Our introduction to the South is quick, and enlightening, as we head from Seattle to cover the Democratic National Convention.
CHARLOTTE — When we exited the sliding doors of the Atlanta airport yesterday, the first thing that hit us was the heat. Whoosh. This was Southern heat: oppressive, sticky, humid. It needed no formal introductions. Our Pacific Northwest jeans and sweaters were out of place.
In the concourse we were greeted with billboards sporting evocative photos of soldiers and slogans. This was not SEATAC. “Come Home Safe!” and “Help carry our wounded warriors home” decorated every other terminal hallway. Georgia is a state that houses 15 bases, forts, stations and airfields.
We pondered the disconnect between the South’s staunch allegiance to its military and the absence of the topic in recent political discourse. Times columnist Danny Westneat pointed out there were barely four mentions of the war in all the speeches given at the RNC—and one of them came from the ramblings of Clint Eastwood. Mitt Romney didn’t speak of the troops at all. Our present Georgian surroundings made that omission seem even more garish. We wondered if the message of the Democratic National Convention, where we were headed, would be different.
In typical Seattleite fashion, the first thing we did after leaving Atlanta International Airport was search for a Starbucks. We got lost immediately. Unwilling to give up on the promise of WiFi and caffeine so easily, we circled the deserted streets of College Park—a historically African American neighborhood, home to rappers Ludacris and Young Joc– for the better part of an hour. But after passing a dozen shuttered businesses, brick Baptist churches and railroad tracks, we resigned ourselves to a no-coffee-on-every-block reality.
We then embarked on a 250-mile trek from Atlanta to Charlotte, which quickly became a journey that challenged our preconceptions of the South.
The region is hardly as Black and White as the coasts tend to perceive it. Whites are the majority (63.2%) and African Americans are the biggest minority (31%) in Georgia, but the state’s racial diversity is changing rapidly. Searching for food off Interstate 85 brought us to sprawling strip malls of unexpected Hispanic and South Asian cuisine, not just BBQ and Southern comfort food.
Our next surprise came in the form of a Democratic Party-friendly fry cook at Waffle House #177 in Norcross, Georgia. UW Election Eye colleague Ilona Idlis had never been to a Waffle House before, and since it’s such a cultural icon of the South, we had to check it out.
As we munched on pecan waffles and a bacon-covered Texas patty melt (almost all of the lunch choices involved bacon somehow), Brad Burgess, grill operator, asked us where we were headed.
We’re headed to cover the DNC, we said, highly conscious of Georgia’s red state status.
“Well, you’ve got the right party,” he exclaimed, and launched into commentary about politics. Burgess said he mistrusted Romney and undisclosed campaign contributions. More than anything, he wanted transparency—a big, online spreadsheet of every expenditure tax dollars pay for, publicly viewed and scrutinized.
“We need to get back to the basics,” he said, invoking a childhood in the Adirondacks in upstate New York. To him that meant bringing manufacturing back to American shores, catching up to the rest of the developed world in terms of socialized healthcare and a government that operates within a budget, like a regular household. As for the election?
“It’ll be an uphill battle for Obama,” he sighed. “Our president is going to have a hard time.”
Indeed, it’s neck and neck in the national polls. Last week in Tampa the Republican Party made their case to the American public. This week the Democrats get their chance here in North Carolina.
Ilona Idlis contributed to this post.