In Homewood, Neighborly Spirit Mutes Politics Despite Close Presidential Vote

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(In the early days of a new president, BirminghamWatch has looked at what divides us and connects us close to home. This is the final story in the series.)

Edgewood resident Leo Wright has been an election officer in Homewood for the past four presidential elections, and Homewood Public Library has served as his base every Election Day.

It’s the largest voting location in Homewood and one of the largest in Jefferson County based on registered voters. On Nov. 8, 2016, a total of 3,381 residents voted there, enjoying free coffee and a collegial, jubilant atmosphere that Wright says is typical.

That atmosphere reflects the sense of community in Homewood, says Wright, who served as the registration list clerk and assistant inspector.

But it belies the division among voters in the Over the Mountain suburb, particularly those who cast ballots at the library, where Donald Trump won 49 percent of the votes and Hillary Clinton won 43 percent.

In many areas of Jefferson County – 70 precincts – voters thought mostly alike, with 90 percent or more choosing the same candidate. But in a few voting places – 11 precincts spread through Homewood and six other communities – the bitterly contending candidates each drew between 40 and 60 percent of the vote.

Vote tallies from other Homewood locations underscored the mix of views there. At the Homewood Senior Center, Clinton won 61 percent of the 2,471 votes cast, while Trump won 31 percent. At Homewood Exceptional School, Clinton won 48 percent compared to Trump’s 40 percent.

But those results are rare definitive evidence of a divide in the community.

 Neighbors Talk Kids, Sports

Neighbors ask each other about kids, talk about the weather or sports or weekend plans. But no one really talks politics, says Jean Bouler.

“I have no idea how my neighbors voted. We talk about children, grandchildren” she said. Several Homewood residents say they don’t talk politics unless they know they are with “kindred spirits.”

Call it Southern manners or attribute it to savvy residents who know how to “read a room,” but this divide isn’t openly discussed in everyday life.

Jean’s husband, Nick, says the split among voters indicates to him that “in most cases you are around people who you have a lot of regard for, but maybe not a wide convergence of values.”

The Boulers live on Overton Drive in the Mayfair section of Homewood, an area known for its tidy, traditional and upscale homes and rolling, verdant lawns. Nick Bouler said he saw fewer candidate signs than in past elections in the yards throughout Homewood ahead of the election. It also seemed to him there weren’t as many bumper stickers as in past elections.

Wright said he also noted the difference in open support of one candidate or another. “During the last Obama election, there were a lot of Romney signs and a few Obama signs, but this time I really didn’t see any,” he said.

Said Bouler: “I don’t ever recall a cycle like this.”

But, by most accounts, the 2016 presidential campaign was unlike others, from allegations of Russian tampering to an FBI investigation of a party candidate to the complete misread by pollsters of who would win.

That said, the Boulers, who vote at the Homewood Public Library, agreed with Wright that the atmosphere on Election Day was joyous and warm, like the community they love. They both voted for Clinton and were heartened to see other Homewood residents at the polling place in pantsuits and white shirts, openly – and benignly – displaying their support for Clinton.

“There’s a lot of feeling around a presidential election,” said Nick Bouler. “But it comes up every four years. There’s no need in insulting somebody over it.”

A Diverse Community

Most Homewood residents interviewed for this story attribute the division among voters to its diverse population.

“We have people with a lot of money and people with not much at all,” said Wright. And while a majority of the residents are white, Homewood is home to a diverse population base with a variety of ethnicities and religions, he said.

Edgewood resident Katie Smith said she finds the election results for Homewood exciting and promising.

“I think it reflects a really important diversity here,” said Smith, who is a public school social worker in the Birmingham area.

The diversity of the community was one of the features that attracted Carlos Alemán and his family to the community. They live in west Homewood near Patriot Park, another draw for him and his family.

Alemán, a college history professor specializing in 20th century Central America, cast his vote for Clinton at the Homewood Senior Center. But he hasn’t said much about it.

“I purposely didn’t put a sign out because I didn’t want to draw attention,” he said. “Generally, everyone tends to be polite and you kind of avoid political discussions. But that’s good and bad because we should have discourse about these things. But there’s just a lot of raw emotion.

“To be honest, I don’t really care why anyone voted for whoever. I just want to move on and focus on the policies,” said Alemán, who tells his students they can have political discussions as long as they remain respectful and grounded in facts.

Kindred Spirits

Smith, who also voted for Clinton, says she chose to “only talk about politics with people I know voted the same way.”

“It’s a very Southern practice that you don’t speak about religion or politics in mixed company,” she said.

Then her first-grade daughter “outed” her when she told her teachers that her mom had traveled to Washington, D.C., for the Women’s March, she said with a laugh. She said the reaction of some of the school personnel was heartening.

“They were very supportive, and that meant a lot because I know how passionate people are for or against the issues represented, especially the issue of choice. I didn’t want my participation to be misconstrued,” she said.

But Smith – who was among those who wore pantsuits on Election Day – says she isn’t hiding how she voted anymore because she also believes respectful discourse is important.

“It’s hard for reasonable people to justify what (Trump) has been doing,” she said.

The need for discourse is something she says she thinks about frequently because of her experience as a parent and as an educator.

“The very first question my first-grader asked me after I told her Trump had won the election was ‘When will World War III start?’” Smith said.

After talking more with her daughter, she surmised that she had picked up that idea at school from discussions with classmates.

“The kids at the schools are having much more frank discussions than the adults,” she said.

Every now and then signs of the fracture bubble to the surface even for adults.

Jean Bouler experienced it during a recent book club gathering to discuss Kristin Hannah’s “The Nightingale,” a novel about underground efforts to save Jews in France during World War II.

The discussion in the group of about 11 women – all neighbors – briefly touched on the issue of Syrian refugees. Bouler volunteered that she thought the United States should let refugees in.

“There were a couple of nods, then comments like ‘I have wondered if I should let some stay in my extra bedrooms.’ Someone else mentioned that they had thought of the extra room and homeless people staying under the interstate ‘Where do you draw the line for helping?’ another one asked,” said Bouler. Then the conversations dropped off. Nobody shared how they voted in the election, she said.

Wright said he doesn’t identify as Republican or Democrat, but votes based on the person and his or her policies. He voted for Ohio Gov. John Kasich in the Republican primary, but he said he didn’t vote for Trump on Nov. 8.

“I do know there are groups of people who are like-minded and want to be proactive on a lot of issues. I know several women who went to the Women’s March. And a lot of people who are my friends are big Trump supporters, and I appreciate their opinions,” he said.

That said, Wright says he tends to discuss his political views in certain circles.

“It all depends on who you are talking to. When you are with kindred spirits, then you have a discussion,” he said.

The Common Good

Sherri Goodman

Brian Allison, Homewood election officer

One of Wright’s friends, attorney Brian Allison, has served alongside Wright as the chief inspector for the past four presidential elections in Homewood. Allison is also a Trump supporter and Edgewood resident.

The split among voters in Homewood in the past presidential election “is a very common trend,” Allison says.

“But we have such a strong local community and a willingness to coexist. I think we tend to find the common good,” Allison said.

Going into Election Day, officials were more tense than ever about polling place security because of the contentious presidential campaign, Allison said. But there were no signs of animosity in Homewood, he said.

Allison, who occasionally talks politics with like-minded breakfast patrons at Demitri’s, says that, more than anything, most people just want to leave the election behind them.

He admits he doesn’t really engage in deep political discussions with Clinton supporters because he doesn’t “want to argue” with them.

“Everybody is saying let’s give (Trump) a chance. I get the feeling around town that everyone is just glad it’s over. We all just need to take a deep breath and the ship will right itself,” he said.

Other stories from this series:

Fairness and Safety. Education and Jobs. Similar Worries for Clinton and Trump Voters

From Jefferson County’s Trump Country: “I feel like I’ve been left out a lot.”

A Big Blue Dot in a Sea of Red. But Jefferson County’s Presidential Vote Tally Masks Deep Community Divisions

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