Political Awakenings

May 9, 2016

Well, Indiana has had its moment of political glory — serving as the iceberg that sank Ted Cruz’s ship.   Despite the ugliness, this political season has had an upside — reminding seasoned voters how exciting it is to be new to voting and crazy in love with your candidate.

Last week, when our college-age offspring were crammed into a sweaty auditorium in Bloomington to hear Bernie Sanders, I started getting texts from the youngest, reporting on the speech in real time:  “Mom: Bernard says his campaign is listening to women!”  “Mom: Bernard says women, like men, should earn the whole damn dollar.”  I critiqued some of those claims, and she critiqued my critique — both of us enjoying a new level of political repartee. 

It sent me back to my own first election as a new college student in Iowa, tippy-toeing in a rowdy crowd to catch sight of Geraldine Ferraro, wishing she were at the top of the ticket but still thrilled to see a woman stumping for the White House.  I lived in a towering women-only dormitory known as “the virgin vault” (very little truth in that advertising, by the way), and the College Republicans had recruited almost everyone on the top floor to put enormous letters in their windows to spell out: “Re-Elect Ronald Reagan!”  I was the lone hold-out … and I mightily enjoyed the weeks of stink-eye from the conservative organizers who had to work around my empty window, their slogan marred like a cap-toothed smile missing an incisor. 

While I was a new voter in ’84, my parents had spent years preparing me. In the early 1970s, my mom let me cast her vote for Patricia Schroeder, the first woman to serve in that Colorado Congressional seat. She hoisted me by my armpits inside one of those glorious old voting booths, with their steam-punk rows of nickel-colored clicking switches and a red rubber-handled lever that simultaneously locked in your vote and cranked open the curtains.  Voila! — you emerged, super hero-like, as a citizen whose voice mattered.

My folks and I didn’t always agree politically. They were Jimmy Carter fans, but I confess that in our mock-election in 5th grade, I voted for Gerald Ford purely out of pity — he seemed like such a dork, and I felt he needed a friend. My classmates teased me.  My lonely toupee-wearing teacher, who must have thought he spied a little conservative in the making, let his praising hand linger too long on my shoulder — and as I shrugged him off, I learned to pay attention to a candidates’ supporters. That evening, my parents gently pointed that you should vote with your brains, as well as your heart.

The first time I saw my mom cry, though, was during Carter’s concession speech, and I learned in 1980 that elections can literally change the landscape.  During the Carter administration, the gusty mountainside road between Denver and Boulder ran through what looked like a giant’s garden of fantastic whirligigs  — really, it was cutting edge wind-energy research. Ronald Reagan, and his anti-environmentalist Secretary of the Interior James Watts, saw to it that those fields were razed to tumbleweeds and dust.  I was the one who cried, then, and swore my votes would always keep the planet in mind.

I have no nostalgia for the 1980s, despite the poignant revival of Prince’s music and the return of decorative zippers.  But those years galvanized me.   Our own offspring enjoyed their first chance to vote together on Tuesday, after walking all over Bloomington to find their two different polling places — a happy adventure on a lilac-scented Indiana Tuesday, as they avoided studying for final exams. Their political awakening story will include some confusion, laughter, camaraderie, and a conviction that their voices matter.  I’d love to hear your first-voting stories — I hope I’m not the only one who’s made mistakes —  and maybe you’ll ask to hear your friends’ and neighbors’, too.  It might keep up our spirits if we remind ourselves why it is people all over the world — and all over the U.S. — fight so hard for the right to vote. We’ve got a lot of time to fill until November … 

For Michiana Chronicles, this is April Lidinsky

"Political Awakenings"