ROSS ANDRESON / SPECIAL TO THE SUN
Thursday, Nov. 6, 2008 | 2 a.m.
As it turned out, there was no dancing in the streets of Elko on Tuesday night.
As voters in cities across the nation celebrated Barack Obama’s victory, the snow-dusted row of bars and western shops in downtown Elko remained quiet as the election news rolled in.
Inside one saloon, mine workers nervously clinked their drink chips on the bar top, slammed hands onto the table in frustration and drank more beer — afraid their way of life in this thriving gold mining and ranching town of 17,000 might change.
“I’m pretty passionate about what affects this area and my lifestyle,” Ryan McDonough said.
“Yeah, I’m bitter,” Steve Antonini said.
Obama said in his acceptance speech that he wants to heal America and bridge the political divide. But as Obama nation celebrated boisterously late Tuesday, Elko hovered between morose and angry, with occasional flashes of hope. So it is that Elko — a place in red America with patches of blue — could be seen as a kind of baseline to measure Obama’s progress as he works through the many differences that still divide the country.
Here, mine workers fretted Tuesday that they will lose their jobs to new regulations, along with their gun rights.
Elsewhere, lifelong Elko liberals, a minority here, remained bothered by the ill feelings the campaigns generated in their community and wondered if they might prefer to move to where more people are like-minded.
Others, however, held out hope that Obama’s victory would set the stage for a new age of community involvement.
A block away from the mine workers, at a wine bar and gallery, partygoers looked up from their wine glasses and grinned at the televised image projected on the wall. Some put their hands up in the air. A few let out cheers.
“It’s like Christmas,” bar manager Jen Anderson said softly.
Democrats worked harder than ever in rural Nevada to narrow the gap with Republicans. Their inroads were modest. George Bush beat John Kerry here by taking 80 percent of the vote four years ago. John McCain pulled 68 percent of the vote on Tuesday.
In the end, it didn’t matter. Nevada’s urban counties carried the state for Obama.
But the political dynamics were still playing out on the ground even after the ballots had been cast.
At Machi’s, an elegant bar and grill decorated with old ranching gear in what used to be newspaper offices, a group of regulars had come for consolation.
As McCain delivered his concession speech, Miguel Betancourt gestured to Antonini.
“I gave him two choices,” Betancourt said. “I said, ‘You could cry or you could drink.”
Antonini’s speech was slurred. He had chosen the latter.
Antonini grew up in a logging town in California and made a good living there. Then, he says, when Democratic President Bill Clinton came to office, enforcement of environmental regulations ended his town’s good fortunes.
“I was 26 years old and there was nothing in the city I grew up in to provide work,” Antonini said.
He came to Elko and started to make good money in mining. Now, he’s worried the pattern will repeat and he thinks in the meantime he’ll have to pay higher taxes under Obama, which he sees as unfair.
As he pondered his future under a Democratic presidency, the giddy faces of Obama-loving bartenders began to make him mad — and confused,
“I just can’t understand why they’re happy,” Antonini said. “They don’t understand what they’re losing.”
Betancourt and another drinker told him to get over it.
“The Democrats had the same fear you do,” William Bouie, a medical technician, said. “They went through Bush two times and they lived through it and dealt with it.”
Bouie, 27, is half black and half Puerto Rican and from Hattiesburg, Miss. He tried to explain to his buddies the full meaning of this moment: “We were taught in school the importance to get out and vote because people went through so much to get the right to vote. No one had a voice or the right to an opinion. Nobody of color. Black people can say now we’ve crossed a major, huge barrier. I’m just glad to be a part of it.”
He spoke the words tentatively. He wasn’t an Obama fan and says he wrote in former professional wrestler (and Minnesota governor) Jesse “The Body” Ventura on his ballot.
Betancourt, a strong McCain supporter, took a philosophical approach.
“You can go home and cry yourself to sleep,” he said to Antonini. “It’s not going to change anything.”
That seemed to resonate. “Regardless of who was elected president tonight, we have to start living with what is,” Antonini said. “We’ve just got to deal with it. That makes more sense to me than anything anyone has said.”
A block away Lora Minter greeted her friends at Duncan LittleCreek wine bar and art gallery.
“Things are looking good!” she said. “We can smile!”
Owner Jacques Errecart, an architect, inherited the old, smoky bar that had once been a cowboy boardinghouse. One day, he got disgusted and decided to lock the door and create something different. He filled the gallery with eclectic art and cut a giant hole in the shape of Michelangelo’s David to form one doorway.
When he reopened the space six years ago, he had no idea how it would go over. But more and more young professionals are moving to Elko, the economy here is still good, and business keeps improving.
“Times have really changed here,” Errecart said. Then again, he said, “it’s not changing quite fast enough.”
That’s true for Minter too.
She grew up in Elko and came back to raise her children, but now she’s thinking of leaving. The campaign here got nasty, she said.
“I want to be around people who think like us,” Minter said. “I lived here 34 years and it was still shocking to me the racism below the surface. I was disappointed. I thought we had progressed further.”
Christina Barr, a Western folklorist, sat at the table with a glass of red wine and followed along as a New York Times election map on her laptop took shape. Like many celebrating at Duncan LittleCreek tonight, she had volunteered for the Obama campaign.
“I worry what happens after, when the energy of the election has evaporated,” Barr said. “Will we carry that mantle forward and have opportunities for Democrats to gather and be part of civic life in Elko? I hope we can sustain that energy.”
But in this crowd on this night, no one is sure.