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Issues Dividing Democrats And Republicans In Pennsylvania


Now, we started the program hearing about the final days of this very competitive election season. And here is where we want to have a reality check. The fact is, in recent decades, most Americans who are eligible to vote in the midterm elections don't.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I don't feel like I'm educated enough to follow the politicians. You know, I don't - I just - it's just not my thing.

MARTIN: In a few minutes, we're going to hear more about why people say they don't vote. But first, we want to talk about the other people - the people the major political parties are sure will come out - their core constituencies, often referred to as the base. We were traveling across Pennsylvania last week. We met people who met that description.

For the Democrats in many parts of the country, that means black women. They are known to work hard for candidates they support, network like crazy and, most of all, show up on Election Day, which perfectly describes three women we met in Philadelphia who became friends through their membership in The Links.

Founded in Philadelphia in the 1940s, it now boasts some 15,000 members across the country, all women of color who are dedicated to community service and very committed to staying informed about the issues. The group is nonpartisan, but individual members are certainly free to express their opinions, which they did when they gathered at the home of Terri Dean in Northwest Philadelphia. She was on the phone organizing a voter education program for college students even as she was laying out sandwiches, cookies and fruit for us and fellow Links members Mariska Bogle and Leah Smith Sheppard. And, when they finally sat down, they told us why they never miss a chance to vote.

TERRI DEAN: Because it's my civic duty and because our ancestors died for this right - for us to be able to vote - and because I do believe that my vote counts.

MARTIN: You do believe that.

DEAN: ...Collectively with others, obviously. But I do believe my vote is my voice.

MARTIN: And, Mariska, what about you? Do you vote routinely? Do you...

MARISKA BOGLE: I vote routinely. And I...

MARTIN: You are going to vote this time.

BOGLE: ...Agree in the fact that my ancestors did die fighting for the right to vote - and women as well - not just my ancestors, but women. So it's my duty, and that's why I do vote. Does my vote count? I am not so sure it does. I have some challenges with the Electoral College. And so that's one of my - thinking of how we need to look at that differently. But it's what I should do, and I do it.

MARTIN: Leah, what about you? Do you vote and routinely and...

LEAH SMITH SHEPPARD: I do vote routinely. I grew up going into the voting booth with my parents, so I really don't know any different from elementary school all the way through, you know, high school. My parents were divorced, so sometimes I'd go with my dad, sometimes I went with my mom. But we always went. So it was like getting a driver's license. I couldn't wait 'til it was my turn to go in and push my own buttons or whatever. So yeah, that is something that I do, something that I'm committed to do. And, like Terri, I go every time.

MARTIN: Are you all interested in this election - just talking about the midterm election coming up? I mean, one of the - it's interesting to talk to you all because you all vote no matter what. But do you sense a lot of interest in this election, perhaps unusually so? Anybody?

SHEPPARD: Sure. It's a bit of shock and awe after 11-9 or 11-8 or whatever we're saying now about 2016. I think people were in a bit of shock, and I think that people are seeing that, you know, maybe they never paid that much attention to the midterms, but they realize that people's terms can end. You can actually effectively vote someone out of office.

MARTIN: We've noted earlier that African-American women have become understood to be a key part of the Democratic constituency, right - for example, the special election in Alabama. There are analysts who give African American women credit for winning that election for Doug Jones. And I just wanted to ask, do you think your concerns are being addressed?

DEAN: Part of me says my concerns are no different than anybody else's concerns. I'm concerned about criminal justice reform. I'm concerned about the disproportionate negative treatment of men of color. And I don't feel those concerns are being addressed. I think they're being talked about, but I don't think they're being addressed.

And I've seen the treatment of African-American men in this country when I've seen issues of education, you know, being denied adequate funding for education in the public schools. You know, which is - those are where our kids benefit the most. And I don't see it happening yet, but I have faith that, at some point, it will have to happen because if we continue to exercise our power and flex our muscle and own the fact that we as African-American women are moving this needle forward for the Democratic Party, then yeah - we will start to see some progress being made.

MARTIN: Leah, what about you?

SHEPPARD: I do not feel that the issues are being addressed. One of my issues is health care reform. And I'm a cancer survivor, so it was very important to me to know that the next - when I'm ready to retire or the next job I take or whatever that I'm not going to be declined from any insurance or health care because I have a preexisting condition.

And I feel like, over the past, you know, two to four years, the conversations on the Republican side have been more about really dismantling the legacy of President Obama and just stripping away anything that has to do with, quote-unquote, Obamacare as opposed to hearing the concerns of people in rural America, suburban America, in the inner cities. Most people are saying the same things about health care, but I feel like Washington isn't listening.

MARTIN: Well, that seems kind of a bummer, though. I mean - but so - but you all don't seem bummed out. I mean, you're - what you're saying is you really don't...

SHEPPARD: Keep hope alive.

MARTIN: ...Feel very good about...

SHEPPARD: (Laughter) Keep hope alive.

MARTIN: ...Where - so what is keeping hope alive? Because - is it just your personality? Is it just...

SHEPPARD: I think what's keeping hope alive is that we believe a change is going to come. We feel like we are going through a season right now but that we will come out of it. And it will take deliberate action, decisive behavior. And I think it will take motivation for people to stay involved and stay focused and be engaged. But we are in a season of change. And I think we stay positive because we understand what happens when you go through the wilderness and come out on the other side.

MARTIN: Then we headed to Chapman, Pa. It's rural, about two hours from Philadelphia. The population there is less than 200 people and, according to the latest census, it's more than 98 percent white. And that's where we met Dottie Niklos.

DOTTIE NIKLOS: I'm just Dottie. And, in this area, there's no last name for me. It's just, have you seen Dottie?

MARTIN: She is an active member of the Northhampton County Republican Committee, and it shows. Her front lawn is crowded with signs for local Republicans running in all sorts of races. There are more signs stacked in the driveway.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: You've got enough yard signs, you think? I don't think you have enough.

NIKLOS: Oh, well, I have a few more in the garage.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: You have a few more in the garage. How are you?

MARTIN: And when we step inside her home filled with family heirlooms, another spread awaits. Homemade pumpkin roll cookies and hot coffee are laid out in the dining room while Fox News plays in the den. And, just like the ladies we met in Philadelphia, Dottie always votes.

MARTIN: Because it's my country, and it's my duty, and it's a privilege, and there's so many people in the world that don't get to choose their leaders.

MARTIN: Dottie is joined by her friends Judith Ladonis (ph) and Sandra Dech (ph). I asked Dottie and Sandra about their biggest concerns in advance of the election, and the answers are very different from the ones we heard back in Philly.

NIKLOS: National security, including terrorism, immigration and the rule of law in the country.

MARTIN: And what about you, Ms. Sandra?

SANDRA DECH: And I'm strongly against socialism, so I feel I have to vote for the candidate that is more for a free United States. There is a billboard on 22 - two billboards with Gov. Wolf's picture and a socialist Pennsylvania.

MARTIN: Sandra is referring to a billboard paid for by Republican candidate Scott Wagner. It implies falsely that the Democratic candidate is running as a socialist. Like a lot of people we spoke to in Pennsylvania, these ladies told us that the tone of the politics in the U.S. concerns them. They say President Trump wasn't their first choice in 2016, but they came around once he started implementing policies they support. So I asked them how they feel when President Trump says things like this.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: So if you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them, would you? Seriously.


TRUMP: OK? Just knock the hell - I promise you I will pay for the legal fees. I promise. I promise.

MARTIN: OK, but how do you square Mr. Trump's own conduct during the - starting in the campaign where he was encouraging people to beat up protesters saying he'd pay their legal bills, more people need to be body-slammed...

NIKLOS: I never heard that.

MARTIN: ...Just last - you never heard that?

NIKLOS: Never heard that.

MARTIN: You never heard that.

NIKLOS: And I watch...


NIKLOS: ...Watch all kinds of channels.

MARTIN: Do you really? OK.


MARTIN: OK, well - OK. But...

NIKLOS: And I read all kinds of websites, but I never saw that.

DECH: Would you rather have a polished politician who's not doing what you want? Or would you rather have one who's not a polished politician, who is a businessman who just says what he wants? Maybe there's some things I wish he would kind of, you know, use a little more tact on. But otherwise, he's getting the job done.

MARTIN: Ms. Dottie?

NIKLOS: I see mobs in the street. And I see what they did to Brett Kavanaugh - where his children had death threats and had to be taken to school in an armoured van. They did $10,000 worth of damage to his house. He couldn't take his family to church. Michelle Obama, God bless her, she said, when they go low, we go high. Well, now, all of a sudden, it's the opposite. It's, when they go low, we kick them.

MARTIN: As you've heard, the ladies echoed some of the talking points that Republican candidates and their surrogates have been making on the campaign trail, even repeating some debunked stories, like the point about Brett Kavanaugh's house being damaged by left-wing protesters. That's not true. But it led me to ask about the #MeToo movement that was brought up during that contentious confirmation hearing and has been mentioned as a motivating factor for some women to cross party lines to vote for Democrats in 2018.

NIKLOS: My thought is that women can take care of themselves. They don't have to hate men. I have been approached in inappropriate ways. I've decked a few men. I'm a retired chef. I've decked a couple of waiters.

MARTIN: And you had sharp knives, too.

NIKLOS: Well, they thought they could...

MARTIN: And fire.

NIKLOS: They thought they could pinch me, and I just turned around, and that was - you come back at them strong. And, no, I have been approached with, would you like to have this promotion? Not at that price.

MARTIN: So you're saying you don't understand it - like, why...

NIKLOS: I don't - no. My theory is that the feminist movement at one time was very important because women were being held down. I think women have complete largesse today. They can go where they want. They can do what they want. They can get an education. They can take care of their families. We can stay home with our children if we want. We can do that. We can take a year off. We can do whatever we want. I'm really not into women running around with those silly pink pussy hats on. What does #MeToo mean? It's me. It's not us. It's not for the better good. It's for me - me too.

MARTIN: So that's not a factor in your thinking for...


MARTIN: ...In choosing a candidate.

NIKLOS: You know, my factor is what's good for my country, what's good for the family, what's good for my community. I may be crazy, but I think that it's just a community. And if we're all - if we're all pulling for ourselves and working together, we're going to be successful.

MARTIN: Ms. Judith, any thoughts about #MeToo? Does it factor into your thinking politically at all?

JUDITH LADONIS: It really does not. I have known a lot of women who have been victims, and I've also known a lot of women who have been humiliated into dropping charges and, you know, and that sort of thing. And they have my complete sympathy with that. But I'm not very comfortable with unlimited times to prosecute people. But I don't know enough about it to make a good decision on it.

MARTIN: That was Judith Ladonis, Dottie Niklos and Sandra Dech speaking to us in Chapman, Pa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.