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On the Vineyard, Obama fever is no longer raging

Islanders point to stalled economy, partisan deadlock for disaffection

By Donovan Slack
Globe Staff / August 25, 2011

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VINEYARD HAVEN - When President Obama took his first trip to Martha’s Vineyard after taking office, the excitement among locals here was palpable, from the signs of support strung across shop windows and front porches to a full-page newspaper ad taken out by 125 Vineyard grandmothers in support of his health care plan.

This week, with the jobless rate stuck above 9 percent and the president’s nationwide approval rating at its lowest level, the Vineyard’s broad allegiance shows cracks, leaving some islanders with a more textured, even tormented feeling about the president.

“I just have to say I feel really uncomfortable, because I love loving him,’’ said Leslie Pearlson, a real estate broker on the island.

At the core of islanders’ misgivings is the shaky local economy. Although the Vineyard is sometimes depicted as a playground for the rich and famous, the numbers tell another side of the story.

Empty storefronts dot main streets in Vineyard Haven, Edgartown, and elsewhere. According to the island’s Chamber of Commerce, at least one member of nearly every Vineyard household is dependent on summer business, which softened during the recession and still has not recovered.

“Discretionary spending dipped so far down that it devastated retail and dining in particular,’’ said Nancy Gardella, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard chamber.

Lifelong resident John Alley, a county commissioner and postmaster at legendary Alley’s General Store in West Tisbury, knows many island residents out of work.

“They’ll take anything that they can get their hands on,’’ he said the other day as he sorted mail. “That’s tempered a lot of the enthusiasm.’’

Even in the high tourist season, nearly 700 of the roughly 16,500 year-round Vineyard residents are unemployed, state labor statistics show. In January, the jobless rate was 13.2 percent.

The median household income, $57,000, is among the lowest of any county in the state, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Islanders have lost homes to foreclosure at a rate of two per month since 2008, a rate not showing any signs of abating, according to The Warren Group, a company that tracks real estate transactions.

In addition to the stuttering economy, bitter finger-pointing in Washington between Republicans and Democrats, including the president, has fueled disenchantment.

“I think a lot of people in ’08 felt, ‘Hey, here comes a breath of fresh air, and maybe this guy can put an end to a lot - not all of it, but a lot - of the foolishness that goes on,’ ’’ Alley said. “But he hasn’t been very good at that.’’

The brinkmanship that brought the country within hours of defaulting on some of its bills earlier this month disgusted 31-year Vineyard Haven resident Lorraine Parish.

“Why can’t they listen to each other? Why are they just throwing out these things, throwing out blame?’’ said Parish, a clothing designer and boutique owner. “They’re not listening.’’

Like many Americans, she dug deep when the economy went sour, first starting a fashion school in her boutique and then renting out part of her home to tourists. She said that as a business owner she does not have time to worry a lot about what goes on in Washington.

“I want to live my life and I want all that to be in order, and they’re doing their jobs - and now they’re not,’’ she said.

She thinks another standoff, with Obama and Republicans blaming it on each other, would so disgust her and others that they would skip voting in 2012 altogether.

“America’s not going to stand for it,’’ she said.

For other longtime residents, the Republican mantra during the past year about government debt and waste has struck a chord. Lifelong Edgartown resident Paul Jackson, 76, reuses everything on his 2-acre farm. He takes scallop shells from local fishermen and puts them around plants so that rain washes leftover nutrients into the soil. When the nutrients are gone, Jackson puts the shells on his driveway, where they are crushed into a fine white powder.

“That’s the trouble about all of these politicians - they don’t know anything about what it is to do things. They never got their hands dirty,’’ Jackson said, sitting on a patch of grass overlooking long rows of carrot and squash plants. “There’s too much waste and too much wrong direction they’re going in.’’

Jackson said he feels for Obama but believes he may be hamstrung by the system in Washington.

“You put somebody in there that could do something, but they can’t because the other people, the people with money, control everything,’’ he said.

For other islanders, who had backed Obama by a ratio of 3-1 over Republican John McCain in 2008, reservations came after Obama compromised on beliefs they hold dear. The grandmothers’ newspaper ad applauded his dedication to a publicly provided health insurance option, something the president gave up to secure passage last year of the historic overhaul of the health care system.

Lifelong resident Josh Goldstein said he and his family, which owns the Mansion House Inn in Vineyard Haven, believe Obama is doing the best he can under the circumstances.

“We feel like he’s working hard against some serious adversity,’’ said the 32-year-old, a onetime aide to the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy. “We really support his politics and his position.’’

Goldstein acknowledged that the recession hit business hard at his family’s hotel and that it has not fully recovered, but he said that has not caused his faith in the president to waver. The White House has booked every available room at the hotel during the president’s vacation last year and this summer.

“We hope that he gets Congress to act,’’ Goldstein said. “We want him to come to the Vineyard for as long as he’s in office, which we hope is five more years.’’

There are some, though, who say the doubts have caused them to look at other candidates. Mary Jo Goodrich, a 21-year resident and real estate broker who voted for Obama in 2008, said he will not get her support next year.

“We all wanted a happy ending to this fairy tale,’’ said Goodrich, owner of Mary Jo Goodrich Island Properties in Vineyard Haven. “But I don’t think there’s going to be one. I just don’t see a turnaround in the near future.’’

Donovan Slack can be reached at dslack@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @DonovanSlack.