Political Tide Shifting in Tidewater, Va.
ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Liane Hansen is away. I'm Andrea Seabrook. In the run-up to November's mid-term elections, several big issues divide the nation, and not necessarily along traditional party lines. The war in Iraq and immigration stand out. Each touches regular Americans' lives every day. But neither political party has rallied even its most faithful with a clear, consistent position.
Virginia's 2nd Congressional District in many ways reflects this larger national trend. There the incumbent Republican, Thelma Drake, and the Democratic challenger, Phil Kellam, are trading harsh words and television attack ads.
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ANNOUNCER: Phil Kellam is continuing his dishonest, negative campaign. This time he's playing politics with military families.
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ANNOUNCER: And Thelma Drake? She voted against veterans' health programs, against lower prescription drug costs for military families, and against healthcare benefits for the National Guard.
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ANNOUNCER: Millions stream in over a broken border, and when they arrive, liberals fight to give illegal aliens government handouts.
Mr. PHIL KELLAM (Democratic Congressional Candidate, Virginia): I'm Phil Kellam, and what we need now is an independent voice in Congress, not someone who votes with the Republican leadership 98 percent of the time.
SEABROOK: Sounds like an all-out political war. But travel to this tidewater area of southern Virginia, and you find that people going about their daily lives want something new from their representatives in Washington.
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SEABROOK: George Hamer(ph) is a crabber. With 300 wire traps, called crab pots, he makes his living on the tidal creeks and waterways of Virginia's eastern shore, on the tip of the Delmarva Peninsula. He stands at the end of a long pier out on Parting Creek, his banged-up skiff tied to the pilings, and he points to a long line of bobbing green buoys that mark his crab pots. Hamer describes the daily work of shaking each pot's catch onto his boat.
Mr. GEORGE HAMER (Crabber): You pull it with a pull, you grab the buoy with a hook, you pull the buoy on, you pull the pot. See all the dings?
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SEABROOK: It looks like you've had...
Mr. HAMER: That's where you throw crab pots.
SEABROOK: Have you been out already today?
Mr. HAMER: We're not going out today. I didn't go out today.
SEABROOK: Why not?
Mr. HAMER: Because of the price of crabs, the availability of crabs, we've cut back to three days instead of five.
SEABROOK: Oh, wow.
Mr. HAMER: It doesn't pay to go out every day.
SEABROOK: Hamer flicks his cigarette into the wind and recites the costs of being a modern waterman. There's the price of the pots - you lose a few in every big storm - diesel fuel for the truck and unleaded for the boat's motor, the cost of the bait, of course. All these things make crabbing a hard way to make a living.
Hamer says he's made zero profit the last two years, but more than anything, Hamer blames his troubles on unchecked immigration and treaties that allow fishing competition from Asia.
Mr. HAMER: So when we go to market, we're now competing with the Japanese, the Thai. All of them are fishing our waters and selling our product cheaper than we can. They live on the boats, they eat off the boats, and it's the same thing that's happening with, I think, the immigration thing, where as an electrician, you would make X amount of dollars here. That X has a lot more weight below the border. The bottom line is there won't be any crabbers down here in about five more years. There can't be. How are you going to make a living? Everybody I know has pulled their pots already but me. Do you see any other buoys out there? They're all green.
SEABROOK: Yours are the green ones?
Mr. HAMER: Mine are the green ones.
SEABROOK: Hamer says he's fed up, and he's poised to take his anger out on the party in charge.
Mr. HAMER: Up till George Bush went into office, I was a card-carrying Republican. When he started saying that he was going to allow eight million felons come into this country and just be okay...
SEABROOK: You're talking about immigration?
Mr. HAMER: Yes, yeah. I don't think that should be allowed. So as a card-carrying Republican, I mailed mine back.
SEABROOK: Hamer is the Grand Old Party's worst nightmare: a former true believer now disillusioned. The president and Republicans in Congress are split over immigration and international trade, and then there's the war. So the local Republican Congresswomen, Thelma Drake, and the party nationwide, hope another group of tired voters can help them out, those that are disillusioned with the other party, like George Hamer's wife. She's upset about the war.
Ms. VALERIE HAMER (Crabber's Wife): Well, I'm disappointed in the Democrats because they don't seem to have a way out either.
SEABROOK: Valerie Hamer stands next to her husband on the front lawn, looking out toward that pier, and says Republicans have led the country into a mess in Iraq. She hopes Democrats can lead the way out, but she's not happy with their position either.
Ms. HAMER: It's more like, well, look at what the Republicans are doing, but they don't actually put anything on the table to say, well, we would do this. It seems that everybody runs around and says, look at what they do wrong, without ever having to say this is how we would make it right. And I think it makes it harder on Americans. I think that's why Americans vote more for American Idol than they do the presidential election. I mean, at least they feel they have a vote in American Idol, where in politics a lot it's just like - it's really the same person with a different coat on. I think a lot of people feel that way.
SEABROOK: The tidewater region is just one part of the Second District. Follow the coast of the eastern shore south and across the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, and you come to Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk, and Virginia Beach. These are largely military cities. With several big Navy, Army and Air Force installations, it seems every third person is in uniform.
And no one looks up when a flight of F-18 Hornets rips across the sky. At the Oceana Naval Air Station outside the exchange, Marine Corps Staff Sergeant Robert Brown parks his car and heads towards the store. Like many customers, he wears tan and brown and olive fatigues.
Sergeant ROBERT BROWN (U.S. Marines): We call them cammies inside the Marine Corps. These are chevrons, staff sergeant. Actually, they're great cammies because you don't even have to iron them. They stay unwrinkled the whole time you wear them.
SEABROOK: This election, Brown says, he'll stick with the Republicans, because he wants to make sure that the U.S. stays in Iraq.
Sgt. BROWN: I want to go over there and do what I was trained for. So I don't think we should pull out, because I think we're making a huge difference there. I've seen it, you know, first hand. And especially the quality of life has just gone up dramatically for them. You know, for so - like, you know, a couple of months having to go over there every once in a while doesn't seem such a bad thing as helping out a whole population of people like that.
SEABROOK: But Brown says not everyone in the military feels this way. A lot of people are tired of getting called to Iraq - two, three, and four times, leaving their families to manage without them.
Across town, at the Costco Warehouse Store, Evelyn DeWalt and her friend Mildred Joyner just finished their shopping. These two southern ladies sit down for a snack of hotdogs, eaten with forks and knives, and Evelyn DeWalt explains why it's hard for her to keep supporting this war.
Ms. EVELYN DEWALT (Grandmother of Soldier): My grandson is in the Army and he's stationed at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas. And he's leaving on the 5th of November. He's got to be in Kuwait on the 6th. Of course it's very heartbreaking for me, because I had a husband in World War II and we had a baby while he was gone. He never even saw her. He was gone two years. I had a son in Vietnam and now I got a grandson going to Kuwait. So it's not easy for me.
And I think that we accomplished what Bush said he wanted to do. And I think that because that - all that uprising over there is they don't want us over there. And you know what? I can't blame those people. We did what we wanted to do, now let them go forward. Why should we be losing all of our service people - men, women, you know?
SEABROOK: Voters like Evelyn DeWalt and crabber George Hamer see much more at stake in this election than a politician's victory or defeat. They see good men and women ship out and fewer coming home. They see the traditional ways of living and working on the Virginia Waterways shifting and changing around them. To many, voting Republican used to be something they felt good about, like being in the military or their rugged, rural way of life. But now it seems things are different, and Republicans will have to fight for every vote.
Our visit to the 2nd Congressional District of Virginia was produced by Elaine Heinzman.
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