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First Time Voters Defy Stereotypes

Hope for Former Felon

In an election already crowded with possible firsts – the first black president, the first female vice president – Marc Ramirez experienced a more personal and quiet first on Tuesday: His first time voting since a felony conviction in 1991.

Marc Ramirez, a former felon who served  17 years in prison, enters the voting booth to cast his first vote since being released at 75 Columbia Street on the Lower East Side in Manhattan on Tuesday, Nov. 4th,

Marc Ramirez, a former felon who served 17 years in prison, enters the voting booth to cast his first vote since being released at 75 Columbia Street on the Lower East Side in Manhattan. Photo by Joel Schectman

Ramirez was only 18 when he was arrested on drug charges that would take him away from his two sons for nearly two decades.

“After all these years of not having control of anything, I feel like I can have a voice,” said Ramirez, 38, after casting his ballot at a polling station on the Lower East Side — the same neighborhood where he grew up. “It means being a citizen again.

“This idea of change, that it’s time to try some other things….When I hear that from Obama, it really resonates with me because that’s what I have tried to do in my own life,” he said.

More than 12,000 New Yorkers are released from prison each year, and many of them wrongly assume that a felony conviction prohibits them from voting, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union.

To address the problem, several local advocacy groups held voter registration drives this year aimed at former felons. Ramirez registered through Bronx Defenders, a free legal clinic where he went to work as a benefits coordinator after his release last Christmas.

“I hoped for early release, I hoped my conviction would be overturned, I hoped that the law would be changed,” he said. “None of that happened, but I was still alright, because I still had those hopes.”

– Joel Schectman

Two Generations Vote for First Time

Barbara Manzano, a native of Trinidad, became eligible to vote when she was naturalized eight years ago.  But it wasn’t until her daughter Brittney turned 18 in August that she registered.

Brittney Manzano, a 18-year-old first time voter, voted in the Soundview section of the Bronx with her mother, Barbara Manzano, who also voted for the first time on Tuesday Nov. 4th, 2008.

Brittney Manzano, a 18-year-old first time voter, voted in the Soundview section of the Bronx with her mother, Barbara Manzano, who also voted for the first time on Tuesday Nov. 4th, 2008. Photo by Marcella Veneziale

Manzano, 48, had always felt apathetic about politics.

“Elected persons say they’re going to do this or that,” she said. “When they come into office, they don’t do it.”

But with Brittney making plans for college next fall, and the family facing skyrocketing college costs, Manzano decided to place her faith in the Democrats, and vote for candidate Barack Obama.

“I’d like them to do what they say they are going to do,” Manzano said.

It was still dark out a little before 6 a.m., when Brittney and her mother left their row house in the Soundview section of the Bronx. Snuggling into her warm plaid jacket, Brittney had sleepy eyes and a bedhead as they walked to P. S. 77 to cast their votes before the elder Manzano went to her job as a home health aide.

“She really wanted to have a voice out there in this election,” said Brittney of her mother.  “I have a feeling she will continue to vote in future elections.”

Brittney, a high school senior, said she had been up until midnight working on college applications. She hopes to study communications and media at Clark Atlanta University, a historically black college in Georgia. Like her mother, Brittney voted for Obama.

“I don’t want to have to pay so much for a college education,” Brittney said.  “My parents’ income is really low.

“Most of my friends have the same issues as me about education,” she added.  “If Obama doesn’t win, I know a lot of people in my school would be very disappointed.”

Both women said they disagreed with John McCain, the 72-year-old Republican candidate, on the Iraq war and the economy.

“I don’t think he relates to the issues,” said Brittney.  “To me it seems like it’s the same as Bush’s view except [with] a little twist.”

When the pair came out of the polling both, the sun was still below the horizon.

“Voting, for me, was a good experience,” Manzano said. “If Obama wins, it will be history.”

– Marcella Veneziale

Taking a Chance on Obama

On the Sunday before the election, Calvin Montgomery wore a red velour tracksuit to honor the outgoing Republican administration. But on Election Day yesterday, he made sure to wear his blue business suit and blue Kangol cap to the polls, to match the blue he hoped to see on electoral maps.

Clinton Montgomery, 54, smokes a Newport in front of P.S. 118 in Hollis, Queens, after voting for the first time in three decades.

Clinton Montgomery, 54, smokes a Newport in front of P.S. 118 in Hollis, Queens, after voting for the first time in three decades. Photo by Joe Walker.

Yesterday afternoon, Montgomery, 54, voted for the first time in 30 years at Public School 118 in Hollis, Queens. He believes he voted once before, in his twenties, but he can’t recall for whom.

Montgomery said he has spent most of his life hustling in the streets of Harlem, using and selling drugs, running numbers and gambling operations. He has spent time in prison for burglary, grand larceny, and assault.

Montgomery admires Malcolm X and other revolutionaries. Distrustful of mainstream politicians, Montgomery said that he has never much liked the “wait and see” approach or the deliberative nature of politics. “I wanted what I wanted when I wanted it.”

Even so, Montgomery wore two Obama pins on his jacket lapel yesterday.

“At first I didn’t care too much for Mr. Obama. I thought he was too soft,” he said. Obama may not be a radical, but Montgomery wants to see what the first black president can do.

“Mr. Obama is a new creature,” he said. “He has good credentials. He’s the evolution of what the Civil Rights era was. He’s not that combative, he’s more inclusive. More mellow.”

Montgomery has struggled greatly to get to where he is: living a law-abiding life, off drugs, out of prison and on his own in supportive housing. He takes medication for his schizophrenia and manic depression. At 6 feet and 6 inches tall, Montgomery used to weigh over 350 pounds. He was able to get to his current weight of 250 by changing his diet and walking every day.

With all the progress he’s made in his own life, Montgomery sees Obama’s victory as a sign of national progress.

“It’s almost like a vindication of all the negative things that have been said of African-American males—that they’re not qualified or capable,” Montgomery said.

Montgomery is not holding his breath to see whether Obama will accomplish the change that has been the cornerstone of his campaign.

Like the rest of America, he will have to “wait and see,” he said. “He could still turn out to be a bum.”

– Joe Walker

Young Black Republican Bucks the Trend

Jimmy Toussaint is neither old, nor white, nor conservative. He is Republican.

“I’m 23 years old, I’m black, I go to Brooklyn College,” Toussaint said. “I’m humble and I don’t look like Uncle Tom. People are confused.”

Jimmy Toussaint, a Haitian-American Republican and McCain supporter who is voting for the first time, takes a break from volunteering at a polling site at P.S. 179 in Kensington, Brooklyn on Tuesday, Nov. 4th, 2008.

Jimmy Toussaint, a Haitian-American Republican and McCain supporter who is voting for the first time, takes a break from volunteering at a polling site at P.S. 179 in Kensington, Brooklyn on Tuesday, Nov. 4th, 2008. Photo by Tracy Chimming

Toussaint cut classes yesterday to work the polling station at Public School 179 in Kensington, Brooklyn.  A steady stream of voters filed in, but all was orderly and mellow at mid-morning.

Standing at 6 feet and 3 inches tall, Toussaint’s square shoulders filled the gray corduroy blazer he wore over his cream, blue and red sweater.  A blue and red scarf hung in a knot around his neck.  His eyes looked tired.

“I’ve been here since 5:30 a.m.,” he said.  He voted for his first time yesterday, for Senator John McCain.

“It felt good, but I know McCain isn’t going to win in New York,” he said. “ I voted anyway, just to show some promise for Republicans in New York City.”

Toussaint’s friend, the president of the Brooklyn Young Republicans Club, had enlisted Toussaint as a volunteer the night before the election. He was one of only three Republican poll workers present.

The young Haitian American was born in Flatbush, Brooklyn and has been a Republican for the last three and a half years. “The idea that Republicans are only for rich white men is so misguided, and that is largely to the fault of the Republican Party, especially here in New York,” he said.

“I discovered that I was a Republican when I looked into the history of the party, which was founded by slavery abolitionists,” Toussaint said. “Before that, I didn’t know much about the Republican Party. I affiliated with Democrats because the majority of people around me were Democrats.”

Toussaint aspires to become a marine and would be happy to report to Senator McCain as commander in chief, he said.

“I think McCain is going to win and a lot of the Republican states are going to stay Republican,” he said. “I’m pretty optimistic. If we get Pennsylvania, Florida and Ohio we’re okay.”

– Tracy Chimming