O, America . . .

Reflections on Election Day, 2004

Photo by Matt OttoBROTHERS

Long Beach, Nov. 1, 8:15 a.m.

Eli the gas-station guy used to be all bubbly when I bought gas at his station. "I never see you anymore," he'd usually say—and it was true. Now, I'm there every other day, and his silence is worse than his small talk, so Monday I tried to fill it by asking him if he was ready to vote the next day. Yes, he said, his eyes piercing behind wire-framed glasses. "Who you vote for?" he asked, his Middle Eastern accent thick, his handlebar mustache suddenly bristling, and I realized: this could change my relationship with Eli forever. It gave me pause for about five seconds before I blurted out "John Kerry." And it was like the lights went on inside the dank, dim little kiosk, and he thrust his thick, meaty paw at me to shake. "That honky motherfucker," he said firmly, there being no doubt whom he meant. "Killing all those kids, those eight Marines." Kerry had taken us from acquaintances to friends, and I felt no compunction telling him about my sister the pediatrician who's voting for Bush and who sent my dad a post card with Bush's simian mug on it, urging us to do the same. As I confessed, I made the crazy circle around my ear with my finger, and I said clearly, "She's crazy." Eli, whose family all voted for Kerry, understood. "Brainwashed," he said as he handed me my receipt. (Theo Douglas)

DOGGY-STYLE

Newport Beach, Nov. 2, 7:35 a.m.

I've just moved here from Sacramento, a place that is ostensibly more like the rest of America—the redder parts—than Orange County, and I can tell you that what's really weird about the move is this: it's voting in Newport Beach, standing in line behind two absolutely manufacturer-quality women (everything engineered to perfection), and then hearing the improbable sound of, first, one dog and then another, little-dog barks like sneezes. The two women looked into their Coach bags and hushed the canines—yes, there were dogs in there—and a third woman built from similar specs turned to reveal that she, too, had a small white dog in her purse. They talked neither of Bush nor Kerry, but rather of dogs. It turned out—O, happy revelation!—that each dog was of the same breed. "How much does your dog weigh?" one asked the others. One said three, the other four; the third dog was, its owner said with something like apprehension, six pounds, a comparative whopper. Silence fell on the beautiful little assembly. "What are you feeding her?" one asked. "I'm feeding her what the breeder recommended," said Fatty's owner. "Oh, then," sniffed one of the others, "maybe it's not really a purebred." Fatty's owner looked horrified. They switched quickly to a less-controversial subject: Were they all voting for Bush? They were. O, happy revelation! And now it was my turn to look horrified. (Mark Kochel)

FLOORIDA

East Long Beach, 10 a.m.

The line has gone down by the time my wife and I get to our polling place in Linoleum City. The only sign a nation's future is at stake here is a shopworn blond woman with dark roots who's just voted and is rushing to move her battered Honda Civic—illegally parked across the driveway of the mysterious Greek guy next door. At Linoleum City—where voters decide in a forest of Congoleum rolls that reach for the ceiling—everyone's mind is on how badly Florida screwed things up four years ago. "This is the first time we're using provisional ballots," one election worker says. "This time, there could be three Floridas." Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida? Ohio, Ohio, Ohio? No one knows. "We close at 8, and then we have to tally everything up. I probably won't get home until midnight," another election official says. "And then we won't find out the results until June." (Theo Douglas)

NOSHING WITH BUSHIES

Irvine, high noon.

Each Election Day, Orange County's Republicans gather at noon to toast their regional hegemony. They are, like the rest of us, beautiful and ugly, kind and evil; mostly beautiful and evil, but on this day, they are also quietly relieved that Nov. 2, 2004, marked the end of an especially wretched campaign season. It turns out the rich are not so different from you and I: many Republicans dining under the chandeliers in the Irvine Marriott banquet room were as disgusted by their presidential options as Democrats. They don't merely dislike Bush; they despise him. This collection of Orange County Republicans, it seems, is not part of Fox Nation. No matter how much they hate John Kerry, a few offered they don't like Bush much better. One Republican elected official leaned in and told me, "I feel pretty much like those guys [in the Bush White House] led us into a dark alley and mugged us." He said he had simply left the presidential part of his ballot unmarked—couldn't vote for Bush, wouldn't vote for Kerry. Another acknowledged that for the first time, he voted "for a fucking Democrat." If you've never been to the Election Day Lunch, you should: the chicken is moist, and though the bar is no-host, the humor is abundant. Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle was brilliant throughout a standup routine that allowed him several chances to observe that childhood friend (and Garden Grove City Councilman Mark Leyes) is fat; that backing Bill Jones for U.S. Senate is a "like having a grand piano in the front of your kayak"; that the ballroom's vast stage was too small to handle all the ex-state legislators present, not because of term limits, but—vis-à-vis party chairman Scott Baugh—"because of pasta." Supervisor Chris Norby offered a series of passable presidential impersonations; predictably, Clinton got to deny having had sex with Monica and Reagan got to say, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." I'd laugh harder to once more hear Reagan observe that a Lebanese ambassador looked like Danny Thomas or that "facts are stupid things." But it's wrong to speak ill of the dead or maybe to conjure up the dead speaking ill of themselves. Election malfeasance was on everyone's mind, and not just allegations of Democratic or Republican vote fixing in swing states. A public-relations flak for a noteworthy OC institution that shall remain nameless reached for my hand and introduced herself with reference to her placement on last week's Weekly list of Scariest People. She had years ago told me the Weekly is mean-spirited, and nothing we've done since has persuaded her otherwise. It's nice to know we haven't lost our edge, but I said I would re-read her entry and consider that maybe she wasn't as terrible as we had said she was. Now, back in the office, I've just finished reading her entry and would say that we were not only right, but that we also didn't go far enough. In addition to trying to muzzle the press, she's also inept. Say what you will about the Weekly, No. 14, but remember Mark Twain's admonition, which should be molded into the plastic archway over every school of public relations: never get into a fight with a man who buys ink by the barrel. (Will Swaim)

SWING STATE OF MIND

Sante Fe, New Mexico, 1 p.m.

My parents didn't know each other when George McGovern ran for president in 1972. But from their separate corners of town, they logged endless volunteer hours to help elect McGovern, the man they believed would take the nation to a better place. And then he lost. So Richard Nixon became president and my parents had two kids, bought a minivan and drove their kids to soccer practice. Life in Orange County was as non-political as you could get. Then President George W. Bush wanted to be president, again. My parents drove for 13 hours to the swing state of New Mexico. Within days of their arrival, they were put to work doing fantastically mundane things like phone banking and labeling. Still, as the last weekend before the election neared, I wanted to see what it was all about. I jumped on a red-eye and met up with my folks in time for the last Santa Fe rally. Bill Clinton and Teresa Heinz were there. And so was a crowd of 8,000 hungry Clinton fans and Kerry supporters. It was a crazy, wonderful gathering, and within two hours of opening the gates, they knocked down the barricades we put up and rushed the "reserved" seating areas. It was like a rock concert with less drinking and a milder mosh pit. People climbed trees, traffic lights and one another to get a better look at their beloved Bill and, now, Teresa. But the most amazing part was to see my previously non-political parents, carrying signs and sporting buttons, completely immersed in the energy and hope. (Valerie Howard)

SOCKS WIN!

Seal Beach, 2 p.m.

At Grace Community Church, a middle-aged woman in semi-obscene spandex shorts stands outside, bending the ear of a noticeably uninterested young man. "You know he cheated in 2000," she said. "Gas is $2.50 here, but it's under $2 in Texas." When the woman's elderly mother finished voting inside, Ms. Spandex asks, "Did you get your sticker?" Mom hadn't, so they both go back inside to get her sticker from the voting official. "She's 80," the daughter tells the official. "I'm not stupid," her mother shoots back. "I didn't say you were stupid. I said you were 80. That's why you don't have any socks on." (Rex Reason)

MAY I INSPECT YOUR POLL?

Rossmoor, 3 p.m.

In the emerging age of electronic voting and paperless totals, how do we know whether every vote gets counted? Veteran Orange County poll worker Nia Hartman has been asking that since she was an inspector during the county's first official electronic-ballot election last March. "The hardware is impressive," she says at the Rossmoor polling site she's overseeing. "But how do we verify all this?" Hartman is an electrical engineer and a computer consultant with a strong background in operating systems and a mind that seems to generate the question "What if?" "What if there's a computer failure, vandalism, an electronic glitch, a hacker incident or a lost JBC [the Judges Booth Controller, better known as "black box," which electronically stores the totals]. Where's the paper backup? Where are the checks and balances?" Hartman's concerns are nothing new. There has been a growing outcry against the E-voting systems. Critics have agitated for, at the very least, a simple ballot receipt given to each voter. "It's really a very simple modification that would accomplish this," she says. "It could be generated right out of the E-Slate machines in the booths. We provided very similar voting machines to the Afghanis in their recent election, and they were able to get a printout of their individual totals using our machines we sent over there. Are we any less deserving an electorate than the Afganis?" But county registrar spokesman Brett Rowely simply waves off any need for paper backup. "We do logic and accuracy testing," he says. "We do parallel monitoring. We have police presence at all collection points and at our central voting-tabulation facility to insure the security of the process. We could print out exactly what they see at the polling site. But frankly, we just don't see the need or expense to generate more paper." But Hartman believes that as long as people are running elections, there's always going to be margin for error or fraud. "I can only see as far as I can see," she says. "Beyond that, like a lot of Americans I know, my threshold for trust gets a little thin. You wouldn't leave the grocery store or the ATM without a receipt. Is your vote any less valuable?" (John Underwood)

DIRTY POLITICS

Anaheim, 4 p.m.

Hardhatted Pick Your Part employee Frank Reynoso had all Election Day to ponder life's big questions—Does God exist? Does Bush exist? Did his vote really count?—inside his cinderblock booth at the entrance to the junkyard. He was sure of Bush; sure of God; but not so sure his vote, which he cast by computer promptly at 7 that morning, would reach its destination. "In the computer, anyone can get to it," Reynoso said, his orange work shirt clashing spectacularly with his yellow helmet as he admonished me to wear closed-toed shoes, which I already was. Voting with the computer was as easy as dismantling a 1986 Buick Regal, according to Reynoso. Make a mistake and just hit the red button to fix it. Old people, he said, were the only ones having trouble. But did he really think someone was messing with the votes? "I think there's something going on," he said, mentioning the mess in Ohio where some voting machines had more than 1,000 votes already on them before the polls opened. His biggest peeve, other than being a small cog in a mighty wheel, was the sticker. "They didn't give me a sticker," Reynoso lamented, eyeing mine. "They didn't have any." (Theo Douglas)

EXPATRIATES FOR BUSH

Mazatlan, Mexico, 6 p.m.

Paul and Joyce Petti spent Election Night some 1,500 miles south of the Huntington Beach precinct where they are registered to vote, scrunched into a corner of a tiny bar up a back alley in a tarnished section of Mazatlan's so-called Golden Zone. It would be hard to imagine a place farther removed from one of the most-intense presidential campaigns in U.S. history . . . if not for that ballot box sitting just a few feet away. "There has been so much interest in this election among our customers," says owner Maricha de Veselik, a Mexican woman who has turned the Saloon into a homey watering-hole-in-the-wall away from home for Mazatlan's community of American expatriates—including her husband. "So we decided to have a little election, too." When the waiter shows up at the Pettis' table, he brings a ballot. "Well, we already voted absentee," announces Joyce, a cinnamon blonde in her 60s with a personality as indefatigable as her sun-blasted skin. "But don't mind voting again," adds Paul, cutting short a gulp from a schooner of beer that glistened on his unruly moustache as he spoke. "We're enthusiastic about this election—can't you tell?" The Pettis are dressed in bright red, the better to show their political colors. Their fellow Republican friends showed up that way, too, although most of them weren't nearly as convivial. "We voted for Bush, of course—well, my husband Ted voted for both of us," says Nancy Rogers, a chatty Minnesotan who keeps chatting despite Ted's obvious disdain of reporters. "That doesn't make you too popular down here, where most people—Mexicans and Americans—just hate Bush, although Ted says that's because the Mexicans are non-confrontational and the Americans don't know what they are talking about." At this point, Ted grabs her arm and leans his mouth to her ear. "Shut up!" he says. And she does. Meanwhile, the bartender ignites a couple of TVs at each end of the room—FOX News on the left, of all places, and CNN on the right—and the election returns dribble in to cheers and groans and exuberant toasts and sullen pulls. Everybody came here from somewhere. Mike Smith sailed in from San Diego a few years ago on a boat that's since been impounded. Bob Howe staggered in from Idaho on a drunken bender that took seven years to subside. A former Mississippi riverboat pilot called Captain Moe came because he was tired of Kentucky and living in the Caribbean was too rich for his pension. "In some ways, being down here makes you feel separate from the craziness up in the States," says Captain Moe, "but the election makes a big difference when things like Social Security and Medicare are at stake. And then the war, of course. That makes me sick." But the Pettis sometimes feel as though they've never left Huntington Beach. "Heck, we've got DirectTV, so we can get all the Southern California channels—5, 9, 11, 13," says Joyce. "And I don't feel any less like an American, politically—I've always been a conservative," adds Paul, kind of chuckling as he continues, "I'm the kind of guy who thinks that after we finish in Iraq, well, we oughta go in and clean up Iran and Syria and North Korea, too. And then France!" The election at the Saloon mirrored pretty closely the real thing up north: Bush 49, Kerry 42, various others 15. (Dave Wielenga)

DRESSED FOR REPRESS

Anaheim, 7:27 p.m.

As I arrived at my polling place, the sweet old lady behind the table saw my shirt, grinned hugely and said, "Oh, I see you're wearing a President Bush shirt." She winked her approval. I leaned in, slightly opened my sweater and revealed the writing to the side of Bush's picture. "Actually," I pointed out, "it's a 'Not My President' shirt." You could almost hear the tinkle of her little heart breaking. Her grin turned into a grimace. "You must zip up that sweater. You can't wear that in here. It's against the rules." I asked her what rule forbids a T-shirt. "Tell her it's against the rules," she said to a fellow poll worker. "Tell her it's against the rules to advertise in here." She waved my ballot in a way that indicated I'd better zip up my sweater. I took my sweater off, took my ballot and voted. I won a battle but lost the war for free speech. (Nadia Afghani)

CLASS ACTS

Placentia, 8 p.m.

Ryan Kenny walks into the Placentia City Council chambers, sits in the front row and promptly elbows city treasurer candidate Greg Sowards in the ribs. Kenny, son-in-law of Placentia Mayor Judy Dickinson, has already earned the enmity of Sowards since Kenny spent the majority of this fall illegally defacing Sowards' signs. But tonight, with his mother-in-law in danger of being booted out of office, the burly Kenny is itching for a fight with the fiftysomething man whose diligent research had exposed Dickinson's role in burdening Placentia with a $31 million debt. After a testy exchange, Sowards gets up and sits toward the back of the chambers; Kenny follows. When Sowards tries to leave his seat, Kenny rakes his sneakers against Sowards' shin. He nearly falls. I sit in the same row as the two. I ask Kenny to calm down. His nostrils flare as he cocks his black-cap-bedecked head toward me. "You shut up," he snarls. "Why should I?" I shoot back. "Shut your face," he repeats. "Come and make me." "You don't even want to try, man," Kenny sputters. "I'm twice your size." He quickly leaves the chambers and does not return. As for Dickinson? She spent most of the council meeting yelling at a mom whose son was run over by a car. (Gustavo Arellano)

STIFFER THAN KERRY

Anaheim, 9:11 p.m.

As Orange County Democrats gather in the Disneyland Hotel, two big-screen TVs are projecting a Bush victory in Florida. This is not only bad news for the Kerry backers, but also for the Lost Boys, who were just finishing their version of that beloved campaign standard "Lay Down Sally" to tremendous indifference. As people drank, Robin Umberg, wife of Democratic 69th Assembly District candidate Tom Umberg, went about the business of arranging her husband on the stage. You see, Tom isn't with us anymore. Actually, he hasn't been around for a while. A colonel in the Army Reserve, he was called up to serve as a military prosecutor at Guantanamo Bay. So while he's been prosecuting suspected terrorists, Robin has been schlepping a cardboard cutout of her husband to various political functions including tonight's festivities. Has Umberg's absence hurt him? Well, as of this hour, he has a comfortable 12 percent lead in his race against Republican Otto Bade, one of the great names of this campaign season. (By early Wednesday morning, Umberg would swamp Bade, 2-1.) Umberg, in his non-cardboarded form, is expected back in December. Robin, who served in the first Gulf War, addressed the assembled, but the celebration never really got going, as more and more red states popped up on the giant TV screens. State Senator Joe Dunn (D-Santa Ana) tried to rally the troops. "It's all about Ohio!" he declared. "We're going to win Ohio, right?" Half-hearted applause followed. Dunn soldiered on. "It was a long night four years ago, and it's going to be a long night tonight, but we're going to win!" About a half hour later, Fox News called Ohio for Bush. Something resembling a cheer went up when Kerry was projected to carry Oregon and its seven electoral votes. "You have to understand," said Paul Lucas, vice president of OC Dems, "these guys are trying to remain positive and hope this country comes to its senses." (Nick Schou)

STRIKE OUT

Newport Beach, 9:30 p.m.

Libertarian U.S. Senate candidate Judge Jim Gray got about 2 percent of the vote, a respectable showing for a campaign predetermined to fail. At his campaign headquarters, he says he was pleased with his showing but that he believed he would have done better if allowed to debate incumbent Barbara Boxer and Republican challenger Bill Jones. In a strange way, Jones' inept campaign may have hurt Gray since it seemed to draw little attention or energy to the race. "This felt like a campaign that never really got started," Gray says. Will he run again? "Oh, I'm not thinking about that right now. I'm just going to take a couple of days off and go to Colorado with my wife [Grace]. Then I'm going back to work. I took a year off from [being a Superior Court judge], and it's time to go back and earn an honest living." Still, Gray did have some fire left for the opponents of Proposition 66, which would have amended California's Three Strikes law. "I've seen the damage Three Strikes has caused, and those people--like Governor Schwarzenegger and Governor Davis and all the rest who came out at the last minute against Prop. 66--know the damage, but they did it because they know appearing to be tough on crime always gets votes. It's unconscionable what they did." (Steve Lowery)

THAT ELECTION THING

Chapman University, Orange, 10 p.m.

They're cheering in the student union, but it's just for a karaoke contest: "I held my nose/I closed my
eyes/I took a drink!" I wouldn't learn till Wednesday that just 10 percent of kids 18-24 voted in this election. The TV is three rooms away, hung over a dozen empty cafeteria tables and a half-dozen silent kids, heads slumped into their hands. Upstairs: "They still doing that election thing?" asks the guy on the stairs. "Yeah," says the guy coming down. "There any free food?" "Naw, it's all gone." They walk out together. (Chris Ziegler)

AMBIEN TIME

Costa Mesa, midnight

At Avalon Bar, Sean Mulvahill is deejaying, a bunch of '50s and '60s shit but nothing political--maybe the gunshots on "My Baby Loves Western Movies," maybe the Shangri-Las walkin' in the sand: "Oh, no! Oh, no! Oh, no, oh, no, oh, no!" The bartender is trying to make change but not finding the bills (or something): "Now don't go all George Bush on me!" says the drinker. It sorta hangs for just a second and then he pulls it back: "Naw, naw, just kidding." The TV is showing a movie; a death's-headed guy with a knife freezes in silhouette under a lurid title: MADHOUSE! There's a lot of laughing. There are only a few people here. Across the street, Detroit is almost empty. "I think people are just home with the covers over their heads," says a guy. At the end of the bar, a girl beams, glides her arm toward her purse, slips forward and kisses her boy. Somebody's cell phone beeps. A text message: I AM GOING TO TAKE MY AMBIEN I AM SO SAD ABOUT KERRY. (Chris Ziegler)

AGRAN AGAIN!

Newport Beach, 12:14 a.m.

While Orange County Republicans celebrated the re-election of George W. Bush and their governor's triumphs on various statewide ballot initiatives, one result dumbfounded them: Irvine's solid support for Larry Agran and his liberal slate. "What the hell happened?" asked GOP strategist Mike Schroeder as he stared at election results around midnight inside the local party's War Room at the Sutton Place Hotel. "I've got to hope it's just early." But Wednesday dawned, and the Republicans were no better. Agran ally Beth Krom defeated Mike Ward for mayor. Agran and fellow Democrat Sukhee Kang grabbed two of three open council seats. Only Steven Choi, the least prominent of the Republicans, won. He'll join Christina Shea as the only two conservatives on the council. The results shouldn't have been a surprise. Like Bush, Agran peddled fear. In a whopping 35 negative mail brochures against his "Irvine First" opponents, Agran falsely claimed that Ward planned to build a casino or a racetrack at the Great Park and that Greg Smith is a stooge for "out-of-town interests" who want to build an airport at El Toro. "Larry clearly doesn't bother with the truth," said Sergio Prince, campaign strategist for the Republican candidates. "The guy is devious." In a county where Republicans usually outfox inattentive Democrats, Agran is in a league of his own. Not content to rely on merely smearing his opponents and overstating his own accomplishments, Agran also insured Krom's election as mayor by running Earle Zucht, a fake Republican, to steal GOP votes from Ward. Who secretly managed Republican Earle Zucht's campaign? Agran. Who paid for Zucht's five glossy mailers sent to Republican households? Agran. Who inspired Zucht's fraudulent message to Republicans that Ward is a Democrat? Agran. The scheme worked. Zucht siphoned 3,500 conservative voters away from Ward. Krom won by 1,500 votes. Victorious, Agran can now celebrate for a couple of days, plot revenge on his defeated opponents and pray the grand jury doesn't turn its attention to Irvine. (R. Scott Moxley)

I'LL LIVE ANOTHER DAY

Costa Mesa, 2:14 a.m.

I've had two dirty martinis and a Maker's and Diet, and I'll live another day. As for my friends at the Kitsch Bar, most of them seemed too banal--"So I says to him, 'Baby, size don't matter!'"--or just too depressed to do anything more than drink another round. Barkeep! Another Maker's Diet to go with the revocation of our civil liberties! The mood? Somber. I message my friend in New York--she's big-time, a journalista at a national mag way bigger than this rag--texting, "Is all hope lost?" Minutes later, I know it is when she texts back, "O, Canada." Not even an ellipsis to give me hope. Will this night ever end? Unfortunately, yes: with two microwaved White Castle burgers and a newly acquired "Bush Sucks!" pin attached to my lapel. O, America . . . (Ellen Griley)

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