Making difficult primary choice


Mimi Vitello, a nurse who hosted a round table for Barack Obama in her backyard last month in Van Nuys, is on her way to vote.

But not necessarily for Obama.

It’s not that Obama wasn’t impressive, holding forth under tangerine and lemon trees with the national media hanging on every word. But Vitello had agreed to have the gathering as a favor to a neighbor who was a big Obama supporter but didn’t have a yard big enough to handle the media hordes and others.

Obama was no slouch, but he didn’t lock her up just because he came to call. She still liked John Edwards best, and she hadn’t given up on Hillary Clinton.


“I’ve gotten more engaged than I have in the past, and this election is more important to me,” says Vitello, who can’t recall ever doing so much soul-searching before casting a vote.

Walking toward Burbank Boulevard as the sun burns through the morning chill, Vitello explains her political evolution. She used to think politicians were all alike, so why waste time following such a down and dirty, money-driven process? And besides, she thought, what difference could her vote make?

But that detachment ended after her vote for President Bush in the year 2000. Vitello, who grew up in a Republican home in Covina, came to believe she’d made a terrible mistake. She found both the march to war and the results of the invasion a huge turnoff. She switched parties, registered her pique in a letter to Republican Congressman David Dreier -- who had once paid a visit to the home of her politically active parents -- and voted for John Kerry in 2004.

So it felt like just one more step in her political evolution to find Barack Obama in her backyard.

“I did kind of get swept up in the ‘Yes we can’ movement,” says Vitello, who found the Illinois senator a natural, inspirational speaker with his own manner of star power.

When I checked in with Vitello last week to ask if I could write about her ultimate choice and how she made it, she told me she was all but certain to vote for Obama.


Then came last Thursday’s debate in Los Angeles, and Sunday’s town hall meeting, and Vitello started wondering if she’d dismissed Clinton too hastily. She’d lost some of her senatorial distance, Vitello thought, and become more likable without losing any of her no-nonsense relationship with complex issues.

Crossing the boulevard Tuesday morning to get to her polling place, Vitello strides with purpose, comfortable with a decision she has worked through thoughtfully. At the Burbank Oaks Apartments, she takes her ballot and does her duty.

And Hillary Clinton gets the vote of a woman who had Barack Obama in her backyard.

Yes, Vitello says, it helped that Clinton is female. But it was about more than either gender or race.

She decided Obama’s inspirational call for change was no match for the trench work Clinton is capable of. As a nurse, Vitello has studied with interest the national healthcare reform proposals by the two candidates, and she’s found Clinton’s a bit more to her liking and more realistic.

“I felt Obama was all surface, with no center,” says Vitello, who also confesses that in her backyard, she found him a little too much of a lefty, leaning too heavily on government solutions to problems people should work out on their own.

One woman at that gathering complained that she had run up huge credit card debt trying to put her child through college. Vitello doesn’t remember all of Obama’s response, but she recalls her own thoughts:

Maybe the student needs to get a job first and consider starting at a less expensive college, and maybe the parent needs to know better than to put college on a credit card.

When I point out that Vitello switched parties because of a war that Clinton supported, she says:

“But Clinton made her decision based on what everyone else was saying at the time, and I can’t blame her for her choice when I voted for George Bush.”

Maybe that’s too easy a pass for Clinton. But one thing I liked about this primary was that voters confounded pollsters and pundits at times, refusing to be stuffed into neat categories. Candidates had to work a little harder as a result, and you’ve got to love an election in which a house call is no guarantee of an easy vote.



In my Sunday column about Bill James, a regular at Tolliver’s barber shop in South Los Angeles, I called him a retired engineer. He is neither. James is managing director an executive search firm.