Party Switcher: Raised a Democrat, Now a Republican

By Lisa Morehouse

(Lisa Morehouse: KQED)

Virginia Wolters says she was baptized a Catholic and a Democrat. After 9-11, her quest to learn more about U.S. foreign policy led to more political inquiries and a discovery that she probably was a conservative all along. (Lisa Morehouse: KQED)

We don’t need to tell you the American electorate is polarized these days. You just have to tune in to any call-in show or even make an injudicious casual remark at Thanksgiving dinner to realize how personal our political identities are and how emotional discussing the issues and values surrounding them can be. So we decided it would be interesting to ask one Republican and one Democrat why they did what is unthinkable to so many: switch parties. Two portraits of political discontent…

Democrat to Republican below, and Republican to Obama voter here.

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For more than 30 years, Novato resident Virginia Wolters was perfectly happy being a Democrat. Wolters grew up in a family full of union members outside of Chicago. She says she was baptized a Catholic — and a Democrat.

Though she doesn’t recall anyone saying anything specifically derisive about Republicans, she certainly understood how those around her felt. “It looked like the Democrats were the nice people,” she says. “Mom and Dad were nice, our friends were nice. Over the years I got the impression that Republicans were rich and evil.”

For Wolters, that all changed on September 11, 2001.

Those were the Kennedy years. Although she was still a child, Wolters was captivated by Jackie and John’s good looks — and the optimism around his campaign. Even the theme song for JFK’s campaign was the tune “High Hopes.” But as an adult, her political feelings lay dormant for years before springing back to life in 1992, when Bill Clinton ran for president. “I really related to the whole Clinton mystique,” Wolters says.

By this time Wolters lived in Mill Valley and enthusiastically registered voters in the town’s plaza. The only Republicans she knew were a couple of relatives on her husband’s side. At Thanksgiving dinners, she would tiptoe into political conversations with them — and then go no further. “I think I was the one to stop,” she says, “because I would feel challenged.” Her in-laws knew more about policy. “I was definitely out of my league, and I sort of knew it,” she admits.

It’s a little embarrassing for Wolters to recognize her former self now. Back then she was politically active, she says, but not engaged with the issues.

For Wolters, that all changed on September 11, 2001.

“When the second plane hit the tower,” Wolters recalls, “I turned to my husband and I said ‘That’s an act of terror.’” That day, Wolters  went in to work in San Francisco, but her manager told her to go home. She got in a long line to take the ferry back to Marin. “Everyone was looking at the sky, wondering ‘Are we next?’ We didn’t know if someone was going to crash a plane into the Transamerica building. Nobody knew. Nobody knew.” Wolters felt vulnerable and helpless, like her nerve endings were exposed.

And it was on September 11 that for the first time Wolters had a positive response to Republicans, specifically Rudy Giuliani and George W. Bush. “I remember thinking ‘Wow, thank goodness these guys are in charge because they’re really serious!’” she recalls. “It was a very unusual feeling. Maybe I felt we needed some safety, some security. Their responses were reassuring, I thought.”

What she heard from her liberal neighbors, people she had always identified with politically, was something very different. She recalls someone on the ferry that day saying, “I’m surprised it didn’t happen sooner.” At a memorial held by a women’s spiritual group the next week, someone said, “Well, we’ve been going into all those countries.” Wolters says these responses amazed her. “I think it was the first time I became aware of how the left talks about America,” she says.

Wolters began researching U.S. foreign policy, reading books on terrorism, listening to more talk radio and watching Bill O’Reilly’s show on Fox News. She felt he gave context to the events of 9/11. The more she learned, the more Wolters found herself agreeing with conservative ideology on issues other than foreign policy.

But politics are personal, especially if you find yourself disagreeing with the community around you. “It was a very slow journey,” Wolters says. “It was very painful, and it was very, very lonely, because I didn’t know anyone else who thought the way I did.”

Wolters quietly changed her voter registration to “decline to state,” and voted for George W. Bush in 2004. By 2008, she had become a bit bolder, staffing tables for John McCain at farmers’ markets around Marin.

She got some strong reactions. She says people would approach her table and say, “Wow, do you know you’re in Marin County? Why are you doing this?” or, “Shameful, I can’t believe you’re doing this.”

Finally, in 2009, she registered as a Republican. Now she is active in several women’s Republican clubs and attends some Tea Party events, but she still stays undercover in her professional life in marketing. She says other closet Marin conservatives tell her they act the same way. “We don’t put on bumper stickers because cars get keyed around here,” she says.

In her conversion process, Wolters says she’s learned a lot of things — that she’s probably always been a fiscal conservative, and that politics are contentious and she wishes we could find common ground. The most important lesson, she says, is that she learned to ask a few questions: Do you have the values you have just because those were the principles of your family? Do you vote the way you do because you really believe in these principles?

For Wolters, it all comes down to this: Why do you believe what you believe? Virginia Wolters says she finally knows.

  • Kathy

    I cant imagine how someone could feel safe with George Bush who sent thousands of soldiers to their death in Iraq to “protect” America from WMDs that were not there! Instead, just as he promised, Obama sent soldiers to the place where the perpetrators of the 9/11 murders lived and killed the leader! How can that be denied? That made me feel like someone was truly focusing on the terrorist who hurt Americans! Furthermore, the 9/11 commission figured out why we are vulnerable and made a list of several steps that needed to be taken to avoid further terrorist attacks, yet it took YEARS for Bush to take those steps! How anyone can say they felt safer because of Bush is hard for me to understand. In fact, his whole reign was built on the theme of fear which made me feel worse!

  • TfromSF

    Dear KQED,

    I was disappointed by your November 1 story about the
    Marin County lady who switched to the GOP after 9/11. I know that she is
    entitled to portray her personal political evolution as she wants, but I
    think your coverage was softball and misleading. The take-home message
    seemed to be, “Don’t just blindly follow the political views of your
    family or community; form your own opinions.” That is fine, but she
    seemed to imply that Marin County people need to “wake up”, think for
    themselves, and then of course they would choose to be conservative. I
    don’t think that is an accurate characterization, especially because
    many Marin County liberals are much better informed (and get their info
    from much less biased sources) than Mrs. Wolters.

    Like many Americans, 9/11 changed Wolters’ worldview. But a decade
    later we know that many Americans (and our government) felt so fearful
    and vulnerable after 9/11 that they over-reacted and embraced
    controversial policies that weakened America, made the world more
    hostile, and could actually compromise our future safety. She recounted
    extreme cases of ostensibly liberal Bay Areans making insensitive
    comments after 9/11, and that somehow validated the GOP claim that the
    left despises America? Wolters admitted that she was politically
    uninformed prior to 9/11, so maybe if she researched US foreign policy
    history in the Middle East, she would realize that the US is not the
    only victim of foreign terrorism.

    She then started to listen to “talk radio” (I assume she is
    referring to right-wing radio?) and Bill O’Reilly. So it’s no surprise
    that she turned conservative if those were her only sources of info,
    without exposure to counter-arguments. Was she truly persuaded by
    superior conservative views, or was than the inevitable outcome of her
    exposure to those media?

    I am sorry that she felt alienated by her political beliefs, and I
    commend her for becoming politically active, but I disagree with her
    implicit dismissal of those who see things differently. I don’t think
    that she should complain about political intolerance against her when
    she is not really empathizing and extending the olive branch either.
    Contrast her to the other political switcher, Mr. Patrosso. Biased media
    didn’t persuade him to “wake up” and realize his “true beliefs”. He was
    a die-hard Republican for most of his life, but his party left him –
    straying from its fiscal conservative traditions and embracing
    religion-fueled intolerance. Unlike Wolters, Patrosso wasn’t speaking
    ill of conservatives as people, and made his decision to switch based on
    facts and the conduct of GOP leaders.

  • tcbrekke

    Kind what I would have suspected – person who is not particularly interested in politics in the first place is easily swayed by “seriousness” (read: aggression) on the part of Republicans around 9/11 and a bunch of the O’Reilly Factor. Hardly shocking. I imagine this is what the average swing voter is like, swinging back and forth based on random moments of posturing, and the right’s propaganda channel does a good job of swooping in to grab those folks up. What amazes me is that a person who says she didn’t formerly know much about Democratic policies is now posing with these signs and pins and… She’s got a SEAL Team 6 poster – they killed Bin Laden under Obama’s watch. She registered as a Republican not to vote against Kerry or Obama the first time, but only after Obama was elected. Somewhere in that chain of events my brain wants to explode. The timeline leaves a lot of gaps, and I’d like to know what else went into this decision, and the level of passion behind it.

  • http://twitter.com/AndersKHA Anders Hellum

    Virginia’s political analysis of Bush Jr.’s response to 9/11 was shocking. She said that she felt Bush Jr.’s response of bankrupting the country by invading 2 other countries made her feel safe. And, she still holds that belief years after a national recognition that those two wars were unwarranted and fiscally irresponsible. This women still seems unable to think for herself and is instead caught up in a rhetoric that is decoupled from reality. Maybe she is an example of how political bullying via aggressive rhetoric works.

  • Sharon

    This woman is clueless about so many things.

  • Gustavus Adolphus

    “Wolters began … listening to more talk radio and watching Bill O’Reilly’s
    show on Fox News.” I’m certain this made Miss Wolter’s much more biased and ill-informed and (partially) accounts for her schizophrenic switch in politics. A few years back in the wee hours of the morning I was driving through the wilderness towards an idyllic fishing creek on the border between California and Oregon and right-wing talk radio was the only thing I could receive. I about split my belly laughing when the right-wing talk show host intoned in all earnestness: “God Bless America, …. and nobody else …!?!”. Listening to these sorts of biased, jingoistic polemics accounts for Miss Wolters new found “refined and informed state”.

  • Americian of spanish decent

    I find it is a shame to our ideal of freedom of speech that people can not voice their ideas or beliefs without being held in contempt by others in a area that says freedom of speech is a right for them. For anyone in Marin to be in fear of expressing what they believe or feel is right on a bumper sticker is Anarchy and this anarchy is being directed at them by the same people who destroy their property for doing exactly what they they tell everyone is their right, which is to speak their mind on any issue and is their freedom of speech.

  • Kathleen31

    I was saddened by this story. I understand Ms. Wolters feeling afraid and vulnerable after 9/11 — many of us did — but becoming convinced that the militarism and recklessness of George Bush, Rudy Giuliani, et al. would make her safe shows a real inability to see through the most obvious deception and posturing of Bill O’Reilly and his ilk. It isn’t that her Marin County neighbors disagree with what she represents as her well-thought out opinions, it’s that they recognize that she has been sold a bill of goods, and wonder how it is possible that she doesn’t know this. Without knowing anything else about her, I feel very sorry for her.

  • Sad for you both …

    To American of Spanish Decent (sic): You are of like mind with Ms. Wolters – said mind being confused and delusional. She fell victim to the imagined fears of speaking her mind in Marin despite the absence of any actual attack; much the same way that Republican’s dragged the nation headlong into an unjustified invasion of Iraq because of imaginary weapons of mass destruction. You too treat her fears of suppressed 2nd amendment rights as something that actually has occurred. It is extremely useful in life to distinguish between imagined threats and actual occurrences. Try to approach the world from the perspective of reality. You might enjoy it.

  • chrisco

    Just to correct the record: Rudy Guiliani certainly responded to the September 11th attacks most excellently. George Bush (“My Pet Goat”), however, not so much. Thank God Guiliani was there while Bush was MIA again. Although Bush did come around after several days and he deserves credit for making a statement of tolerance toward Muslims and condemning attacks against Muslims (at least here at home) in response to the attacks.

    I also wish to associate myself with the thrust of the very intelligent comments here.

  • Juvenal451

    Ms. Wolters seems like a nice lady, and, of course, we are free to switch parties any time we like. However, there are two aspects of the story that trouble me: 1) how did Ms. Wolters’ socio-economic situation change such that she grew up in a a union household and ended up living in Mill Valley? Specifically, did she marry a rich Republican? and 2) that she reports that she began getting her information from FOX News–has she heard that FOX News plays fast and loose with the facts?

  • VWolters

    I was the person profiled in Political Switchers, and I’d like to thanks to some of the commenters here for illustrating why conservatives stay “under cover,” especially in the Bay Area. For some peculiar reason, libs can’t deal with an opposing point of view without invoking GW Bush or personal attacking. So much for “tolerance” and diversity of opinion. Are liberals aware of their arrogance and bullying?

    • tcbrekke

      I wrote one of the above comments. I hope it’s not one of the ones that made you feel bullied, as that certainly wasn’t my intention. I did, however, find some things curious, and as you have mentioned in your response that the article is meant to be about your political journey, not your politics, I’d like to reiterate the question my comment ended with and give you an opportunity to respond however you see fit. Again, this is an honest question, and one I’m very interested in knowing the answer to (for example, you mention conservatives feel the need to be “under cover,” did that play into it?) Anyway, the question and its set up as posted earlier are below – you can see the full text of my comment above. One thing I noticed rereading this is that “my brain wants to explode” could be read as somehow aggressive – not meant that way, just me expressing the fact that there seem to be some contradictions in the way your story unfolds. Thanks in advance for your response, and whether you respond or not thanks for giving us Bay Area libs a look at your political journey.

      “What amazes me is that a person who says she didn’t formerly know much about Democratic policies is now posing with these signs and pins and… She’s got a SEAL Team 6 poster – they killed Bin Laden under Obama’s watch. She registered as a Republican not to vote against Kerry or Obama the first time, but only after Obama was elected. Somewhere in that chain of events my brain wants to explode. The timeline leaves a lot of gaps, and I’d like to know what else went into this decision, and the level of passion behind it.”

  • Sarah in Marin

    I cannot believe the comments posted. Yes, I am a Marin democrat and ashamed of all the negative comments.