This is a story about hotdogs and why they are occasionally given out for free.
Since Matt already brought it up in an earlier comment, I suppose it’s time to discuss some racial implications that have worked their way into Aberdeen politics.
In case you missed it, there was a brief and seemingly innocuous statement printed in The Record newspaper a few weeks ago at the bottom of an election story. The blurb, attributed to Mayor S. Fred Simmons and buried in the final paragraph, indicated the mayor, who had already announced his intentions to seek re-election, was investigating the possibility of opening a second polling place for the upcoming Nov. 6 municipal election.
At face value, there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, it sounds like a damn fine idea – giving Aberdeen residents more opportunity and more convenience in voting, which would hopefully bolster what has typically been an abysmal voter turnout for city elections. But, as with most things in life, this idea unfortunately cannot be taken simply at face value.
Simmons’ idea, which actually appears to have originated with city council president Mike Hiob, would have opened a second location in the “historic district,” the east side of the city near the Boys and Girls Club, for voters to cast their ballots.
The opening of a new polling location is designed to provide new opportunities for those for whom voting might otherwise be a hardship. That’s where I begin to have a problem with the idea of an eastern polling place in Aberdeen.
For starters, the existing and traditional polling place is at the Senior Citizens Center next to Festival Park and City Hall and just a block or so out of downtown Aberdeen. The new polling place would essentially sit just on the other side of Route 40 and the only hardship it would prevent is would-be voters having to cross Pulaski Highway.
But that’s not even my biggest problem. I’ll let Hiob explain it in his own words to me via an email last week.
“We’ve spent a considerable amount of effort in the “Historic District”/East Side (i.e. money, man hours and so on) and the results are tangible. I thought that having an additional polling place over there would increase the number of voters participating in the election,” he wrote.
Indeed in the last two years, since Simmons was elected mayor, he and select other members of the city council have been spending more time than ever in these traditionally overlooked areas, which are predominantly black and happen to be home to many of the city’s lower income families.
You might be asking by now what exactly is so wrong about city officials finally recognizing and representing ALL of their citizens and not just those who vote or donate to their campaigns or have political or business clout.
That’s the dilemma I’m having as well.
Let me run off a couple examples that come to mind:
– Simmons and city councilman Dave Yensan have both made very public the role religion plays in their lives. Since being elected, both of the men have made a concerted effort to show up for Sunday services at several city churches – largely churches with a traditionally black congregation.
– When doggedly pursuing the annexation of the Wetlands Golf Course property into the city, owner Sam Smedley worked with Simmons to host several “Unity in the Community” events. These events, again typically held in the black and lower income communities of Aberdeen, were paid for out of the pocket of the golf course owner.
These sound like examples of good government at work and that may be the case, but let me adjust the lens a little bit to give you a look behind the scenes:
– No one, except perhaps for me, is going to criticize an elected official attending church services with his or her constituents. At least that’s what I thought, until I started hearing from some of those constituents. They thought it was a little disingenuous for Simmons, Yensan and others to go unnoticed in the community all week, yet show up Sunday to basically make a public appearance, occasionally even being given the pulpit to expound on their achievements in the city, during church services. It seems most of the praying going on at these services might have been on the part of the elected officials, hoping the groundwork was being successfully laid for the votes and support they’d need in the future.
– “Unity in the Community.” What can I say? This brings up the famous incident in which Simmons very publicly and angrily called me and my then-colleagues at The Record newspaper “racist” and “elitist” for failing to cover the event. [The truth is we DID send a photographer to a few of the occasions, but I never attended myself] In those few moments of red-faced fury as he chastised me and the paper for failing to care about the minorities of Aberdeen, I saw right through to what was really going on. I got to know Smedley pretty well during the year the Wetlands annexation was up in the air. I know he hosts activities for underprivileged youth at his golf course. But why was this golf course magnate handing out hundreds of free hotdogs and slaving over the grill on the side of an impoverished city block? Does he really care that much? As evidenced by Simmons’ reaction when I continually failed to give the event much more coverage than a few tongue-in-cheek lines in a story, my guess is that he does not. The painfully clear truth is that Simmons and Smedley were trying to energize an oft-overlooked portion of the constituency with the hope they would remember who stuffed them with free hotdogs and would gladly head out to the polls during the special election and vote in favor of the annexation. That, of course, never happened and the Wetlands plan fell by a nearly 2-to-1 margin. It is unknown whether Smedley still hands out hotdogs in the city’s poorest and blackest neighborhoods.
So back to my initial premise, if you have any doubts about where or why the notion of a second polling place on the east side of the city came about, just listen to Hiob’s explanation.
“These voters would probably vote for the incumbents that have helped to improve their neighborhood. (Fred, Dave and me),” Hiob wrote last week.
There you have it. At least Hiob was honest about it. The second polling place provided an opportunity not for more people to vote, but for those elected officials who have poured their time and money into the community to have the opportunity to benefit from their efforts.
Now here’s where the situation gets sticky.
Do the intentions of an elected official really even matter when they’re doing good for the community they represent?
To the single-mother who works six days a week or the father earning minimum wage on the east side of Aberdeen, does it matter why Sam Smedley is handing out hotdogs? My guess is that it doesn’t.
Smedley could have been trying to push through a controversial annexation that would make him a millionaire many times over or might have just been unloading some extra inventory from the concession stand at his golf course, but to those living on the east side it was still free food, drink and entertainment – which is much more than they’ve seen from the city in years.
Oh and in case you were wondering, the second polling place won’t be happening in Aberdeen this year. Once again, I’ll let Hiob explain.
“I don’t know the specifics, but I think it had to do with the costs, the mechanics of running two polling places with X amount of judges, etc.”
Posed a different way, when does it matter why your hotdog was free?