Obama looks for the Brightside of first debate

The Brightside Tavern in Jersey City is beginning to fill up with supporters of Barack Obama and the city’s long-time mayor, Jerramiah Healy.

Bright St is quiet and residential.

Just around the corner narrow, tree-lined streets give a Manhattan feel. But for a long time, the wide expanse of the Hudson River doesn’t do justice to how distant we are from the genteel sophistication of Greenwich Village.

The building which has housed this bar since 2009 is over a century old but was decrepit when Brooklyn-born Tommy Parisi took it over and revamped the space, creating a homely bar and a cosy adjoining restaurant.

It’s far from a perfect town but there’s hope in Jersey City, the staunchly Democratic second city of the fiscally troubled state of New Jersey.

One of Mitt Romney’s biggest supporters and most important allies is Governor Chris Christie. Brash and proud, he is a large embodiment of the Garden State’s historically maverick attitude. Early predictions suggest he will run for president in four years against New York counterpart Andrew Cuomo. If that comes to pass, the New Jersey/New York rivalry will sharpen into focus for a worldwide audience.

New Jersey has felt the strain since the Republican governor took over and began taking drastic measures to lower a large deficit. But whereas some cities are laying off police, Jersey City has ridden the storm.

The state’s lower taxes and that same incredible access to the financial centre has made this side of the river a more attractive proposition.

President Obama might be a little more moderate than Mayor Healy in terms of taxes, and a lot more moderate than Governor Christie when it comes to balancing budgets and the role of government, but all three share a socially liberal agenda.

However, last Wednesday’s first presidential debate was all about the economy and the cold hard facts. Not all of the activists at the Brightside are thriving but they are staunch in their support of their mayor and their president.

“I want you all to enjoy the debate and we look forward to a big victory in five weeks’ time,” the mayor hollers to the packed pub, and is greeted with enthusiastic applause. As it turns out, that will be the loudest of the night.

Pura Rios pulls out her camera and hands it to me. “Take a picture of me with the mayor.”

Rios left the Dominican Republic for Brooklyn when she was a baby. Her mother worked 14 hours a day at a factory and although she struggled to find employment, she is a passionate advocate of Obama.

She ends up leaving just before the end, slightly demoralised by the failure of Obama to drive home his advantage over Romney. “I don’t know why the president was so low key,” she remarks. “Romney was eloquent but it’s a polished veneer. I know a lot of the facts but people tuning in for the first time will take a lot of heart from what he says.”

On one of the half-dozen screens that adorn the walls, a New York Yankees home run provides temporary distraction.

Another local community activist, Brenda Pettiford of the Urban League, tells me this election is even more important than 2008.

Her grandparents, descendants of slaves, came up from North Carolina and Georgia, and she is angry about the way welfare entitlement has become a slur bandied around by the conservatives who want the Romney/Ryan ticket to succeed.

“This was not handed to us. I saw how hard my grandmother worked until she was 80. She ran a beauty salon out of her apartment over there on Monticello Avenue.

“They’re trying to make welfare about colour but poverty doesn’t have a colour. It’s a social issue.

“When I was young, this place was alive with so many different people. Italians, Irish, Jews, blacks. I was colour blind. It was only when I went to work in Manhattan that I first experienced racism.”

There is a low-key exodus out into the muggy night and Mayor Healy finally has a few minutes to spare. He is routinely backslapped by supporters, all of whom want a word or two — or preferably a picture.

“Healy 2012! Healy 2012!” shouts one particularly energetic man.

“2013,” Mayor Healy corrects him.

By all accounts his own re-election bid is not a sure thing but November is a more immediate concern.

“I think that the people who liked Romney before, probably still like him and maybe like him a little bit more. The people who support the president, they’ll still like him too.”

Mayor Healy’s father was born in Kilgarvan, Co Kerry, and his mother moved from Drumlish in Co Longford to Jersey City where she would meet her future husband.

“They’re all gone but I’m still here,” he says a little wistfully before launching into a passionate monologue about his home town.

“Just about anything you want is here. You see the diversity that we have: Over 75 languages spoken in our public schools; incredible access to Downtown Manhattan. You can work in Manhattan or do your business in Manhattan and be there in a matter of minutes. But more importantly, if you do your business here, it’s about 50%-60% cheaper and you still have that access.

“Twelve years ago we didn’t have one hotel in Jersey City... I mean we had a couple of motel shitholes on Route 440. We now have five world class hotels. They’re all 90% or more occupancy rate. We have a lot to brag about. It’s a great place to live.”

Jeff Dublin, the Jersey City Democratic Party chair, is a little more willing to discuss Obama’s debate performance but he is still predictably on message.

“I’m optimistic about the whole campaign. I believe America trusts the president. There are some questions about Romney and his offshore accounts. The companies he has closed down and moved overseas. When we talk about bringing America back, it’s Obama who we need for that job,” Dublin claims.

The bar is almost empty when Parisi, as animated as any bar owner should be after a busy evening, shouts out to everyone and no one in particular. “Yankees win! Yankees win!”

The second loudest cheer of the night goes up. That’s about all they can take from the evening and, in many ways, a push for the World Series just before election day is more than enough.

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