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Britain's Midwest lens on the presidential race

The Telegraph newspaper sets up shop in the small Ohio town of Dunkirk, where residents have been giving their views of the campaign. There's culture shock in both directions.

November 04, 2012|By Alana Semuels, Los Angeles Times
  • London's Telegraph newspaper has been following the U.S. presidential election through the lens of tiny Dunkirk, Ohio, population 900.
London's Telegraph newspaper has been following the U.S. presidential… (Telegraph )

DUNKIRK, Ohio — Between frying a few cartons of eggs and slabs of bacon and planning the next day's goulash, Jill Jump doesn't have much time to think politics.

"I've never watched a debate before," said Jump, who recently opened a small restaurant, Oh My Grill, in this town of about 900 people. "But I watched all of them, even though they were a little boring."

She's paying attention because a British newspaper, the Telegraph, has set up shop in Dunkirk, chronicling the locals' opinions and their lives in video, photo and print in the 50 days leading up to the presidential election.

Videos of the town pop up on the Web every week, and even the paper's stories about the debates or foreign policy speeches include input from Dunkirk residents.

Readers in London now know as much about Jump, Mayor Teresa Cramer, pastor Gregg King, barber Kevin Ridgeway and high school football coach Peter Barlow, among others, as they might some characters on "Downton Abbey" — if the popular British soap took place in a small village in Ohio where life revolves around farming and God rather than primogeniture and entail.

All eyes are on Ohio this election season, but Dunkirk, which lies about 90 miles northwest of Columbus, is truly under the microscope. Here, townspeople can expect daily questions from people with accents about which candidate will be better for the economy and what they think of Mitt Romney's hair.

It's a novelty for a town where the most exciting things to happen lately were a new sewer system being installed and a ceramics store burning down. Presidential campaigns have never caused much of a stir here, unless you count the time George H.W. Bush passed through, waving from a caboose. So extraordinary is the Telegraph's extended visit that it made front-page news in the local newspaper one town over.

Many in Dunkirk have gotten swept up in the excitement, recording their thoughts in loopy cursive and slanted scratches in a notebook left by the Telegraph in Oh My Grill, the only restaurant in town. A sign near the journal tells residents: "We will be publishing your ideas in the paper and on our website where they will be read by millions of people around the world."

Sample comments include: "Obama is a worthless pile of do-do. The sooner he leaves Washington, D.C., the better off our nation will be. By the way, he can take his sleeveless-dress-wearing wife with him." And from the other side of the aisle: "As a small business owner and parent of young adults, I pray Obama is reelected. P.S., as a village fiscal officer, things are looking up locally."

"It's just so surprising to see that the London Telegraph would be interested in little old Dunkirk," said Cramer, who joked that she needed a translator during her first interview with a British journalist. "This is a whole different lifestyle."

Reporter Raf Sanchez learned how different life is in rural Ohio after he spent countless hours talking to people in Dunkirk's one-chair barber shop and its smoky bar, accompanying locals to a Paul D. Ryan political rally and eating plenty of chicken and spaghetti at Oh My Grill, which is open only for breakfast and lunch.

One person even asked him to autograph a copy of the Telegraph. "It was like Beatlemania," said Sanchez, who has spent the most time in Dunkirk of all of the reporters.

He attended the high school football team's homecoming rally, where players burned an effigy of the opposing team's mascot, and watched the homecoming king and queen ride down Main Street in the back of a convertible.

"It was, for me, fascinating and bizarre — I'd never seen anything like it," he said. "I had never seen an entire town turn out to see a bunch of teenagers playing football."

Sanchez, who has a slight accent, was born in the United States but moved to London when he was 12. Another reporter is from Texas. But the other three reporters on the story hail from Ireland, Scotland and England — a big deal in a town where everyone can name the one woman whose daughter lives overseas.

Reporters have taken turns visiting Dunkirk, staying in a motel one town over (Dunkirk has no accommodations). When they aren't there, someone calls the barber or the mayor or one of the other "main cast of characters," as U.S. editor Peter Foster dubs them, to check in.

Foster said he became accustomed to the fact that residents don't use Twitter, barely reply to emails and don't reliably answer or check the messages on their cellphones.

"I wasn't sure whether I was going to be drummed out of town or welcomed with opened arms," he said. "But I kind of really fell in love with the scrappy little town Dunkirk."

Foster was in Ohio in March when he saw a sign for Dunkirk, a name that holds a special resonance in Britain because of the World War II battle of the same name that featured a heroic rescue of Allied troops from Dunkirk, France. He pulled off the highway, ended up in a pub, and decided he wanted to come back again and again.

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