Wednesday, May 7, 2008

A Town Called Gary

At 11pm USEST yesterday, the results of tonight's primaries were looking dismally familiar. Obama was winning one state, Clinton the other. Obama had failed to deliver the knockout blow, Clinton had failed to do enough to bring her back into the contest. Another primary day where both candidates had met expectations and succeeded in producing yet another indecisive result. Ho-hum.

But then the results from Lake County - a small, suburban center in northwest Indiana - began to trickle through. Like many other industrial cities in the northeastern states, the city of Gary - the largest in the county - has been in a state of gradual decline for decades. Since the steel-plants here began to close in the 1960s, the largely African-American population have watched helplessly as unemployment and poverty set in around them. As a consequence of the slow-down in industry, the population of this once bustling city entered terminal decline, nearly halving over the past 4 decades. The per-capita income here is just $15,000pa and over a quarter of its residents - including 40% of its children - live below the poverty line. Few cities have been hit harder by the changing American economy than this one.

But tonight, if only for a night, something happened here to warm the cockles of the heart. Due to a quirk of daylight savings and the large number of absentee ballots to be counted, Lake County - home to 8% of the state's population - was among the last to report its results. Before the numbers had begun to come through, Clinton was enjoying a comfortable, if underwhelming, lead in the state and had already delivered her victory speech, declaring that her campaign was moving "full speed ahead to the White House". By barely meeting expectations here, she looked primed to have enough oxygen to carry on her campaign to the primaries in West Virginia and beyond. That soon changed.

Lake County turned out overwhelmingly for Obama. Clinton's safe result in the state soon become too close to call. The pundits who had earlier seemed prepared to give Clinton a pass on the night watched as the margins narrowed and dutifully shifted their narrative as a consequence. As it became apparent that Clinton was not going to get the result she needed to justify her continued presense in the race, the pundits turned. Declarations rang that Obama was now the presumptive nominee and many suggested that it would be prudent for Clinton to extricate herself from the race now, lest she suffer any further indignities. The shape of the race was sharply turned on its head, thanks almost exclusively to the late results that came through from Lake County.

Forgive me if I find just a bit of poetic justice in all this. Few in the country have found themselves quite so abandoned by the US political system as the people of Gary, yet few have wielded so much influence on its future. If only for a night, the people of Gary were given a say in the trajectory of their own destiny. Thankfully for those of us watching from half a world over, they made the right choice.

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