Heavy Democratic turnout in Va. includes new immigrant enclaves

Salvadorans and Ethiopians are among the new residents turning Northern Virginia blue.

Published November 4, 2008 9:30PM (EST)

ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- Outside a poll at the William Ramsey Recreation Center in West Alexandria, Va., I spoke with an Obama volunteer named Claudia Waller, 69, who has watched her community change twice in the past 50 years. First, in the 1960s, African-Americans started buying quarter-acre lots on her street, and she was happy to see it. Then, in the past 20 years, her neighborhood shared Northern Virginia's influx of foreign immigrants. Waller was happy to see the Vietnamese and Salvadorans and Ethiopians, who, she says, all hang out at Starbucks. "All the brown people go down there and you can hear Ethiopian here, Hispanic over there," she said. "They must drink coffee all day."

West Alexandria is an example of how changing demographics has changed the way the Old Dominion votes, and not just because rapid growth in the Washington suburbs has tipped the balance of power away from the redder downstate Virginia.

Despite its reputation as the land of soccer moms and government work-bots, much of Northern Virginia's growth has come not from white suburbanites but from nonwhite immigrants. Northern Virginia has doubled its minority population in the past 20 years, mostly through immigration. Hispanics and Asians count for 21 and 15 percent, respectively, of the increase in the state's voting population. Large enclaves of Ethiopians and the East Coast's largest Vietnamese population have made close-in cities like Arlington and Alexandria a destination for Washington foodies -- and a source of Democratic votes. While the Vietnamese skew Republican, most of the other burgeoning immigrant groups vote Democratic.

Turnout this morning in Virginia was roughly double past levels, with 40 percent of 5 million registered voters voting before noon. Democratic Party officials expect a record turnout at polls in traditional African-American enclaves, like Hampton Roads, and the areas that have seen the most new immigration, places likes Loudoun and Prince William counties, both among the nation's fast growing counties, where some people waited for three hours to vote Tuesday morning. The wait was just as long at John Adams Elementary School in West Alexandria, where the line stretched around a long suburban block at 5 a.m.

In the rec center parking lot, I met Tefera Bezabeh, 38, who moved here from Ethiopia six years ago. He had just cast his vote, for Barack Obama, and was in a hurry to leave so he could start giving free rides to elderly and disabled voters. This is Bezabeh's first time voting, ever. "In Ethiopia we don't have such kind of democracy, " he said. "It's exciting, you know." Bezabeh knows exactly why he supports Obama: healthcare. Like most cabdrivers, Bezabeh is a freelancer and doesn't receive health or retirement benefits from his employer. He takes home about $9,000 a year, and there isn't enough left over for healthcare. Medicare covers his two children, ages 5 and one and a half, but he and his wife just pray they don't get sick. "God protect us," he said. "It's very scary."

By Angela Valdez

Angela Valdez is a reporter at The Stranger.

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