Anti-Trump protesters wait near the Tree of Life Congregation on October 30, 2018 in Pittsburgh. Photo: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Pride, hope and helpless rage: a Kiwi in Pittsburgh as America votes

If anyone in Pittsburgh lacked motivation to get involved in the midterm elections, Trump’s ham-fisted response to the synagogue shooting provided it, writes Heather McCracken, a New Zealander living in Pennsylvania.

Squirrel Hill is just a few streets away from my home in Pittsburgh. It’s my local shopping area. It has a main street that seems to thrive against all odds, with few chain stores but a couple of decent coffee shops, an independent cinema, an odd collection of specialty shops, and an eatery for just about every imaginable global cuisine.

I went to Squirrel Hill on Saturday because I needed to visit what would best be described as a fancy tea shop. I wanted golden syrup to make proper, Edmonds-recipe ginger crunch, and the tea shop usually has some tucked in the back along with stocks of Barry’s tea and McVittie’s biscuits.

It had been a week since the shooting. Things seemed largely back to normal, except for the 11 white memorial stars outside the Tree of Life synagogue, the mounds of flowers piled in tribute, and the “Stronger than Hate” signs in shop windows (“PGH Is Stronger Than Hate” has been the top billing at the local cinema all week.)

At the fancy tea shop, free cups of tea and cookies were laid out for anyone who wanted to stay and chat for a while. The staff were talking gently with a woman who seemed to be having a bit of a moment, and I felt ridiculous for being concerned with something as trivial as ginger crunch. But everyone is gracious and patient and kind in Squirrel Hill at the moment, whatever your needs, even if it’s just golden syrup.

Outside, in the car, my husband pointed out a white pickup truck next to us emblazoned with Trump stickers. An older white man was getting into the driver’s seat. Suddenly I was shouting pointlessly at the closed car window: “YOU GOT A LOTTA NERVE! LOTTA NERVE COMING DOWN THIS STREET WITH THOSE STICKERS!”

So that’s about how it feels here. Sadness, some hope and pride for this community, but also helpless rage. That’s how it feels.

I’ve lived in Pittsburgh for four years now, so this is my second major US election. (It’s my first local mass shooting.) Up until last week, the midterm election campaigns had seemed subdued locally — though friends tell me the news coverage has been much higher than past midterms.

In 2016, the general election felt very intense and very local. Anti-Trump posters and graffiti were everywhere, as were Clinton t-shirts, stickers and buttons. I canvassed for Clinton’s local campaign, went to meetings where actors from The West Wing and Orange is the New Black charged up volunteers with inspiring speeches before sending us out to knock on doors or register voters outside department stores. It was thought that Allegheny County, which includes the City of Pittsburgh, was in play for both sides — in the end Clinton won 55% of the vote here.

Two years later, and the midterms feel just as important, just as urgent, and even more anxiety-inducing than 2016. But the focus also feels a little bit removed from us. In my district, the Pennsylvania 18th, Democratic congressman Mike Doyle has no Republican challenger. Polls are giving the Democratic governor, Tom Wolf, a double-digit lead in a race between two white male millionaires, while fivethirtyeight gives Democratic senator Bob Casey a 97.7% chance to win his race, (although we know how those forecasts can turn out).

An interfaith candlelight vigil a few blocks away from the site of a mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue on October 27, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

All the yard signs I’ve seen in my neighbourhood and around central Pittsburgh are for Wolf, Casey, and Fetterman, a local politician running for Pennsylvania lieutenant governor. But the folks I know who were energized and excited for Clinton are now putting their energy into fundraising, canvassing, and holding phone-banking parties for Conor Lamb, the baby-faced 34-year-old congressman running for re-election in a neighbouring district, the Pennsylvania 17th.

Some background here: Lamb was elected in the 18th district in a special election in just March this year (the sitting pro-life Republican quit after being revealed to have sent text messages to his mistress urging her to get an abortion. Awkward).

Now, because illegal gerrymandering had given Republicans an advantage, Pennsylvania’s district maps have been thrown out and redrawn, and the new maps are in play for the midterms. Under the new maps, Lamb’s running against incumbent Republican and Trump BFF Keith Rothfus in the 17th, which includes some of Pittsburgh’s outer suburbs and rural areas to the north and west.

Lamb’s campaign was everywhere for the special election — he was on signs, hoardings, bumper stickers. When we marched in protest over Trump pulling out of the Paris climate accord, everywhere you looked someone was wearing a Lamb t-shirt or button. That race was billed as a referendum on Trump; the first chance to find out whether there really was a blue wave coming for the midterms, and Lamb narrowly snatched the seat for the Democrats.

And this new race is being talked about in the same terms. Trump’s even been tweeting in support of Rothfus, perhaps because Lamb is leading in polls. After Trump’s ill-timed visit to Pittsburgh following the Tree of Life shooting, when Pittsburgh’s liberal mayor and other local representatives refused to take part, Trump took the opportunity to single out Rothfus for praise, tweeting, “Vote for Keith!”

So invitations have been popping up on friend’s Facebook pages for Lamb phone-banking parties, and GOTV text-banking events. Obviously, we’re not seeing the intense on-the-ground campaign locally (in fact, I just realized had forgotten what Lamb looked like and in my head given him Beto O’Rourke’s face, which caused some brief confusion when I just went to his website. For the record, he looks nerdier than O’Rourke and very unlikely to have ever been in a band.)

Did anything change for Pittsburgh on October 27? I don’t think the shooting or Trump’s ham-fisted response to it will have shifted anyone’s vote in this solid-blue, liberal bubble. But if anyone lacked the motivation to get involved, to find a swing district where they can donate or phone-bank, to take a bus to the 17th district and knock on doors, then they certainly have it now.

Even so, when I talk to friends about the midterms, the response is generally a cringe of anxiety. There isn’t a lot of optimism left. Despite all the news stories about the blue wave, I’m afraid to hope that the Democrats might take the house. I’m afraid of the impact of blanket news coverage of a caravan of refugees, hundreds of miles from the border. I’m worried about predicted thunderstorms across the East Coast on Tuesday. And even if the Democrats do win a house majority, I’m afraid of what Trump will do to undermine the legitimacy of the election.

I bought champagne on the eve of the election in 2016. I’m not doing that this year. On Tuesday night we’re going to have a few beers at East End Brewery, just down the road from our house. They’re donating all their sales for the night to the Tree of Life Synagogue. That way whatever happens, some good will come of it.

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