By Natalie F. JonesDerek Thompson has been retired for about a year, but is getting restless. The 62-year-old former hairstylist and cosmetology instructor has hired an adviser, a former U.S. Senate aide, to help him figure out the first steps to getting involved in city government.
“What I have more than anything are ideas,” Thompson said. He has a lot of opinions about what happens in his community and the country.
But he did not vote for president in 2012.
For Thompson, a great-grandfather who lives in Vancouver, Wash., right across the Columbia River from Portland, Ore., politics isn’t about parties — it’s about issues and candidates. And he didn’t like his two main options in 2012, so he chose not to support either President Barack Obama or Republican Mitt Romney.
“I’ll vote in presidential elections if they have somebody that I like,” he said.
Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts and CEO of Bain and Co. , seemed too isolated in the upper class and oblivious or uncaring of the needs of regular people, Thompson said, and he didn’t trust what he sees as Obama’s meteoric rise to power.
“How do you just come up out of nowhere and become nominated for the most powerful position
probably in the entire world?” he said. “To me, that’s scary.”
He sat out the presidential race in 2008 as well, but he did vote for Democrat John Kerry in 2004. Thompson also liked John Edwards before it was revealed he’d he got tangled up in an affair and fathered a child with the woman.
Thompson’s politics are guided in large part by his faith. A survey by the Medill School of Journalism found six types of nonvoters, and Thompson, a Christian, falls into the “Faithful Activist” category. While some religions, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, prohibit their members from voting, Thompson’s does not, but his beliefs do influence the way he votes on particular issues and how he feels about candidates.
He said he will always vote against gay marriage or gay rights initiatives, for example, despite having close friends and relatives who are gay.
“Whatever God says, that’s it, whether I believe it or not,” he explained. “That’s how I look at things.”
He also cites candidates’ position on U.S. support for Israel and anti-abortion policies as issues that will affect his views on whether to support them. While his faith informs some of his political choices, he does acknowledge some validity to the idea of separation of church and state.
“Even in the Bible, you know, God decreed that the politicians would not be priests, the priests would not be politicians and there is a reason for that,” Thompson said.
But when it comes to his vote, he believes he has to let his interpretations of the Bible guide his decisions.
On paper, the church he attends is Baptist, but he describes it as more of an inclusive,
nondenominational Christian environment. He has been a part of the church for about nine years. Growing up, his parents weren’t religious, but he went to church with his grandmother. He began to veer away from religion in his teens and returned to it much later in his life, when he found his current church.
Unlike some nonvoters, he is active in his community. In addition to thinking about venturing into local government, he regularly donates his time and hairstyling expertise to provide haircuts for homeless and needy men in the area. He describes himself as an active consumer of news and information from all kinds of sources, and a people person who enjoys getting into conversations about the issues that are important to him. He is also exploring the possibility of participating in a cable access show about local public affairs.
Although he expressed skepticism about local politicians and electoral mechanisms as well as national elected officials, he does cast a ballot in his local elections. He is particularly concerned about the Columbia River Crossing project in the Portland area – a proposed transportation plan that would expand the traffic capacity between Portland and the Washington side of the Columbia River. He believes the project would improve the economic conditions of the region.
Thompson tries to stay well-informed about what’s going on around him, and he rejected the idea that not voting is a sign of apathy or invalidates the right to have opinions on politics.
“I will vote, but I feel like I have the right not to vote as well,” Thompson said.
And he will make clear why he’s not voting.
“I have a right to complain if I don’t vote,” he says. “Because I didn’t want either one of them in there in the first place.”