A house divided can standASHIPPUN, Wis. — Suzanne Otte Allen calls it a “mixed marriage.” She’s a Democrat who will vote with enthusiasm for Barack Obama on Nov. 6. Her husband, Keevin Allen, leans Republican and plans to vote for Mitt Romney, but with reservations.
By: By Bill Lueders/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, Superior Telegram
ASHIPPUN, Wis. — Suzanne Otte Allen calls it a “mixed marriage.” She’s a Democrat who will vote with enthusiasm for Barack Obama on Nov. 6. Her husband, Keevin Allen, leans Republican and plans to vote for Mitt Romney, but with reservations.
“Is this the best candidate the Republicans could have put forward?” he asks, apparently unconvinced. But his conservative values and belief in smaller government compel his choice, just as his wife is moved by Obama’s progressive policies and handling of a hurt economy.
Suzanne works at Edgewood College in Madison. Keevin is an information technology specialist now under contract at Harley-Davidson in Milwaukee. They live between these two cities in a modest but pleasant home in the town of Ashippun, near Oconomowoc, in the presidential battleground state of Wisconsin.
Both are bright, college-educated, articulate. Both have worked as teachers and have successful professional careers. While they lack cable television and avoid talk radio, the Allens read the daily Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and weekly the New Yorker, and visit a variety of Internet sites, especially CNN.com.
Of the two, Suzanne, who responded to an Internet posting seeking a divided couple, is more political. She’s taken public stands and writes a monthly column for the Rosholt Record, a small newspaper in Portage County. But both follow politics and consider themselves civic-minded.
How do the Allens coexist with views that reflect the sharp divide in their state and nation? “We talk,” Keevin explains. “We’re always engaging each other.” Suzanne adds, “We don’t get personal when we disagree.” But she adds that it’s often hard “to disagree with someone that you care about.”
Dennis Riley, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, says it’s still possible for people to disagree about politics without demonizing each other. But, he adds, that’s not something they’d learn from watching TV.
“The people who are doing basic punditry — the folks who fill up 24 hours on Fox and MSNBC — have a real stake in the division,” Riley says. “Their audience comes from one side or the other.”
Riley believes there are now probably fewer married couples — or coworkers or golfing buddies — who are politically divided but still get along than in years past, given a rising “bitterness quotient.” He calls the idea that couples like the Allens still exist “reassuring.”
Suzanne, 43, was born in Michigan, raised in Wisconsin and attended college in Minnesota. She lived for several years in Denver before returning to Wisconsin in the mid-1990s, landing a teaching job in Johnson Creek. Now she works half-time at Edgewood College as a graduate assistant for the doctoral program in educational leadership.
Suzanne and Keevin met through an online dating service in 2000, and married two years later. They have three adorable, happy children: Henry, 7, Natalie, 5, and Claire, 3. Keevin also has a 22-year-old son from his first marriage.
Suzanne says her parents, who live in Waterloo, have always been conservative. She thinks they’ve grown more so over time, because they listen to Rush Limbaugh and watch Fox News. Some of her 10 brothers and sisters are also quite conservative.
But as she came into adulthood, Suzanne began to self-identify as a liberal, and as a Democrat. She thinks it’s because she favors the ideals of community and cooperation over individualism and independence: “I believe we’re stronger together than apart.”
Suzanne gives Obama high marks for “leading the nation as best he could through the economic collapse” that happened just before he took office. She also lauds the president for backing alternative energy, recognizing the need to address climate change, issuing an executive order to let the children of undocumented immigrants avoid deportation, and coming out in favor of gay marriage.
But Suzanne laments Obama’s broken promise to close Guantanamo Bay, the controversial U.S. prisoner detainment camp in Cuba. She wishes his healthcare plan had included a “public option,” as an alternative to private insurers. And she’s disappointed that he didn’t do more to support the protests last year in Madison, against Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
A distrust of
Keevin, 48, was born in San Antonio, Texas, and grew up in Milwaukee. He has an associate degree in electrical engineering technology and for 16 years taught part-time at a technical college. Now he works for, a national company that provides IT support; his current project is to help Harley-Davidson outsource IT jobs to India.
Keevin considers himself “a pragmatic conservative,” who votes for whomever he considers the best candidate. For him, that’s usually a Republican.
“I’m not a big fan of Romney,” Keevin admits. The GOP nominee strikes him as uncharismatic and he doesn’t like how Romney tried to score political points against Obama following the assassination of the U.S. ambassador to Libya.
Yet Keevin believes Romney has a better skill set for tackling the nation’s woes. “He’s been an executive, he knows how to make decisions, knows how to analyze.”
Keevin’s support for Republicans comes down to a bedrock belief: “Private enterprise creates wealth. Income redistribution through taxation does not.” And he’s deeply distrustful of government that wants to “manage every aspect of life.”
As Suzanne sees it, the fundamental difference between herself and Keevin is that “he trusts business and I don’t.” Sometimes, she says, “the government is the only thing that keeps people from being devoured by businesses.”
Why does Keevin think Suzanne votes Democratic? “She would like the government to take more charge and more care of its citizens.” In his view, she’s “too trusting of government.”
Not going to extremes
Despite their disagreements, the Allens’ judgments are softer than those often voiced by pundits and political players.
“I respect President Obama,” says Keevin, declaring him the winner in one popular litmus test. “Who would I rather go out for a beer with? It’s definitely Barack.”
Keevin praises Obama’s handling of military matters, including ending the war in Iraq and winding down the war in Afghanistan. In negative contrast, he cites Romney’s blustery remarks about Russia: “His approach is with a big hammer.”
Yet Keevin largely forgives Romney for the footage showing him dismissing 47 percent of the electorate as moochers. He says these comments show “a lack of maturity” but notes that they were meant for a specific private audience. And Keevin thinks some people “get government services for things they shouldn’t.”
Suzanne calls Romney’s remarks “a slap in the face” to people like herself who have at times gotten a helping hand from government. “Most people,” she says, “would like to have a good job and work hard.” Keevin agrees.
On Sept. 22, the entire Allen family journeyed to Milwaukee to see President Obama at a campaign event. Suzanne says it left her more excited than ever about her presidential pick: “I admire him, and I admire his leadership.”
Keevin was inspired to hear such a dynamic speaker and be part of the energized crowd. He agreed with some of what the president had to say, on education and the nation’s need to work together on economic recovery. But he was unmoved by other parts, which he felt boiled down to, “Let us take care of you.”
Similarly, the Allens are divided in their reactions to the Oct. 3 presidential debate.
“When Obama is talking, I believe him,” Suzanne reflects. “When Romney is talking, I don’t believe him.”
Keevin, meanwhile, is impressed with Romney’s point-by-point economic plan but allows that politics could get in the way: “He might be stonewalled.”
And so the Allens agree to disagree, with style and good humor. Suzanne even holds out hope that Keevin may yet come around on his election choice.
“Nov. 6 isn’t here yet,” she says brightly. “There’s always hope.”
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