The Varied Voices of New York Voters


By Pallavi Gogoi New York's World Trade Center site is a whirl of rebuilding at the scene of destruction that occurred three years ago following the terrorist attacks of September 11. A short walk three blocks north is Elementary School PS 89 on the corner of Warren and West Streets, where around 200 residents from the once-again flourishing Battery Park City neighborhood stand in line mid-morning on Nov. 2 to cast their vote at the first Presidential elections since the Twin Towers were destroyed, forever changing this bustling neighborhood at the southern tip of Manhattan.

For months, President George W. Bush and his Democratic challenger Senator John Kerry have reminded voters daily how much the world has changed in the three years since the attacks. And each has claimed he would be a better leader, more able to keep America safe. Of all places in the nation, you would think the memories of September 11 would figure prominently in these voters' minds.

"MOVED ON." Think again. Perhaps it's the legendary resilience of New Yorkers or perhaps living so close to the site of the attacks has forced these voters to heal more quickly than those who live hundreds of miles away. But on this crisp fall morning, almost none of the voters say they're thinking about 9/11. Of course, the mainly Democrat and a handful of Republicans still remember vividly what they were doing as the horror began to unfold that morning three years just a few blocks away (most of them were getting ready to go to work).

"I reflect on it, but I've moved on," says N'jeri Mitchell, an education administrator at Cornell University.

Though they're not dwelling on the events of 9/11, in this election, Bush's leadership in the war on terror figures prominently in their voting decisions. Many voters said they showed up to cast an anti-Bush ballot, rather than a vote of confidence for Kerry to lead them to a better, safer world.

"A STRONG TEAM." Says first-time voter Danek Freeman: "My grandfather voted for [Richard] Nixon and was ashamed of it all his life. One day when my grandchildren ask me, I don't want to say that I didn't vote against Bush." The corporate lawyer dubbed the situation in Iraq an "unmitigated disaster" and that his vote was a sign of protest against the war.

Bush supporter Craig Haber, an accountant, surrounded by anti-Bush voters, says in a hushed tone: "I think the Bush team -- Cheney, Powell, Rumsfeld, Rice -- is a strong team, and I am voting for the team."

True to the spirit of New York City, this crowd of voters was lively and opinionated. Eighty-five-year old Rebecca Coven showed up to vote Bush out with four of her friends from the Hallmark, a retirement community in Battery Park City. "I had to come in and vote. This is the grand finale to my campaign against Bush," says Coven. She had organized a march with 100 other octogenarians and septuagenarians wearing T-shirts emblazoned "Save Democracy," during the Republican National Convention held in the city Aug. 30 to Sept. 2.

Here's what some of these New York voices have to say about the issues facing America on this Election Day:

War on terror and war in Iraq.

"They haven't caught Osama Bin Laden. That's a simple criteria for success that they haven't met," says lawyer Freeman of the Bush government. Others standing in line rankled at the mere mention of Iraq. "There was a lot of momentum initially to unite the world against terror, but this President made sure that we went alone," says Cornell's Mitchell, who was hopeful that Kerry would do a better job at getting support from other world powers to join in with America and help forge a strategy to get out of Iraq.

Others thought Kerry wouldn't be able to do the job. "I don't think it was appropriate for Kerry to speak out against our troops in Vietnam. He will probably run away from any confrontation," says Bill Cobey, a 60-year-old engineer who was laid off from Schering-Plough two and a half years ago and is still looking for a job.

National security.

"I feel safer under Bush's strong leadership," says Maggie Maldonado, wife of an insurance executive, who says she believes the President has done a terrific job in these difficult times. Others were fearful. "The Patriot Act frightens me because it means taking away our rights as Americans," says Ellen Hunter, a mother of two girls, 3 years old and 11 months. Freeman says Bush's actions have made America more insecure by having made more enemies in the world than catching them.

The economy.

Unemployed engineer Cobey believes the government should avoid trying to manage the economy. "It's the end of the economic cycle now, and no matter whether Bush wins or Kerry, it can only get better from here," he says.

Health care.

Senior citizen Coven is against privatizing Social Security and believes health care for the elderly has to be under the federal government. "We have a better chance of that under Kerry," she says. Corporate wife Maldonado isn't so sure that the Democrat can do it. "Kerry is promising the world, and if people believe what he is saying, it's wild, because someone has to pay for it."

Women's rights.

"I don't want religion to get in the way of policies," says Sinta Dakan, a producer at MTV. Rather than feel safe and secure, Dakan says she feels her rights as a woman are being spirited away by Bush's policies. She points to cuts in the funding of Planned Parenthood and education on safe sex as steps that make America less free for women.

Education.

Parents of young children say that they would support the President's education reform if well-funded. "Bush is offering corporations a free ticket on environmental damage while taking money away from the education budget," says Hunter, the mother of two girls.

Voices that are frustrated, angry, defensive? Most of these New Yorkers are also realistic: They know their votes aren't as pivotal as those from the big swing states of Ohio or Florida, but they cared enough about the issues to come out and vote.

On the walk back from polling site to the World Trade Center, badges proclaiming "Four More Years" and another saying "Vote Kerry" littered the walkway as construction workers continued to rebuild where the World Trade Center once dominated Manhattan's skyline. Gogoi is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in New York


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