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Swing City?

Why Gilpin Court’s 600 votes could decide the presidential election.

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Editor’s note: This essay is broken into two sections by author.

Thad Williamson:

One hundred and fifty years after the Civil War, Richmond once again finds itself at the center of American history. What happens at the polls on Tuesday in and around the city could well determine the outcome of the presidential race.

Hyperbole? Not according to the campaigns themselves. Counting Joe Biden’s visit to Tredegar on Monday, all four men on the Democratic and Republican tickets have passed through Richmond just in the past fortnight, and all are spending part of the final days in Virginia.

Consider the polling evidence. Nate Silver of The New York Times estimates there is a 12 percent likelihood that Virginia’s 13 electoral votes prove decisive in the election. More pointedly, it will be almost impossible for Mitt Romney to unseat Barack Obama without taking Virginia.

Finally, consider the raft of volunteers who once again have descended upon Richmond to participate in Obama’s extensive get-out-the-vote activities. Richmond is rightly considered prime turf for the president; in 2008, he racked up a margin of nearly 55,000 votes over the McCain-Palin ticket, carrying 79.1 percent of the vote. In Virginia, only Fairfax County provided Obama with a larger margin of victory.

But unlike suburban Fairfax, Richmond proper is uniquely situated to facilitate Obama’s ground game, the old-fashioned way: relentless phone calls, followed by as many direct, face-to-face voter contacts as possible. Further, Democratic strategists are well aware that the 2008 turnout in the city was a large spike compared to the historic norm. Assuring that first-time voters from 2008, sporadic voters, and voters who need special assistance all reach the polls this time around is a major priority for Obama’s campaign in Richmond.

Obama’s ground game already has had an effect on registration numbers, with the State Board of Elections reporting that 6,864 voters were added to voter rolls in October alone (prior to the registration deadline), on top of 4,675 voters added in September. Put another way, 6.8 percent of the roughly 170,000 voters added statewide in September and October live in Richmond, even though the city accounts for just 2.5 percent of the state population.

But voter registrations alone don’t win elections -- actual votes do. That’s why volunteers from Washington, northern Virginia, out-of-state, and even out-of-country have traveled to Richmond for the final days. The Obama office on Main Street is once again a veritable melting pot of racial, generational and international diversity; on Saturday it was stocked full of volunteers making calls. People from Britain, Scandinavia and many other places where Obama remains broadly popular care deeply about whether (and for whom) Richmonders vote on Tuesday.

How does all this international attention play in Gilpin Court? Gilpin Court is the city’s oldest and largest public housing community, and is often presented as Exhibit A in demonstrating the city’s extreme concentrations of poverty. The neighborhood is not listed or advertised in any of the city’s promotional literature. For decades it has been kept out of mind and out of sight, a standing monument to Richmond’s (and America’s) visible neglect of the urban poor.

Astonishingly though, the so-often excluded and disempowered residents of Gilpin Court have a potentially pivotal role to play in Tuesday’s election. In 2008, 591 of 597 voters at the Calhoun Center precinct went for Obama. Famously, the 2000 Bush-Gore election was settled by a (certified) margin of just 537 votes in Florida, and a razor-thin result in Virginia Tuesday is a distinct possibility. Gilpin Court’s residents have, at least on Election Day, a power that many people around the world would covet: the capacity to cast a vote for president in a tightly contested swing state.

The Obama campaign and local organizers have acknowledged the difficulty in finding local volunteers willing to canvass door-to-door in Gilpin. Often it is out-of-towners who have been enlisted to negotiate the sometimes confusing internal geography of Gilpin Court and knock out all the names on the lists. Nonetheless, the campaign is making a concerted effort to reach as many voters as possible and be sure they turn out to vote.

At the most basic level, canvassing in Gilpin Court is no different than canvassing anywhere else. (The authors participated in a recent canvassing effort in Gilpin). It’s tedious work, and you get a range of reactions, from distrustful skepticism to passionate support. We’ve encountered some outright cynicism -- a reference by a resident to the campaign literature we handed out as “some Obama bullshit” -- but much more enthusiasm. Most people simply, politely thanked us for the reminder to go vote.

In addition to the responses, one also quickly hears lot of stories. The story of a man who cannot vote because of his ex-felon status but wants to know if he would be allowed to volunteer on a campaign (yes, he is welcome). The story of a woman who voted in 2008 but has received a letter from the state saying she cannot vote this time because of a past conviction that she says was a misdemeanor, not a felony. An elderly man in a wheelchair in the lobby of Fay Towers (the high-rise building for seniors located in the Gilpin community) who is irate that he cannot vote because of a felony conviction some 32 years ago. And any number of younger men on the street and in the housing units who say they can’t vote because of their ex-felon statuses.

There are also questions from voters who have recently moved seeking clarification on where they need to vote, as well as voters (particularly at Fay Towers) who need a ride to their local polling place. A flyer in the lobby announces an Election Day bus service for residents provided by the A. Philip Randolph Institute, a black trade unionist group. And, inevitably, some residents want to know if the Obama campaign is hiring. The answer is no.

Overall, enthusiasm for the president in Gilpin Court remains very high. No, the conditions of life for Gilpin residents have not fundamentally changed over the past four years. But Obama can point out that his administration’s healthcare reform will be, when and if fully implemented, the biggest expansion of the social safety net in 50 years.

Of course, it’s usually not necessary to enter into such details when canvassing in Gilpin. Obama is universally recognized, and almost as universally appreciated in Richmond’s high-poverty neighborhoods. The swirls of criticism of the president one hears so often in progressive circles aren’t on people’s minds in Gilpin. This surely has much to do with race, and also with an honest recognition that the opposing party does not in any way, shape or form represent residents’ interests. But as my co-author’s comments below show, it also has to do with a shrewd sense of political realism that is sometimes lacking among more privileged progressives.

Lillie A. Estes: Speaking from the perspective of a Gilpin Court resident and community strategist, I offer the observation that no one should have thought President Obama would face an easy road once in Washington or an easy road back to Washington for re-election. Where others might point to Obama’s missteps at various points in his first term, a fair assessment must recognize the influence and intransigence of the white corporate power structure opposed to constructive reforms, as well as the well-financed right-wing movement that has spent the last four years trying to expel the president from office.

The canvassing efforts going on in Gilpin Court now are good, but so much more would have been possible if our local and state elected officials had engaged with residents and neighborhood leaders earlier in the summer or autumn.

I think my co-author makes a valid point. For those possibly not realizing what is at stake in this election, it is more than just maintaining a safety net or creating those much needed jobs. It is also about creating a pathway that allows for a fundamental shift in the human spirit which re-engages the needed restoration of a community, even as poverty-stricken as Gilpin. To do that, politicians and other leaders and frankly, other city residents are going to need to get into the habit of engaging Gilpin Court residents on a regular basis -- not just every November when it’s time to round up votes.

Thad Williamson is Associate Professor of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond. Lillie A. Estes is a community strategist involved in RePHRAME (Residents of Public Housing in Richmond Against Mass Eviction) and many other organizations.

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