Northport voters friendly despite politics

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In this polarizing campaign season, ideological divides can spell danger for dinner tables. Families are split down the middle. Dating couples diverge. Neighbors go negative.

But in the picturesque Village of Northport, nestled between rolling hills and a deepwater harbor, people try to play nice.

"My extended family is very liberal," said Kathleen Murphy, 57, a conservative who likes the "competent business approach" of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, "and we have this agreement not to be obnoxious toward each other, pounding each other relentlessly with great futility." She smiled.

And Lisanne Schnell, 46, a Democrat who will vote for President Barack Obama, no longer discusses politics with her conservative parents. "There's too many things that strike a nerve," she said.

This village of about 7,500 is fairly evenly divided between Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated voters. It tilted blue in the last two presidential elections; in 2008, Obama won with 53.5 percent of the vote, and in 2004, Sen. John Kerry took 52.6 percent compared with President George W. Bush's 47.4 percent.

The issues that animate this contest are no different in these seven election districts than elsewhere in the country: jobs, the economy, national security, abortion and access to contraception, safety-net programs, the deficit, taxes, the pressures on the middle class. But here as elsewhere, they are filtered through the mesh of personal values and preferences.

"Our beliefs influence what we think we know," said Sherry Pavone, a state Democratic Committee member and elected Democratic leader for the zone that includes the village.

And that is certainly true for voters in the middle class, where signs of strain and insecurity are as varied as the opinions held about them.

Union electrician Greg Reilly, 44, who said his girlfriend works on Wall Street and votes Republican, sees the strength of the middle class slipping away if the Republicans win. Romney, he said, "is going to kill the middle class. If union members don't go out and vote, they'll be gone and they are what made America great, why we always had such a strong middle class."

Worried for middle classRepublican Tony Graziano, a 59-year-old retired civil servant, also worries about the middle class. But he thinks it is threatened by taxation, the deficit and costly social safety-net programs. While he'd be quick to volunteer to help others, he said, "when I hear of all these programs, I know that it's going to cost me. Free is not free, and the middle class takes the brunt of it. The middle class always pays the bill."

The Schnells, who have three children, worry as much about losing the income tax deductions, under Romney's proposal to cut tax rates but cap deductions, which "a lot of the middle class relies on to get our kids through college," said Lisanne's husband, Scott.

Lisanne Schnell lost her job as a computer graphic artist last year ("It's dying a slow death," she said of being unemployed). Scott, 45, owner of a bagel bakery in Queens, said, "I've always voted Democratic and probably still will, but it's tough after what's been going on. You see little pieces of it getting better, and I'm leaning that way, to Obama."

Northport's Main Street is lined with an irregular assemblage of 19th-century buildings housing an eclectic mix: an optometrist and a lawyer; an astrologer and a medium; a diner in an old railroad car and an organic deli; boutiques and galleries; and old-fashioned variety and hardware stores.

In the window of the Northport Sweet Shop, under the "Candy Soda" neon, hangs a big new printed sign: "83 YRS. IN BUSINESS and YES, WE DID BUILD IT!" Co-owner Pete Panarites, 72, a former mayor of the village, had it made in reaction to Obama's "you didn't build it" comment, which Obama said referred to infrastructure but was widely resented by small-business owners.

Panarites and his sister Georgia Pappias sell candy and ice cream along with breakfast and lunch in a store seemingly little changed since 1929 when their father, George, opened it.

"Why am I leaning toward Romney? The economy and the deficit," said Panarites, a fan of libertarian Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas). "I've seen what I got from Obama over the past four years and I don't like it. And I liked Obama four years ago though I didn't vote for either candidate."

Uneasy about taxesDown the block is Robert Bluver, a co-owner of LaMantia Gallery who lives in nearby East Northport. He, too, like many small-business owners afraid of changes in the health care laws, will vote for Romney: "He has a better grasp of business principles and honestly, I'm afraid for my taxes."

The worries, as always, extend beyond pocketbook issues. Retired Grumman aerospace engineer and Romney supporter Kevin P. Ryan, 69, expressed dismay at what he saw as Obama's "liberal bent on where he wants to take this country" on the world stage. "Somebody has to lead and we have chosen not to do that and it's a tragic mistake," he said. "Superpowers come and go . . . We're the pre-eminent power in the world and we're giving it away."

A recent poll of voters on Long Island showed a cliffhanger election, with Romney, at 47 percent, holding a 2-point advantage, within the margin of error, in Suffolk County. And here in the village, for every Republican along Main Street there is a Democrat.

Craig Beshaw, 52, a technician at the Northport Power Station, said he was confident that Obama would win re-election by a slim margin.

"The president has done a good job of saving our economy. He saved millions of jobs because we did not fall into a full depression," he said.

There's Tom Raetz, 47, who works in HBO's broadcast operations and thinks that Obama's race is a factor, whether "overt or subliminal," in his opponents' often vitriolic assessment of him. "I'm tired of people driving around in their $60,000 SUVs talking on the latest smartphones and complaining how bad the economy is," he said.

Big issues, personal worriesAnd there's Obama supporter Robert Smith, 73, a retired high school language teacher, who wants universal health care, government-industry partnerships to foster high-tech research and industrial policies for the future.

Pavone, the Democratic leader, is worried about the big issues of the day, too, but she has a more personal worry as well. She wants to make sure that her handicapped adult daughter won't suffer because of deep Medicaid cuts, which could occur -- according to some studies from nonpartisan think tanks including the Kaiser Family Foundation -- if Romney restructures the program that pays health care costs for the poor and disabled and for nursing home care for many elderly people.

Pavone also worries about GOP positions calling for a ban on most abortions, an end to federal funds for Planned Parenthood and an allowance for employers with moral objections to exclude contraceptive coverage from employee medical plans. "Did you ever think that in 2012 we'd be talking about contraception, let alone abortion?" said Pavone. She added, "I do think a lot of people feel urgency in this election because the stakes are so high."

Urgency or no, she and her neighbor, Graziano, the Republican, get along just fine.

"This is the United States of America," Graziano said. "Someone has a different opinion than me? God bless them. I don't take it personally."

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