Are Politicians a Deterrent to Voting?

By Siobhan Hughes
Medill News Service

Gramby, N.Y. — Politicians are so dishonest and one man’s vote matters so little that it’s not worth voting, according to Richard Hobby, a 43-year-old electrician living in this upstate New York town of factories and dairy farms.

“They don’t care,” he said. Adjusting his Syracuse Orangman’s cap as he crossed his arms and took up a position in his recliner chair. “They’re just in it for the money.”

“I never really cared about politics anyway,” he added. He prefers watching car races, building electrical panels and using computers.

Hobby, who said he has never registered to vote, spent election night watching television in his ranch-style home, a neatly kept gray house covered with aluminum siding. His longtime girlfriend, Jane Moulton, worked on a puzzle while Hobby sat in a recliner chair, smoking an occasional cigarette. Moulton said she doesn’t vote either because she doesn’t really think her vote will matter.

“I really don’t know anybody who votes,” Hobby said, adding that he has “enough politics at work” without participating in elections.

In a national survey of nonvoters conducted this summer by Medill News Service, Hobby was among the estimated 12.3 million “Don’t Knows” nationwide who opt out of the political process for reasons they can’t pinpoint. Such “Don’t Know” nonvoters are generally over 45, earn less than $30,000 a year, have high-school educations, largely ignore politics and have few political opinions. But that category does not neatly match Hobby’s profile.

Hobby worked for Oswego Wire for four years and now works there on a contract basis. He said he was vice president of the United Autoworkers Local 1826 from 1991 to 1992, and the chief steward of Local 491 of the sheet metal workers from 1981 to 1991. So it’s not that Hobby is uninvolved.

And far from being pathetic, Hobby feels deeply about not voting in elections. He can’t say exactly what started his political alienation, but he suggests it dates back to the Vietnam War, when in his early 20s he came home to “a country that didn’t care about [veterans] anymore.”

“You’re home dancing and eating Burger King, and we’re over there and then come home and get spit on,” he said. “This country embarrassed me … And the government won’t even do anything [for you].

“I’m not talking about the ones that lost their lives,” he said. “They got a big monument.”

Complicating matters is that he feels ignored by politicians whom he says contributed to the disappearance of manufacturing jobs from New York by endorsing high state taxes.

“No wonder everybody goes to Georgia [and] Mississippi,” he said.

“There is no manufacturing in New York state anymore.” Nestle’s just laid off 140 people at its Oswego plant, the latest in a string of manufacturing layoffs in this area, Hobby said.

The strain of unemployment is showing in the community. Hobby’s street is dotted with “for sale” signs and several houses in Oswego County have the look of abandoned shacks, reflecting the area’s economic hard times. Moulton said people are worried about the future.

It’s somewhat disconcerting that this depressed community is situated in the midst of some of New York’s most beautiful country. The Oswego River, branching south from Lake Ontario near the Canadian border, is a mile from Hobby’s home. Residents maintain pumpkin patches and makeshift vineyards, throwing shades of orange and purple into the country’s landscape. And this time of year, Canadian geese cut V shapes against a colorless sky.

But the picture as Hobby sees it from his living room is uniformly bleak. Even a television ad for Joe Fahey, who is running for a Supreme Court judgeship in New York, evokes a measure of anger in Hobby.

“I’ve been in support court,” he said, “and I’ve been in front of a judge that was always for the parent who had the child. He left me with about $50 a month. … And I’m not one of those deadbeat dads … I’ve been paying child support for 25 years.”

Hobby has a daughter, 11, and had a son who died a few years ago just before turning 21.

“I just want it to be fair,” he said of child support. “[But] the court systems are so corrupt they won’t sympathize with you. They don’t want to consider your bills,” he said.

Though Hobby said he doesn’t even know anyone who votes, there are 73,747 registered voters in Oswego County, with 4,070 of those in Gramby, according to the Oswego County Board of Elections. Eighty percent of the county’s registered voters voted in 1992, according to the election board.

About a mile away from Hobby’s home is Rosie’s Tavern, owned by his neighbor, Rose Anthony, a candidate for town council. In the neighboring town of Cato, patrons of Cato’s Family Diner said they planned to vote, because “what other way is there to complain?” as one man put it.

But Hobby, who by all indications pays attention to politics, said he doesn’t think his vote matters.

“Every time I hear the [poll] numbers, [I see that] there wasn’t one race where my vote would have made a difference,” he said. “But I just in general don’t like politics because they’re not honest,” he added as an afterthought.

Hobby said politicians’ promises to cut taxes are an example of dishonesty.

“When they say they’re going to cut taxes for the middle class, I don’t even believe it anymore,” he said. Hobby speculated that federal tax-cutting is meaningless anyway, because if the federal government cuts taxes, “I know the local government is going to come along and raise them,” he said.

What it all comes down to, said Hobby, is that “this country does not offer anything to anyone that’s lower class.”

President Kennedy was the only politician who inspired Hobby, but Kennedy’s reported extramarital affairs left Hobby with a bad feeling. Hobby says he is disgusted with President Clinton, especially because Clinton avoided the draft for the Vietnam War.

A good presidential candidate would be “somebody that went through at least two wars and owned their own business,” he said.

“Why can’t they all be like Ross Perot?” he asked. “If I was going to vote, I’d vote for Ross Perot. Mainly because the man’s spending his own damn money,” Hobby said as Fluffy the cat got comfortable at his feet.

“I’ve done my own form of politics” as a union steward, Hobby said. “And I did not make any promises I couldn’t keep.”

So for Hobby, is there no redemption for national politicians?

“Maybe somewhere down the line there’ll be an honest one,” he said.

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