twist of the radio dial takes you to the twang of a country pastor reading from the bible, and another to the soothing liberal tones of national public radio, almost everyone has made up their minds. Like Kerry, Bowles knows he needs to appeal to the small sliver of undecideds, the hard-up white man. And, like Kerry, he may be the better candidate – but its doubtful that on that score he has what it takes.

The Democrats may not be corny enough to win this election. There is a scene at the start of the film ‘Primary Colours’ where John Travolta, made up to look like Bill Clinton, visits an adult literacy group. He sits in a small circle, listening while struggling Americans tell him their stories. One member, a black man, is so ashamed he starts to cry. Then Travolta cries too. And the audience, until then cynical, is abruptly converted. In almost exact replica the scene is replayed in a classroom in Greensboro, North Carolina by Erskine Bowles, who also happens to be Bill Clinton’s former chief-of-staff. He sits around a makeshift table while a group of women who work for a children’s early start programme, mostly black, and lobbyists of various persuasions – mostly white men – talk about their jobs. All the women have second jobs, most don’t have health care or even a salary during the summer months. One woman breaks down and starts to sob. Bowles pauses, but is dry eyed. Finally he says “I can’t tell you how much I respect you. But that’s not going to achieve anything. What could I do to help?” In front of a friendly audience he just about gets the job done, but he’s no Bill Clinton.

Everyone knows that Erskine Bowles, like Kerry, is old money. Not only is his wife a career woman, she’s the senior executive in one of North Carolina’s biggest textiles companies. Pictured more often on the golf course with Clinton, rather than at the Nascar speedway track which is worshipped in these parts, he’s also smart – the man who balanced the federal budget and worked on the now hated NAFTA treaty. Robert Rubin and Madeleine Albright have already been out on the stump for him. At the moment Bowles is up by eight points in the polls but his fate is too close to call.

Though Kerry remains unloved, even the presence the more charismatic John Edwards seems to do little to help him. Constrained by southern good manners, most people are too polite to say what they really think. For the large part their silence, and looks away, speak volumes.
“Oh, but I wish you could speak to him” John Edward’s father says wistfully. Standing on the front porch of their house, its clear that his son is the image of him. Their home is modest but better kept than most in town, with a garden and living room that could only be described as immaculate. Two yellow ribbons are tied out front in support of American troops overseas. The Kerry/Edwards bumper sticker on the family pick-up truck is discreet, but make no mistake they are whole heartedly supporting their son. Mr Edwards chides the local party to give out more bumper stickers, more leaflets. John Edward’s mother makes small talk with Lydia and Tammy. Dressed in a matching t-shirt and shorts set, she tells them she has been cleaning out the fridge. They seem to look up to her, slightly awed and quiet. A little out of their depth.
The story of the Edwards family is well known. It is more a tale of decency and family values, rather than the rags-to-riches tale sometimes portrayed, but a troubled second son – Edwards brother – and the tragic death of John Edwards oldest son Wade has brought them their share of heartache. Though John Edwards has been reluctant to milk the death of his son for political gain, he put the supposed hardships of a presidential campaign into perspective when he said “You can’t tell me that’s the hardest thing to do. Not when you’ve had to climb up on to a mortuary slab and say goodbye to your son” Edwards parents are both busy on the campaign trail, but his father says he still calls them nearly every night.
His manner is sincere and genuine, and if John Edwards’ father could sell his son to every American he would be Vice-President for sure. But while it’s commonly accepted that John Edwards may be a nice guy, he is also that most loathed of creatures, a trial lawyer. A Senator who stood as a conservative, and then voted as a liberal in Washington. A candidate who bought his place on the ticket with his own personal fortune, rather than earning his way up the ranks like a back slapping good-ole-boy. It is now up to Erskine Bowles to win that that seat which its commonly believed John Edwards would have struggled to hold onto.

In North Carolina the front pages on the newspapers paint a woeful picture for the Democrats. Regional papers tell of a surge in jobs when a spiral of economic disaster is needed to turn the tide. Then local campaigners suck their teeth in horror. On the front of the New York Times George Bush embraces Senator John McCain in a bear hug. Its almost certainly unbelievable. But with a week to go until the Republican convention it would be an unbeatable combination.

Back in Robbins a group of white men have arrived at the Mill. They have come from a company interested in taking on the lease and Lydia’s son gets the keys to show them around. This is the Democratic headquarters Lydia tells them, but they seem uninterested. “The lease” Tammy says, after they’ve disappeared into the dark manufacturing space where once everyone was employed “Six months, a year. How long will that last?” John Edwards has, she concedes, at least generated more publicity for the town. But while a pessimist might suggest that a lease of six months is the best that Robbins can hope for from the forthcoming elections Lydia and Tammy refuse to be downhearted “You can’t have it until after November 2nd” Lydia reminds the men from the company in all seriousness “On November 2nd we’re going to have a great big party. You can come back when we’ve won”

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