PEARLAND: In Cheryl Polak’s living room in the Houston suburbs, hunting trophies and crosses share space with Lone Star State decor.
Polak, a 66-year-old retiree, has spent most of her life in Pearland. She is a Texan through and through.
She considers herself a political independent. She voted for Republicans Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, but this time, she is a diehard supporter of Democrat Joe Biden.
“I don’t know that party anymore, not what they call the Republican Party now,“ Polak tells AFP, adding that she feels Donald Trump has undermined a party she once respected.
“He feeds on hate, on division and anger. He doesn’t try to bring us together.”
Her shifting loyalties reveal how the race for the White House could be won in American suburbia, where blue and red sympathies are not as clear cut as they might seem.
Texas has been a sure red state in presidential elections for decades — it has voted for every Republican nominee since 1980. But this year, Democrats believe they have a chance.
‘Not your typical’ suburb
Pearland is located south of Houston, the fourth largest city in the United States.
It’s a fairly typical suburb with rows of houses fronting on impeccably clipped lawns, with two or three cars parked out front.
But the seemingly uniform residential streets mask a population that is ethnically and politically disparate.
“This suburb is not the small town that I grew up in, where everybody knew everybody, and everybody knew everybody’s name,“ says Polak, who is white.
“We’ve become one of the most diverse cities in the whole country, which I think is completely awesome.”
Pearland’s population has jumped 31% in just the past decade, to more than 120,000, according to census data.
18% of its residents are black, 22% are Latino, and 13% are Asian-American.
For Vivian, a 28-year-old stay-at home mom, Pearland is “not your standard white American suburb, how people would think of the suburbs.”
When she and her black fiance welcomed their son last year, Vivian — who asked to be identified by only her first name for privacy reasons — left Houston for Pearland.
“I wanted to give my son the best area to grow up in,“ she says, explaining that her own childhood was spent in an area with a high crime rate.
Vivian describes herself as on the political left. Her family, which hails from Mexico, generally support Democrats, as do her fiance’s relatives, who come from New York and Chicago.
“We’re both college educated living in the suburbs — we’re just a standard millennial couple,“ she says.
But four years ago, she was not excited to vote for Hillary Clinton. She says she only did so because her mother, a resident who cannot vote, wanted to.
“I was like, ‘Okay, I will use my vote for you’,“ she said.
This time, in her area, “we’re voting blue,“ Vivian says.
With Democrats making strong inroads in the suburbs of Texas’s big cities like Houston and San Antonio, it is now seen as a state that is up for grabs in the November election.
And in the precise political calculus of the Electoral College, Texas could be a game changer if Biden can win it.
For Abhi Rahman, spokesman for the Texas Democratic Party, Lone Star State values and Democratic ideals — “looking out for each other, creating a bigger and better society” — are finding common ground in the suburbs.
In a recent op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, Trump and Housing Secretary Ben Carson called the suburbs a “shining example of the American Dream, where people can live in their own homes, in safe, pleasant neighborhoods.”
He says if Biden is elected, the country — and especially the suburbs — will descend into chaos, and the dream will be lost.
That message resonated with Debbie Akeroyd, a 70-year-old retiree and a diehard Republican with a Trump-Pence sign outside her home in Missouri City, not far from Pearland.
For Akeroyd and her 77-year-old husband Bob, Trump is the only choice in November.
“I wouldn’t vote for anybody who wants to take God out of my life,“ says Akeroyd. She believes the Democratic Party will create a “socialist” society and end life as she knows it.
Bob chimes in: “Trump is a businessman. He knows how to create jobs.”
Because of community rules about political lawn signs, Akeroyd had to remove hers. But she says she is confident her neighborhood will vote red.
“I only hang out with conservative people,“ she says.
Jeronimo Cortina, a professor of political science at the University of Houston, says demographic changes in the suburbs favor Democrats.
“We have a lot of internal migration — people coming from California, people coming from New York,“ Cortina told AFP.
“And those people are bringing obviously their political views with them. And they’re moving to the suburbs.”
He says Texas voters are most concerned about the economy, education, health care and crime.
“Crime is not an issue where you see people being mugged in the streets in every corner,“ Cortina said.
“So the picture that the president is painting in the suburbs ... may not reflect the reality of the suburbs, especially here in Texas.” — AFP