Search for political identity lingers for years

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 5, 2004

[10/31/04]I remember at 8 or 9 being obsessed with figuring out if I was Democrat or Republican.

Growing up in Mississippi in the 1970s, it was next-to-impossible even for a child to be clueless about politics.

Politics wasn’t just on television.

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It was in our proverbial front yards as we dealt with all the cultural changes brought by the Civil Rights Movement. I didn’t realize it at the time, but when I started school in 1972, it had only been a few years that public schools had been completely integrated.

Added to that mix for me was a grandfather who was really smart. He was a Delta cotton farmer who never owned his own operation a bit of politics I came to understand later while studying Marx. He wasn’t formally educated, but he loved the news, especially politics. He devoured any news in any form, and he taught me about the important things the moon, food, cats and politics.

I spent a lot of my childhood sitting in the yard underneath his chair just listening to him.

He was a Democrat. Therefore, so was I. Pretty much everybody in Mississippi, he told me, was a Democrat. If there were Republicans in Mississippi, they were from somewhere else.

I just naturally chose political science in college with an emphasis in political theory but by the time I graduated with that B.A. in political science, I was bored out of my mind with politics.

The theory was interesting but I couldn’t see how to apply it without getting involved with campaigns which seemed too much like a shell game.

I found my way into journalism where you’re really not supposed to admit whether you’re Democrat or Republican. In my adult life I have become almost apolitical. I vote, but that’s about it.

The first election I remember being excited by was not the one in 1988 where I cast my first ballot and helped vote then-Congressman Trent Lott (R-Miss.) into the Senate. It was in the 1976 when Democratic Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter ran against incumbent Republican President Gerald Ford.

Jimmy Carter had a Southern accent. He had a daughter my age who liked to read as much as I did. And I had been to Georgia.

He was a Democrat, too, and I knew from my grandfather the shade tree pundit that we were mainly Democrat.

I’m not exaggerating when I say I loved Carter. I wanted badly for him to be my president. It’s amazing to remember actually feeling emotionally attached to a politician.

In my fifth-grade class as part of our history lesson, we held a mock election.It was a class of about 12 fifth- and sixth-graders.

It was this tiny, wonderful private academy that had been founded coincidentally, they insisted in 1970 shortly after Jackson Public Schools became fully integrated.

Just that I was there wearing a little navy jumper and white blouse was a symbol of how politics were personal.

But, back to the mock election.

We were given ballots from the Weekly Reader. Gerald Ford or Carter or John Anderson.

While Carter carried the state of Mississippi in the real election, he got one vote in that mock election.I knew it didn’t count, but I was crushed and baffled by my classroom results. I couldn’t have known then that it wasn’t going to be the last time I was the only Democrat in a room.

Today that ratio wouldn’t make me blink an eye.

I’ve watched Mississippi slowly “go” Republican over the years. In fact, I was Republican myself for two years. (Then we broke up, I quit using hairspray and the 1980s finally ended.)

One of the lessons my grandfather taught me after that mock election is “Vote for the man, not the party.” I do believe strongly in that; I’ve never voted a straight ticket.

I know that when I look in my front yard these days all I seem to be able to see is two overgrown azalea bushes and a loose stair railing. But I think elections matter even if I can’t always see past my own front yard.

I’m pretty sure I know how I’ll vote Tuesday, but I still don’t know if I’m Democrat or Republican.

Sonya Kimbrell is features editor of The Vicksburg Post. E-mail her at