Welcome to suburbia

I've finally plucked up the courage to set-up an online blog. I'm going to endeavour to blog as often as possible to share my thoughts, to share some articles and news i find interesting, and also use it for my private reflections (you guys won't get to see that!). Also i hope people will read and comment on some of my posts.

The spur for deciding to set-up a blog has been my studies through the Open University. They encourage learning and reflection, and collaborating with others.

Friday, 23 November 2012

The Great election adventure 2012

Boston, Massachusetts; a liberal bastion for most of my lifetime, home of the Kennedy’s, the base for the error strewn campaign of John Kerry (made running against Bush 43 look harder than it should’ve been). But in a strange twist it is also the birthplace of American freedom from oppression; the blacksmith Paul Revere and his famous ride that signaled the start of the American war of Independence, the Tea party protest over taxation without representation (the genesis of which prompts modern day debates on big vs. small government and American self sufficiency).

For the trip moving into its defining leg, Boston was the perfect place for two reasons; the first being related to John Kerry and 2004. It was in this year and this campaign that Ant and I started working together, and as the campaign with international ramifications drew to its thrilling conclusion we began talking about our mutual love of politics, and our developing fascination with US elections and of course the West Wing (so many people begin their interest in US politics through the wonder of Sorkin’s 7 season series on the ups and more often downs of the Bartlett administration). At this point I’ll be fair to Ant, as although an avowed British Conservative, he would translate more as a fiscal conservative with a small c in the American context. I however am an evolving liberal (evolving towards libertarian in my middle years), and so was confused by his stance on many issues, leading to many hard fought debates!

The second reason Boston was a good choice was that as the home of the Tea party this election would be defined by what Republican candidate Romney referred to as “gifts”. In political terms a debate about big vs. small government, in economic terms it was about the 47% (Romney’s term) of the country that wanted something from government vs. the rest that were self sufficient. Or indeed on a human level this election was about the equity of the current system and the ethics of withholding state aid from those in need of it most. I don’t want this to be a political essay, or indeed an overtly political story. This is essentially about the drive from Boston Logan airport to a small town on the Canadian border in the state of New Hampshire called Dixville Notch. But I guess the context of the trip helps?

Having gone from terminal building to transport bus to hire car company, we’d met half a dozen people and engaged them in conversation, not one of which were or had ever voted Democratic! I was beginning to get nervous about Obama’s chances if we could meet people at all levels of the economic spectrum but not find a supporter of his…. Maybe he had alienated the country? Having spent time in Pittsburgh last year I was able to correctly predict the route our journey would take. Leaving Boston on a bumpy under maintained four lane highway, the signs of a metropolis were clear; concrete over passes, a mish mash of interconnecting highways with houses seemingly crammed onto slip roads, SUVs jostling to primacy over-cutting and undercutting to gain small advantages on the commute back to suburbia. As we moved through place names that resembled the English home counties; Cambridge, Winchester, Andover, we saw a small reduction in traffic and in lane numbers (now down to 3). On crossing the border into New Hampshire we got our first taste of the eccentricities of the north country. “Live free, or die” proclaimed the state we were about to enter, including reminders that we were now allowed to exercise that freedom by not wearing a seatbelt…. Damn those lily livered liberals in Massachusetts and their concern for our welfare. Ant and I chose to buckle up, but I guess as we chose this we were in compliance with the state motto.

Once past Manchester we were treated to the well known beauty of New Hampshire. Down to two lanes now, we were just about able to make out acres of forest on either side of the highway as the sun plummeted below the horizon. Even though it was only 6pm the darkness of the night sky and rural environs made it feel much more like 10pm or even midnight. Down to one lane and warnings of moose 500yds ahead. How the local transportation police knew with such certainty that a series of permanent signs were appropriate I don’t know. Luckily we didn't have an encounter with a moose to verify the accuracy of their claims. Quickly off the beaten track, through a range of literal one horse towns that pepper the rural New Hampshire roads. Typically a Rite Aid (equivalent of Boots), a tavern, a church and maybe a dozen houses to provide customers for this local economy. As we traveled further and further north we kept a regular check on the temperature gauge, dropping from a positively balmy 60 degrees in Boston, now down below freezing (32 degrees) which was confirmed by the constant interruptions of snow drifts; making visibility tough but not impossible.

Having exhausted the charms of talk radio exalting the clear landslide victory for Romney that was just around the corner, we stopped off in one of the Rite Aid’s in a one horse town, for a stretch, take on some fluids and a cheeky packet of M&Ms. One more hour of driving brought us into deep forest, and more snow drifts. And finally after four hours of driving we reach our destination; an RV park on top of a hill in the middle of nowhere. No lights, no sound, no people, seemingly no wildlife either. On arrival we were greeted by a 6ft tall bear of a man who was the guest house owner, a full shock of white and grey hair atop his head and the hard worn complexion of an outdoors man, indeed just the sort of chap who wouldn't take to kindly to two office workers. He welcomed us in and immediately assumed we were reporters coming to write copy on the oddity of the Dixville Notch democratic electoral process. Conversation moved too quickly for two guys who had been cooped up in a Toyota Camry for 4 hours, and so we forgot to set him straight.

Hungry, and bleary eyed from a journey that had began in Washington DC at 6am that morning we sought refuge in the only pub in Colebrook; the Dancing Bear. Arriving at just before 9 we both order burgers, and were promptly served. The only other patrons in the pub were prospective state senator Jeff Woodburn and his aide. After they left it was clear (from all other lights in the building being sequentially turned off) that the bar was keen for us to move on. On inquiring about the official closing time we were told “well we closed earlier than this yesterday evening”. Our plans of staying until just before midnight and hot footing it to the ski lodge that would hold the vote were scuppered. Which in hindsight was a stroke of luck; as it took us over an hour to find the polling place, secluded as it was down a dirt track road with limited signage that was guarded by an actual lone wolf!

So that brings us to why we were there. Ant has the original idea of backing up our 2008 Denver trip to the Democratic national convention with an election week adventure. What we wanted to be careful of was repeating the assumption of the Denver trip; that we would be able to get close to the action and experience democracy in action at close quarters. We chose Washington and Boston, over the draw of going to a swing state (Colorado, New Hampshire, Florida, Ohio, Michigan, Virginia, et al) as we wanted to be able to have a plan B if all else failed. Where did Dixville Notch come from? Well an episode of the West Wing of course. Dixville Notch and Harts Location (or Harts Landing as it is referred to in the West Wing) take advantage of a New Hampshire election law that allows the vote to be opened and closed if all of the eligible voters are present. Dixville Notch has 10 registered voters, and so it isn't a push to ensure that they are all available at midnight on election day morning to open and close the ballot and announce the results. Harts location has a trickier job of being first in the nation, as they have closer to 40 registered voters. Aside from being first, Dixville Notch has absolutely no bearing on the election results, other than it is pretty much the only thing the news networks report in the first 12 hours of election day.

Drawing into the car park, we saw two imposing satellite trucks positioned to broadcast the results live nationally. We approached the building with great trepidation, after all we had no accreditation and were simply two British tourists. There was no one on the door, but a sign advising us not to campaign for a candidate beyond this point. We walked up the hall to the main room of the hunting lodge and encountered our first and only resistance. The coordinator of the election warmly welcomed us, advised us to not get in the way of the camera’s or the cordoned off “VIP” area for the 10 voters and suggested we help ourselves to the chocolate brownies and coffee provided in what usually was the bar area. Needless to say we were both flabbergasted! Front row seats, alongside the global news media!

Needless to say it was very surreal, we had a reporter speaking live to Piers Morgan on CNN, the AFP making frantic stabs at their computer keyboard, the University of New Hampshire student news paper took our names to add to a human interest story that they were doing, and local State senate candidate Jeff Woodburn overseeing the results that hopefully would kick start his entry into public office. My excitement was further enhanced by the results the first time they had seen a tie in the history of the vote. This also made me glum, as having watched live the Redskins beaten by the Panthers (an election week bad omen for sitting presidents), not encountered a single Democrat in Massachusetts, and now witnessed a tie I was more than nervous about the President’s chances of re-election. I needn't have been concerned, as it all appeared to be over by 9pm and confirmed just after 11:18 that evening.

Throughout the trip I was taking video with the occasional commentary here are some of the highlights

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