Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a series of stories we’re calling Going Home, in which journalists from the USA TODAY Ohio network return to the communities where they grew up to share firsthand how the contentious 2020 election is playing out in various corners of this battleground state.
BAY VILLAGE — The NASA rocket still stands beside the football field at Bay High School where I went to Friday night games with my friends to cheer on the Rockets.
It looks smaller than I remember.
The public pool in Cahoon Park where I worked as a lifeguard is still closed on Sundays, a restriction demanded by descendants of Bay’s earliest settlers more than a century ago.
Ida Marie Cahoon left her family’s 100-acre-plus property along Lake Erie to the city for a park. There was a stipulation in her will: “no boating, bathing, games or sports” on Sundays, and no gambling, period. So on Sundays there is no swimming, soccer tournaments are played elsewhere, and even the annual Bay Days Fourth of July carnival shuts down for the day.
In many ways, not a lot has changed in the town where I grew up about 12 miles west of Cleveland. The lake looms large on Bay’s northern border with some small shops, restaurants, a grocery store and a bowling alley in “the center.”
Many of the wood-frame homes along the wooded shoreline have been torn down to make room for larger new ones, including the Dutch colonial where a legendary murder put Bay on the map more than six decades ago. In 1954, Marilyn Sheppard was killed in her bedroom and her husband, Dr. Sam Sheppard, was convicted of her murder amid a media frenzy, then acquitted. He claimed he chased an intruder outside to the beach behind their house, where he was knocked unconscious. The saga became the loose basis for the TV series and movie “The Fugitive.”
In high school, one of my favorite classes was business law, where we studied evidence in the case and debated Dr. Sam’s guilt or innocence.
My sisters and I affectionately refer to Bay as “the bubble.” But in presidential politics, there has been a shift. In recent years Democrats have made inroads in Bay much like in suburbs across the nation.
In 2016, Bay flipped from red to blue. Democratic nominee Hilary Clinton won with 53% of the vote, 10 percentage points over Republican Donald Trump. Four years earlier, GOP nominee Mitt Romney won by 8 percentage points over Democrat Barack Obama.
I recently returned to my hometown to talk to some old friends and neighbors about this year’s presidential race.
Juli Evans grew up in Bay and returned when she got married to raise a family. She’s an independent who has voted for Republicans and Democrats for president, but says she has had enough of Trump and will vote for former Vice President Joe Biden.
“I just can’t do four more years of Trump,” Evans said. “So many things he says are so fear-based, and I don’t want to live like that.”
Trump’s handling of racial tensions particularly concern her.
Evans, 53, has five children ages 13 to 25, including the youngest three, a daughter and two sons, she and her husband adopted from Ethiopia. They are among only a handful of Black residents in Bay.
“I have a multiracial family,” she said. “I adopted the boys 10 years ago and I never thought there would be an issue. I didn’t think that existed in our world anymore.”
“I feel like this presidency has given a voice to people who I guess have existed all along but were quieter. I feel like there is this whole new group of people where I look and say, ‘Oh my gosh, do you guys really still exist in our country and in our world and you really feel this way?’ ”
Evans said she’s had conversations with her adopted teenage boys that she never imagined having with their older white brother. “They were going through that sneaking out stuff and pantsing mannequins at Crocker Park. I told them I can’t have you running through people’s yards in Bay Village at 3 in the morning. It’s different for your friends,” she said. “There’s been crazy things happening.”
As the Black Lives Matter movement erupted this past spring, hundreds in Bay participated in a peaceful protest of the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. They marched down Lake Road and laid face-down in Cahoon Park for 7 minutes, the approximate length of time a Minneapolis police officer kept his knee on Floyd’s neck.
A few days earlier, Bay police urged residents in a Facebook post to be united, not divided, after a caller reported a “suspicious male” walking with a sign, “Silence = Acceptance.” Officers said the man, who was Black, wasn’t doing anything wrong, merely exercising his right to free speech. They offered him a bottle of water and posted a picture of him with the police chief on the department’s Facebook page.
Small groups of protesters have gathered more recently.
Driving through town, Biden and Trump signs and flags are on display in many yards. They seem to give Biden the edge.
Mayor Paul Koomar says the signs started going up well before early voting began last week.
“This year there is a little more energy in the city,” he said. “People are civil to one another, but this has been an interesting spring, summer and fall. … I’ll be a happy camper when Nov. 3 comes and we can move on and take the signs down.”
Long-time resident Jim Potter said he believes Trump has more support than yard signs suggest.
“I think there is a silent majority right now that has not been heard,” he said. “If you drive through Bay Village on Wolf Road or Lake Road you will see a lot of Biden signs, but again, I think that the people who are in those areas that are for Trump didn’t want to put out a sign because in some places there was vandalism to some houses that had Trump signs.”
Potter, 84, a retired aerospace executive with three adult children, moved his young family to Bay in 1976 and has been involved in dozens of civic, school and church groups, He supported Trump in 2016 and will vote for him again Nov. 3.
“We’ve been Republican since (Franklin D.) Roosevelt decided to run for a third term. My father was chairman of the Del Norte County Democratic Club and he was so mad he resigned and registered as a Republican and we’ve been Republicans ever since,” Potter said, referring to the northern California county where he was born.
Potter said illegal immigration is one of his top concerns, and he likes Trump’s aggressive handling of the issue. “I just don’t want to see open borders,” Potter said.
But he doesn’t want to shut down immigration to the U.S., noting that his ancestors came to the United States from Ireland in the 1890s and his civic work has included helping immigrants prepare for citizenship tests and job training for chronically unemployed workers.
Potter, who started three businesses during his career, said he also lines up more with Trump in his support of a free enterprise system and feels the left wants too much government involvement.
Potter said he thinks Trump is treated unfairly by the media and that he isn’t concerned about reports that the president paid little or no federal taxes.
“That’s the tax system, where you can make millions of dollars and pay no taxes,” Potter said. “I do the same thing. I take advantage of donations I make to my church and all those legitimate things and I’m sure that his things were legitimate.”
Leslie Smith, who has lived in Bay for 47 years and has three adult children, is a hold-your-nose Trump supporter.
“I don’t like him personally but I like his policies. I feel the Democrats have gone off the rails to the far, far left lately and they are prisoners to the squad-type people,” Smith said.
The main reason Smith, 74, voted for Trump in 2016 was so the president could make conservative appointments to vacancies on the U.S. Supreme Court. She also feels Biden wants to raise taxes.
The retired piano teacher has been a Republican most of her life, but did work for Sen. Eugene McCarthy, an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War, when he sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 1968. “Brad (her husband) got his draft notice and I wasn’t happy about that,” she said.
“I felt they weren’t conducting the war to win it. They were sacrificing people for a political end that really wasn’t stated. I thought if you’re going to send young men to die you ought to have victory or some goal in place and there didn’t seem to be one.”
Looking back, Smith said the anti-war demonstrations in the 1960s seem milder than the sometimes violent and destructive protests in many U.S. cities in recent months. “People in authority stepped in a lot sooner,” she said. “Nobody set fire to anything except the flag in the middle of the street.”
Smith said she shares Trump’s concern about election fraud and ensuring an accurate vote count.
“We do the absentee ballot, which I don’t have a problem with unless the post office is going to play fast and loose with Republican suburbs,” she said. “But this year, I’m going to drive our ballots down to the Board of Elections. …What I don’t understand is why one party wants to set it up to make it so easy to cheat. They don’t want voter ID, ballot harvesting, this just tells me they don’t think they can win unless they cheat.”
Still, it’s not easy being a Trump supporter.
“He makes it difficult. You don’t really want to be associated with the man because he is a bully, he’s an egotist and he can’t stop tweeting crazy stuff. Even if he does something good, he poops all over it with his tweets,” Smith said. “I’d like to put up a sign that says ‘I like his policies but I really can’t stand him.’ “