Retired Yakima teacher Bruce Whitmore was a 21-year-old college student facing the draft during the 1968 presidential election. He ticks off a seemingly endless list of what was happening then: racism, riots, poverty, assassinations of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert Kennedy after winning the California primary, the Vietnam War.
Part of a family that owned a mortuary in Buckley, a small Pierce County town in the Cascade foothills, Whitmore saw the bodies of classmates coming back from the war in caskets, and he was angry.
“Nobody kind of remembers that now,” said the 73-year-of father of eight.
And yet, on reflection, he said the current moment feels worse, with a presidential election taking place Tuesday in a nation so divided that some fear civil war. Whitmore blames the constant, in-your-face stream of information. “There’s no time to rest, no time to think,” he said.
Across Washington, from the urban Puget Sound region to the farm belt east of the Cascades and north toward the Canadian border, to stretches along the Pacific Coast where many make their living from the sea, Tuesday’s election arrives with a mounting sense of dread, anxiety and glimmers of hope. Many view it as the most important election of their lives. So much is on the line.
For many, the race is deeply personal, coupled with continuing concern over the pandemic, fears of postelection unrest and worry over how the country will ever be brought together.
Now, as the clock ticks toward Election Day, many Washingtonians have already cast their ballots, and the wait is on.
“The whole country is off balance right now,” said Nanci Main, 71, of rural Pacific County in the state’s southwest corner, home to a large seafood industry. A chef and former owner of a well-known local restaurant, Main also tried to figure out why this election seems different. “Maybe it’s because it’s coupled with the virus.”
“I’m grieving,” Main said, her voice breaking. With COVID-19 literally keeping people apart, she said she feels a loss of community. But the grief goes further, extending to something she feels this country has lost, something her father, a World War II veteran, fought for. Respect. Trust. Something deeper she can’t quite name.
As a longtime Democrat and Biden supporter, she holds Trump responsible. But you can hear the same pain in the voices of some Republicans.
“As someone on the right, I feel the vitriol coming at me daily from people I thought were friends,” said Nansen Malin, chair of the Pacific County Republican Party. “It just feels so personal.”
Arianda Crosby, a Puyallup resident and 31-year-old nurse who’s starting an adult family home, said she grew up hearing that voting didn’t really matter. So she generally didn’t.
“I will be voting this year,” she said. “It seems like an emergency situation.”
What made her feel that way was the first presidential debate, where Trump declined to denounce white supremacists and told the group called the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.”
“Even if he’s not a white supremacist, he wants their vote. That’s dangerous. I have African American children.” They’re 3 and 1. “I am African American.”
Up until that moment, she said, “I was kind of on the fence.” A relative had suggested the media was overly critical of Trump. Crosby tried to keep an open mind.
Regarding the president as she does now has made her question her surroundings. In Puyallup, which draws military families for its proximity to Joint Base Lewis-McChord and all sorts of people for the state fair, Trump flags and pins are in abundance. Even the American flags Crosby sees around her, generally flown more by Trump’s supporters than Biden’s, make her nervous.
“‘Make America Great Again,’ ” she said, repeating the Trump slogan, “what does that mean? Does that mean you don’t want me here?”
Adding to Crosby’s confusion is the warm reception she gets when she goes about her daily life — warmer, she said, than in Seattle, where she used to live. There, Black Lives Matter flags are everywhere but when she walks into a store, she says she can feel people watching her.
In your words
The Seattle Times asked community members what’s at stake for them in the 2020 election, and what they hope the next four years can bring. You can explore a selection from nearly 200 responses we received, categorized by some of the most common sentiments.
Annie Daniels, a 76-year-old former contract processor for the city of Seattle, notes Trump’s contention he’s the greatest president for Black people since Abraham Lincoln.
“He’s insulting Black folks when he says that,” Daniels said. “Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery. Now, what’s better than that? It’s like Christ coming off the cross and living again.”
Successive presidents passed voting and civil rights acts and initiated affirmative action. The accomplishments that Trump cites as benefiting Black people, among them lowering unemployment and signing into law a prison reform bill, can’t compare, Daniels said. For one thing, she doesn’t see them as Trump’s.
“He stole Obama’s idea,” Daniels said. President Barack Obama backed a prison reform bill, but it failed amid Republican disagreement.
As for giving Black people jobs, she said: “Excuse me, we’ve had jobs ever since we had slavery … We just haven’t been paid.”
Daniels likes Biden. He is, in her view, “man enough” to apologize for his role in passing a 1994 crime bill many say contributed to mass incarceration. She sees, in his call for free community college and premium-free health care for low-income individuals, a desire to help all Americans.
But, as with many, her focus is on Trump.
“I can’t say he’s racist,” Daniels said. “I’m not around him enough to know … I know there’s hate there.”
She sees that in the president use of the word “monster,” which he called Biden’s running mate, Senator Kamala Harris, and his reference to Dr. Anthony Fauci as one of the “idiots” determining the county’s response to COVID-19.
Another Trump remark — calling Mexicans who come here “rapists” during his first presidential campaign kickoff — lingers for Erandy Montiel, 28, the daughter of Mexican immigrants and a Spokane resident who works as an advocate for youth with mental health issues.
“My parents have done nothing but work hard,” said Montiel. Her father, before his death from COVID-19 in August, was a farmworker in the town of Brewster, located amid the orchards and packing houses of Central Washington, where Montiel is currently staying to be close to family. Her mother runs an in-home day care.
Montiel said she was born in the U.S., and her mom is a legal, permanent resident, as was her dad. Yet, she said she knows “it’s a scary time to be an immigrant right now.”
She pointed to Trump’s 2018 separation of children from parents crossing the border, which though stopped has left 545 still bereft of mothers and fathers. Montiel also noted the president’s ill-fated attempt to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that offers quasi-legal status to children whose parents brought them to the U.S. illegally as children.
Her faith in the Democratic ticket is bolstered by the vice-presidential nominee’s immigrant roots: Harris’ late mother came from India, her father from Jamaica.
Montiel said she’s also voting against Trump so others don’t lose family members to COVID-19 the way she did — seeing her father die in isolation, her only goodbye over a Zoom call while he was attached to a ventilator and speechless.
She said Trump, by not encouraging mask-wearing and leaving the hospital when he had the virus to take a drive, is failing to lead by example.
“Don’t get me started me started on COVID,” said Fred Cater, another Pacific County resident, pointing to the high number of cases in the U.S. Trump, he said, “has just blown that to hell.”
But it’s the president’s character that the 73-year-old Carter said made him vote for a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time in his life. He cast his ballot for a Green Party candidate in the last presidential election but now feels a Biden vote is the best way to get Trump out of office.
“I can’t abide the man,” said the accountant and fiscal conservative, who called the president a “liar” and “crook” who won’t even commit to a peaceful transfer of power should he lose the election.
“Is this not America?” asked Carter, who said he’d be happy to get back to the normality of the Obama years, when Biden was vice president.
The last straw, Carter said: the revelation that Trump, who often vilifies China, has a bank account in that country.
Trade deals and ‘pro-God’
Jason Vander Kooy looks at the relationship between Trump and China and sees something else: a president who was the first to try to address a trade imbalance.
Vander Kooy has a 2,000-acre dairy farm in Mount Vernon, a city halfway between Seattle and the Canadian border, known for its tulip festival. The dairy industry sells much of its product overseas, but Vander Kooy said it could be selling more if a president who values farming could negotiate better trade deals.
Trump has got the first part down, it seems to the 45-year-old dairy farmer. The second part has been harder, Vander Kooy allowed. The president’s trade war with China resulted in the Xi government imposing higher tariffs on American products that especially hurt soybean farmers.
“Now, we could argue maybe he could have taken a different approach,” Vander Kooy said.
The president’s antagonism towards China, evident also in his talk of the “Chinese virus,” tears to some extent at Vander Kooy’s emotions. Three of his six children are adopted from China, which he visited with each adoption. He said he loves the people and the culture.
Vander Kooy said he has a problem only with China’s government, one that oppresses its own people.
“Trump’s not a racist,” said Vander Kooy, who is white, and wants to see the president reelected. “But I think he could choose his words better.”
Pastor Darren Stott’s upbeat style is very different from the president’s. He said his Eastside evangelical church, the Seattle Revival Center, attracts both Republicans and Democrats. He doesn’t want to show anyone disrespect, and said he will honor whoever wins the election.
Trump, he acknowledged, “says ridiculous stuff. He goes wild on Twitter.”
The 38-year-old pastor looks at it as a businessman’s strategic hyperbole. “You’re going to shoot for the moon and be happy if you land on top of the barn.”
So Stott accepts Trump’s rhetoric and supports a president he believes is “pro-God,” who considers church services to be “essential” during the pandemic, in the same way Costcos and marijuana stores are.
It’s the president’s “gusto” that appeals to Jon Polless, an 83-year-old retired salesman and Naval Reserves officer in Soap Lake, a Central Washington town on the shores of a large mineral lake.
Polless has almost always voted for Democrats, whom he feels are generally “more for low-income workers and unions.” He recalled growing up under Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt, thought of as a savior, and in the Camelot era, where there was “a Kennedy man.”
If times were different, he might vote for Biden. “He’s an honest man. He’s a good man.” Polless said. “I just don’t think Joe is tough enough to do what needs to be done.”
By that, Polless means take control of cities like Seattle, his hometown, that have seen protests over police brutality and racial injustice. He said he sees why law enforcement killings have provoked protests, “but not on and on and on, and using it as a reason to do damage to the city.”
He’s nearly 200 miles away from Seattle, so he hasn’t been there to gauge the damage. But news accounts, including of a man charged with slamming a baseball bat into a police officer’s head, have convinced him that Seattle, Portland and other protest hot spots will “go to crap” if a strong man like Trump isn’t in power.
To Anita Azariah, a software company accounts manager and immigrant from Pakistan, freedom is at stake.
The 52-year-old, who lives in Everett, knows what the lack of it looks like. In Pakistan, she said, her dad told her that only certain professions were acceptable for women. Her dad was the prominent head of a Christian church, and because of their faith, she said, the family faced persecution.
Once, according to Azariah, she and her family faced down a large group of men belonging to an extremist Islamic group who came to their house carrying guns and white cloth to wrap dead bodies. They lost their nerve and left without hurting them, she said.
Nothing remotely like that has happened to her here. But she said she expects more of the U.S. and feels creeping restrictions due to policies regarding religion — she says she was once reprimanded for talking about her faith at work — and those related to the pandemic, imposed by Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee.
“You have to wear a mask. You have to stand 6 feet apart.”
Like the president she supports, Azariah also contends a clamor for socialism must be kept at bay. “Everyone wants free stuff,” she said. Welfare. Health care. Education.
“This is not the America I want to live in,” she said. The feeling has politicized her.
Not only is she voting in a presidential election for the first time, despite being a citizen for 20 years, she is the outreach chair for the Snohomish County Republican Party.
Yet another type of calamity awaits if Biden is elected, as Jacinta Rupprecht sees it. She believes recent laws restricting abortion in various states, including by prohibiting the procedure after a heartbeat is detected, would be undone.
Rupprecht considers Biden and Harris part of a “pro-death culture.” Both proclaim support for abortion rights, though Biden, a Catholic, has said he struggled with the issue and as a senator voted to restrict federal funding for the procedure.
“Someone who condones murder of the innocent doesn’t have a right to call yourself Catholic,” said Rupprecht, 34, who works at the front desk of a financial company, lives on Mercer Island and since childhood has attended a Byzantine Catholic church.
When she was 10, Rupprecht started standing outside abortion clinics with her parents. Every week, sun or rain, they would hold signs and pray.
She now leads a 40 Days for Life effort, part of a national anti-abortion campaign, that involves a continuous presence outside a Bellevue Planned Parenthood clinic. “I would probably consider myself a single-issue voter,” she said.
That leads her to Trump, who formerly described himself as pro-choice before later declaring himself pro-life. Rupprecht calls him “the most pro-life president America has ever had.” She voiced enthusiasm for the president’s choice for the U.S. Supreme Court, Amy Coney Barrett. The just-confirmed justice, a devout Catholic, has noted that the church views abortion as always immoral, though she has said she will keep her personal views separate.
As the election approaches, Rupprecht said she is “praying, praying, praying.”
Yet, she fears upheaval in the liberal Seattle area if her candidate wins. She planned to visit her fiancé, who lives just across the border in Canada, when the results come in.
Tai Jordan, a 22-year-old who reviles Trump as someone he believes opposes everything he is — transgender, Black and the child of an immigrant — also believes a Trump win could ignite fury.
“Y’all thought this was a protest,” he said, referring to summer marches, in which he participated. “Just watch.”
“I honestly think this country is headed for a civil war,” said Carter, the longtime Republican who voted for Biden, but he believes it’s the Proud Boys and other far right groups that might mobilize if Trump loses.
“I’ll just be happy when it’s over. It’s draining,” said Daniels, the 76-year-old Seattleite.
Some optimistic souls, like Yakima’s Whitmore, a Biden supporter who believes his candidate will score a decisive victory, imagine a period of reconciliation.
That might be easier in some parts of the state, and country, than others.
In rural Mount Vernon, Vander Kooy said, “We still have a great sense of community. You drive down the road, you’ll see a couple of Biden signs. You’ll see a couple Trump signs. We all get along …
“I am conservative and I am strong in my options.” But he said he’s not going to try to change somebody else’s mind.
If Biden wins, he said, “I’m still going to get up the next morning and do my job.”