October 18, 2012

A house divided

In this battleground state, Suzanne and Keevin Allen do what much of the political establishment cannot — disagree without being disagreeable

How do the Allens manage to get along? “We talk,” Keevin explains. Suzanne adds, “We don’t get personal when we disagree.”

Kate Golden/WCIJ

How do the Allens manage to get along? “We talk,” Keevin explains. Suzanne adds, “We don’t get personal when we disagree.”

ASHIPPUN, Wis. — The initial reaction was not encouraging. The couples I learned of who fit the bill did not respond to my inquiries. A message on the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism’s Facebook page, seeking to profile “a married couple who are divided in their support” for the two major presidential contenders, drew mostly hostile replies.

One commenter called it “stupid.” Another wrote, “You have no idea what you’re asking for.” A journalism professor suggested that we “poll some marriage counselors” or “cruise the local S&M scene.” He added, in all seriousness, “If you find somebody, I’d like to know.”

Then along came Suzanne Otte Allen.

Suzanne Otte Allen will vote for President Obama with enthusiasm: “I admire him, and I admire his leadership.”

Kate Golden / WCIJ

Suzanne Otte Allen will vote for President Obama with enthusiasm: “I admire him, and I admire his leadership.”

“I think this is an interesting idea,” posted Suzanne, a mother of three who works at Edgewood College in Madison. “We do have a ‘mixed marriage’ and would be interested in adding to civil discourse.”

Thus began a series of contacts with Suzanne and her husband, Keevin Allen. We’ve spoken by phone, exchanged emails, and met at their modest but pleasant home in the town of Ashippun, near Oconomowoc, in the presidential battleground state of Wisconsin.

Suzanne is a Democrat who will vote with enthusiasm for Barack Obama on Nov. 6. Keevin, an information technology specialist now working under contract at Harley-Davidson in Milwaukee, leans Republican and plans to vote for Mitt Romney, but with reservations.

“Is this the best candidate the Republicans could have put forward?” Keevin asks, apparently unconvinced. But his conservative values and belief in smaller government compel his choice.

Suzanne and Keevin are both bright, college-educated, articulate. Both have worked as teachers and have successful professional careers. They’re a nice couple. They call each other “honey.”

While they lack cable television and avoid talk radio, the Allens are well-informed. They 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 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,” explains Keevin. “We’re always engaging each other.” Adds Suzanne, “We don’t get personal when we disagree.”

Keevin Allen plans to vote for Mitt Romney, but with reservations: “I’m not a big fan.”

Kate Golden

Keevin Allen plans to vote for Mitt Romney, but with reservations: “I’m not a big fan.”

Keevin says he and Suzanne don’t let the other make unsubstantiated claims: “She’ll call me out or I’ll call her out: Show me the facts.” He thinks such discussions make them both better voters.

At one point, I ask the Allens whether disputes over politics actually strengthen their marriage. Suzanne does not rush to embrace this theory.

“Sometimes,” she says hesitantly, before going deeper. “It’s hard. It’s not always easy to disagree with someone that you care about.” They want each other to see things their way. In fact, confides Keevin, “I would love to have everybody think like me.”

The Allens mention a news story from May about a Chippewa Falls woman who ran over her husband with a Dodge Durango in a dispute over Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s recall election. Deadpans Suzanne, “We try not to do that.” Then she delivers the rarest and most welcome form of political commentary. She laughs.

Can we get along?

In 1986 Jonathan Schell, then a writer for The New Yorker, wrote a two-part series, later made into a book (History in Sherman Park) about a Milwaukee couple who voted for the opposing candidates in the 1984 presidential election. The couple, unlike the Allens, were given pseudonyms.

Schell’s conceit was that ordinary voters are the most important players in the electoral process, and that insights can be gained by looking into what factors move them.

“If … I was in one sense seeking out people at the bottom of the political hierarchy — people far from the centers of influence and power, on the receiving end of the government’s decisions — I was in another sense seeking out the people who, under our system, are at the very pinnacle of power,” Schell wrote. “Whatever their level of interest, or concern, or information, their decisions were the ones that stuck.”

Suzanne says the fundamental difference between herself and Keevin is that “he trusts business and I don’t.” Keevin thinks Suzanne is “too trusting of government.”

Kate Golden / WCIJ

Suzanne says the fundamental difference between herself and Keevin is that “he trusts business and I don’t.” Keevin thinks Suzanne is “too trusting of government.”

The election of 1984, between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale, bears similarities to the current one. A popular yet controversial incumbent was seeking a second term. His challenger was seen as a fitting if uninspiring standard-bearer for his party. To a large extent, the race played out as a choice between the incumbent’s expressions of optimism versus the challenger’s insistence that the country was headed in the wrong direction.

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.”

A great many people, he notes, cannot countenance disagreement when it comes to core political beliefs. Yet there remains a portion of the public which “is able to carry on a discourse, come to opposite conclusions, and not see the other person as evil.” They regard those on the other side as “wrong, but not wrongheaded.”

Reflecting on Schell’s article, Riley believes there are now probably fewer married couples — or coworkers or golfing buddies — who are politically divided but still get along: “The bitterness quotient in American politics has just gone up since the 1980s.” A couple like the Allens is “probably less typical, but no less important. The idea that they still exist is reassuring.”

‘Stronger together than apart’

Suzanne, 43, was born in Michigan and raised in Wisconsin, first in Abbotsford and later Lake Mills. She graduated from the College of St. Benedict in Minnesota with a degree in social science and secondary education and lived for several years in Denver before returning to Wisconsin in the mid-1990s. She landed a job teaching seventh and eighth graders in Johnson Creek.

The Allens near Oconomowoc with their three children (left to right): Henry, 7, Natalie, 5, and Claire, 3.

Bill Lueders / WCIJ

The Allens near Oconomowoc with their three children (left to right): Henry, 7, Natalie, 5, and Claire, 3.

Now Suzanne works half-time at Edgewood College as a graduate assistant for the doctoral program in educational leadership, where she does “a whole lot of everything.” Her column in the Rosholt Record often touches on political topics, as when she lamented how politicians and the media use wedge issues like abortion and gay marriage to sway voters, when there are many other, more consequential issues.

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. Living in Ashippun splits the distance between their two commutes, to Milwaukee and Madison.

Ashippun is in Dodge County, which voted two to one for Walker over Democrat Tom Barrett in 2010 and again in the 2012 recall. Republican candidates for county offices like sheriff and district attorney commonly face no Democratic challengers.

“It’s very Republican,” says Suzanne, with no argument from Keevin. She says her political views — on display this year when she put up a yard sign for Lori Compas, the Democrat challenging state GOP Sen. Scott Fitzgerald in a recall election — “make people have a little bit different reaction to me.” But no one has been hostile, and she has never felt shunned.

Keevin voted for Walker, both in the 2010 election and the June 5 recall. Suzanne, who backed Barrett, attended several anti-Walker protests in 2011.

“I could tell he was a little miffed about it,” Suzanne tells me, sitting next to Keevin at the couple’s dining room table. “But I thought, ‘That’s too bad.’ ” Her next statement, though, applies to both of them: “You have to afford people their own decisions. You can’t force people to think like you.”

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. Asked why, she evokes the spectrum that runs from individualism and independence (the conservative position) to community and cooperation (the liberal position) and places herself on the latter end. “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’s support for Obama is not, as she puts it, “starry eyed.” She laments his 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.

A distrust of government

Keevin, 48, was born in San Antonio, Texas, and moved with his family to Milwaukee at age 7. He obtained an associate degree in electrical engineering technology from Milwaukee School of Engineering, and taught computer and business classes part-time at the Madison Area Technical College’s Watertown campus for 16 years. He has a 22-year-old son from his first marriage.

Keevin now works for TEKsystems, a national company that provides IT support, under contract for Harley-Davidson. His task is to help the company outsource some of its IT jobs to India: “I’m helping with the transition.”

Keevin considers himself “a pragmatic conservative,” who votes for whomever he considers the best candidate. For him, that’s usually a Republican, although he did vote for Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold over GOP challenger Tim Michels in 2004. In the 2010 election, he joined the majority that pushed Republican Ron Johnson past Feingold but even then chose one Democrat: Doug La Follette, Wisconsin’s longtime secretary of state.

“I’m not a big fan of Romney,” Keevin admits. The GOP nominee strikes him as stiff and 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.”

Growing up in Milwaukee, Keevin rubbed elbows with many Democrats yet came to have a negative perception of unions. His parents and siblings were conservative and his Christian upbringing underscored the virtue of self-reliance. He points to the Apostle Paul, who could have taken a salary as a church leader but instead earned his living making tents. He also cites Paul’s admonition, “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.”

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.”

That said, there is something about the political process on which Suzanne and Keevin completely agree: The parties are too partisan, too divided.

“Politics used to be more civil,” Keevin says. Elections were hard fought, but afterward the parties came together to get things done. Now they remain divided, more focused on thwarting the other side than solving problems. It’s a trend he finds “disheartening.”

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 despite his capacity to criticize the candidate he supports, 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. “He was trying to drive home a message.”

While Keevin largely forgives Romney for the footage showing him dismissing 47 percent of the electorate as moochers, Suzanne considers the remarks “a slap in the face."

Kate Golden / WCIJ

While Keevin largely forgives Romney for the footage showing him dismissing 47 percent of the electorate as moochers, Suzanne considers the remarks “a slap in the face."

Suzanne, who considers Romney’s remarks “a slap in the face” to people like herself who have worked hard but at times gotten a helping hand from the government, challenges her husband to stake his ground. “What do you think of it?” she asks him. “Do you think that 47 percent see themselves as victims and want a handout from the government?”

Responds Keevin, “There are people who get government services for things they shouldn’t.” But he also agrees with Suzanne when she says, “Most people would like to have a good job and work hard.”

Neither Suzanne nor Keevin sees social issues as a major factor in how they vote. They diverge on these, but take nuanced stands.

“I think pregnancy is a gift from God,” says Keevin, but he doesn’t want the government ending the right to legal abortion. “I want the choice to be there but would discourage somebody because it’s a stupid choice.”

“Stupid for whom?” Suzanne demands. Keevin concedes there are situations in which an abortion might be justified.

Suzanne, for her part, says that while she’s pro-choice, “I don’t mind if there’s some restrictions toward the end” of a pregnancy.

Keevin doesn’t understand why the parties take such extreme positions, with Republicans wanting to outlaw all abortions and Democrats pledging unequivocal support. Suzanne interjects that politicians keep raising this issue “to keep the money flowing in.”

Keevin, taking “a Biblical view,” opposes same-sex marriage. But just as Suzanne starts to point out that the Bible contains a lot of outdated bans, he adds, “I don’t want to see religious practices legislated.” In fact, he’s fine with recognizing gay civil unions and having gays serve openly in the military. The only issue for him is, “Can they do the job?”

Responds Suzanne, “Amen to that.”

Points of agreement

On Sept. 22, the entire Allen family journeyed to Milwaukee to see Obama at a campaign event. Suzanne found it thrilling and says it left her more excited than ever about her presidential pick: “I admire him, and I admire his leadership.”

The Allens, watching a tape of the Oct. 3 debate: Suzanne found Obama more trustworthy; Keevin was impressed with Romney’s point-by-point economic plan.

Kate Golden / WCIJ

The Allens, watching a tape of the Oct. 3 debate: Suzanne found Obama more trustworthy; Keevin was impressed with Romney’s point-by-point economic plan.

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 was unmoved by other parts.

“A lot of the speech, the underpinning was, ‘Let us take care of you,’ ” Keevin says. “That aspect is concerning to me.”

On Oct. 4, the Allens sat down to watch the first presidential debate. The debate actually took place the night before, but Suzanne had work commitments that got in the way. And so the couple watched it on tape, and let me sit in.

“I agree,” Keevin says, when Obama urged steering tax breaks to companies that keep jobs in the United States. “I agree with that,” Suzanne says, when Romney declared it was “not moral for my generation to keep spending massively more than we take in.”

But the first time Romney disclaimed any intention to cut tax revenue, Suzanne exclaims, “That’s not what he said before!” And Keevin pauses the tape to expound on why Romney is right when he accuses Obama of undermining the coal industry.

Suzanne came away from the debate, which many observers felt Romney won, even more comfortable with her choice: “When Obama is talking, I believe him. When Romney is talking, I don’t believe him.”

Keevin, meanwhile, was impressed with Romney’s point-by-point economic plan but allowed that politics could get in the way: “He might be stonewalled.”

Both Allens thought the debate exchange felt inauthentic. As Suzanne put it, the candidates seemed to be “battling images of each other, not actual policies and events.” She wondered what might be accomplished if the two would just have an honest discussion.

If they’re looking for a model, the presidential contenders could do worse than the Allens. The couple doesn’t like to disagree, but they do it with style, and good humor. During one interview, after Keevin concedes a point, Suzanne expresses optimism that he 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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