Virginia Votes: Being a Democrat, Surrounded by Republicans

Nov 3, 2016

From left to right: Isabel Berney, Joe Ivers, and Ann Hess. In Hess' living room in Montgomery County.
Credit Robbie Harris / WVTF

Parts of Montgomery County in southwestern Virginia are like small islands of blue in a sea of red. It’s home to two universities, where many residents lean to the liberal side. But the county as a whole has gone for the Democrat just three times in the last 14 presidential elections. 

Liberals may be outnumbered in this part of Virginia, but not at this dining room table.

Isabel Berney has lived in the New River Valley for 43 years.

“I’ve been a Democrat, really all my life, I realized it was the liberals who made life better for everyone," says Berney.

Joe Ivers has lived in this area for 11 years. 

"I don’t know if I’m a democrat or not but I know I’m very liberal minded. I learned that you had to work hard for everything, but I also know that there were some people who were not able to do that and watching other folks struggle through the same process," Ivers says. "I consider myself a white privileged liberal and with that background I need to make sure that I open all doors to see how other people are living. “

Ann Hess has lived in her home for almost 50 years, and also considers herself a Democrat.

"I’ve always been a lower case ‘D’ democrat and as I got involved in choices about party affiliation, I decided I was a capital “D” Democrat,” says Hess.

The three travel in similar circles; each has served on boards in the county, some elected some appointed.

“The church that I belong to and the group that I hang with, we’re all are like minded and it concerns me and bothers me because we’re all preaching off the same sheet of music and on occasion I will listen to Fox News, my son has taught me to do that," Ivers says. "I will listen to Rush Limbaugh, I will listen to these folks to find out what exactly the other side is thinking and it has been absolutely eye opening and mind boggling for me and it’s been wonderful..”

There's a different vision that comes and that is lost right now, as hyper partisan as we are. And that's what I find tragic...

A recent poll by the Washington Post found that more than half of all Virginians don’t have one close friend or family member from the opposite party. In a smaller pond, this part of the state sees more overlap.

Birney says she has one close friend, a son-in-law, and a brother-in-law- who think differently than herself when it comes to politics.

"But like Joe I mostly hang with people of like mind; I mean, they are my people," Berney says. "So I find it difficult to have the conversations because I value my relationships but I also know that things happen when compromises are made and that both sides need to be willing to move toward the middle."

Hess grew up in a family of seven, and has siblings on both sides of the political spectrum.

“I value that," Hess says. "There’s a different vision that comes and that is lost right now, as hyper partisan as we are. And that’s what I find tragic, and particularly tragic in this election, that we’ve gotten to the point where it is so completely partisan that it seems like all we hear is vilification of the other side.”

It may not be surprising that everyone here plans to vote for Hilary Clinton. But even so there are different perspectives.

“I don’t like either candidate. If I had a choice I would take a third candidate easily. Bernie would have been a good candidate because I believe he’s honest," Ivers says. "I don't’ feel he could have won so I didn’t support him because I just felt he was a little bit too far ahead of what the United States is ready for.”

Birney though thinks Clinton earned respect from both parties while working in the Senate.

"But every time she runs for anything she doesn’t come off well as a good candidate but when she is in office, her approval ratings are very high and she certainly has respect from both parties," Berney says. "And I think that she was respected as Secretary of State, now, she’s fallen from grace I suppose with the e-mail stuff but the whole story isn’t known or even told.”

Hess chimes in.

“I just think that’s a ‘tempest in a teapot’ because it’s a tool that she was using," she says. "And she has said she wasn’t using the best judgment. But there is no evidence of any consequence of the poor judgment. I think sometimes, the press thinks that they have to be ‘balanced’ in its coverage, which means if we say something bad about one candidate we have to say something bad about the other candidate. To me, sticking working class people with the bill and declaring bankruptcy is far worse.”