As we approach the November election, WNIJ decided to go beyond its usual in-depth coverage of the issues and candidates. So we invited Pushcart Prize-winning author Dan Libman to visit places where voters are most likely to speak their minds: their local bars. To close the "distance" of a reporter's microphone, Dan used an iPhone to interview imbibing voters. You might remember Dan from last year's Pedaling Lincoln Highway series. This year he visited drinking establishments throughout our listening area. The recordings he brought back, and his essay below, reveal much about what's on voters minds after they've had a drink or two. Dan begins his essay with a longtime observer of political discussions involving alcohol...
“It really depends on the place that you go into, because depending on the type of person you talk to it could go one way or the other. It could be a really interesting conversation or it could be a really hostile conversation just because of the environment that you’re in.”
That’s Natasha on political arguments in bars. She’s the bartender at one of my favorite places on the planet, the Oasis Micro-Pub in Rockford. Built on the remnants of a former strip club, the bar’s decor suggests ersatz rat pack splendor, bar stools and upholstered chairs with rollers, a painting of Adam and Eve in fig leafs, Adam casually offering up a snifter of coppery beer, probably a lager or pale ale. Best of all, the large TV over the front door? Broken for years and never on.
It was against the bar I found Mike, a retired school teacher in Beloit concerned with some of Governor Pat Quinn’s recent comments, which struck him as being too close to the union busting rhetoric of Wisconsin’s Scott Walker:
“In Wisconsin for example they broke the open meeting laws and signed non-disclosure agreements," Mike said. "The chicanery involved in it is not acceptable.”
I asked him if this type of underhanded activity has discouraged him from participating at all. He answered, “I’m more fired up to have my vote count.”
Mike’s comments about chicanery got me thinking about ways to fix our political system. I’d been hearing about efforts to improve the way election districts are drawn, to get away from gerrymandering and adopt a nonpartisan method. To learn more about redistricting I went looking for an expert, and I found one -- NIU political scientist Matt Streb, sitting at Fatty’s Sports bar in DeKalb.
“I can tell you gerrymandering is not going to be driving people to the polls,” he told me one afternoon over beer. “When we talk about people being concerned about partisan gerrymandering what they’re really concerned about is the lack of competition, that we have so many elections that aren’t competitive. In many cases we have members of congress running unopposed and if I know that I’m going to win an election without having to do anything—that I don’t have any threat—then I don’t have to pay attention to the voters in my district. What anybody who’s trying to change the redistricting process is trying to do is trying to make districts more competitive.”
I thought it would be interesting to see if Matt was right, which was how I found myself in the brand new Prairie Street Brewhouse in Rockford. Sitting under brand new, gleaming fermentation tanks, and intricately carved tap handles, I asked Barbara about redistricting. “I am so sorry that is like mud to me," she said. "When they start talking about that they lose me. I’m sorry.”
Her husband Don added, “The redistricting to me is a problem because all of a sudden I kind of like this guy, and then all of a sudden...Not in my district anymore. Disappeared. Here’s a new guy. I don’t even know who that is. So yes, I have a problem with that. It may be the proper thing to do, but then we as voters need more education on it so we know what’s going on.”
I asked if it was okay for me to ask which district he’s in. Don chuckled. “It’s wonderful if you ask. I don’t have a clue until I go there and they say this is where you are.”
A few tables over and a few beers later, Cris told me she thought redistricting helps not the voters, but the politicians: “It seems like a completely political issue, in other words, how politicians are impacted, not the general voters.”
The imbibing voters just one table over had a far less forgiving view of redistricting. “That’s how they keep themselves in control, the Democrats. It’s all a scam. They shouldn’t even be allowed to redistrict it. The voters should redistrict, not the politicians.”
I found a much different vibe in DeKalb’s Twin Tap, a more mellow, family scene where one is likely to find tables of little league and soccer teams celebrating post victories with pitchers of soda and free popcorn right next to older guys taking in the Cubs game over the bar. And it’s where I found Ilene who had strong opinions about the way redistricting has impacted DeKalb in particular:
“The last time they did a miserable job for DeKalb," she said. "We’re not important in any election anymore it seems. So yes, I think there should be a more neutral way of doing redistricting.”
Where would someone go to learn more about redistricting?
Matt Streb: “If you want an excellent blog that talks about election reform in general, and redistricting is often a subject on this, a guy named Rick Hasen who’s a law professor at University of California Irvine, he has a phenomenal blog that looks at effects of nonpartisan commissions and that’s a place that I read every day to get my election reform news.”
Ultimately it is Natasha, the barkeep at Oasis, who gets to hear the voters directly as she’s pouring drinks. Over a snifter glass of Founder’s Kentucky Breakfast Stout, that week’s hottest seller, Natasha told me, “A lot of people like to criticize things they have no control over but at the same time they think they can do a better job, but put them in the same position, it’s not going to happen.”
In the meantime, I guess I’ll be looking to have more conversations with voters as we get closer to the elections, which means I’m going to have to head out to more saloons and bars across the WNIJ listening area. It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it.
The next installment of Politics on Tap airs Monday, Sept. 8 during Morning Edition. Listen at 6:34 and 8:34 and come back here for more information. In the mean time, feel free to leave your comments below...