When I moved my family to the NYC metro area 8 years ago, this seemed like the perfect neighborhood. Housing was relatively inexpensive, the neighborhood mix in terms of blue-collar and white-collar types, and a true representation of the American melting pot. Crime was low, the schools were better than average. In short, my town (and my neighborhood, especially) are about as representative of as you can find, with one glaring exception: this place is as solidly Democratic as anywhere in the country. The Republican party is virtually non-existent in the county and there is no local Republican organization.
I got to thinking about this yesterday after seeing one of my neighbors put a Mitt Romney sign in his yard and reflecting on recent conversations with others. There is palpable anger and despair with the current administration – anger and despair that emanates from the economic morass that Kearny, like so many other towns, finds itself stuck in. There’s a well-worn adage, coined by former House speaker Tip O’Neill, that “all politics is local.” There’s another equally well-known political saying, created by political consultant James Carville, that says “it’s the economy, stupid.” And after listening to my friends and neighbors, I found myself wondering just how exactly President Obama can win re-election. In a town where he holds an irrefutable edge in organization, he’s losing the local citizenry. And he’s losing that edge for one simple reason: the economy.
There’s the guy who owns the local bodega. He scrimped and saved to send his son to Columbia Law School. Despite graduating with honors and clerking at the Bronx DA’s office, his son cannot find permanent work. And thanks to the fact that nearly half of my neighbors are unemployed, his business is foundering. Where once he used to hire one or two local kids to help stock shelves, he hasn’t hired anyone. Instead, he has his cousin – an out-of-work software engineer – doing those tasks.
There’s a guy on my block who lost his job a month ago, because the company he worked for hasn’t had any new business in over a year. Despite more than 20 years working as a master stonemason, he is collecting unemployment for the first time in his life. He can’t find work. He’s falling behind on his mortgage. And he’s worried.
Around the corner, there’s a Brazilian restaurant that has cut back on their hours of operation and laid off half the staff. The woman who owns the place is in shock – three years ago she had a booming business ( you couldn’t even get a table without an hour wait) and even opened a second restaurant. Last week, she had to borrow money from her son just to turn the lights back on. She fully expects to have to shutter her business by September if conditions don’t improve.
Two doors up is a guy who owns a bakery. Every night, he leaves for work around 9pm. Last summer, he laid off his delivery driver and took to doing the deliveries himself. This summer, he’s been handing out free bread throughout the neighborhood – because orders are getting canceled at the last minute. While I’m grateful for the free bread, I wonder how much longer he can keep his ovens fired up at this pace. So does he.
After being vacant for two years, the house next door to me finally sold in May. The previous owner paid $378,000 for the property. The bank initially offered it at $290,000. The final selling price: $118,000. The new owners are excited. The rest of us looked at that selling price and weren’t quite so happy.
Down the street is an accountant I know. He got laid off in the bloodbath that was the Fall of 2009 and hasn’t found permanent employment since then. He’s surviving by taking much lower paying, no-benefit contract positions – a far cry form his former $100K salary. Where once he dreamed of sending his daughter to Princeton, the recent graduate is now headed to Hudson County Community College. And without a car – they had to sell her 17th birthday present back to the dealer, since they couldn’t make the payments.
These are just a few of the stories from my neighborhood. And as the anger seethes and despair grows, I can’t help but wonder if the President realizes he’s on a path to be remembered in the same vein as Jimmy Carter and Herbert Hoover. All because he forgot that all politics is local, and it’s the economy, stupid.