Latvians split on choice for president

Time was when a Latvian voting for president of the United States had a clear choice: pick the Republican. Not that everyone followed the party line, of course, but the post-World War II generation of Latvians in America generally have been a conservative group. And their conventional wisdom had been that the Republican candidate would be tougher on the Soviet Union.

But times have changed. Take the Nov. 7 election, which has left America in a quandary, awaiting vote recounts and the resolution of legal battles in Florida and several other states. We recently asked for a sampling of post-election opinion from some of our regular readers. What we learned surprised us.

Of those Latvian-Americans who voted for Republican candidate Gov. George W. Bush, many pointed to his party pedigree, his perceived honesty and his plans for Social Security as reasons they picked him over his main challenger. Meanwhile, those who favored Democratic candidate Vice President Al Gore cited his experience in Washington, D.C., his perceived intelligence and his stance on environmental and economic issues.

But although many of our respondents said their ethnic heritage is important, most said domestic U.S. issues outweighed concerns about the next president’s potential impact on Latvia.

Keep in mind that this is just a sampling of opinion, not a scientific survey. We received responses from 64 readers in the United States as well as a handful from other countries. Of U.S. readers, 30 supported Bush, 25 voted for Gore and nine cast ballots for Green Party candidate and consumer advocate Ralph Nader.

Why they voted for Bush

Ivars Ikstrums of Sammamish, Wash., was among those Latvian-Americans who voted for Bush. He cited several reasons for picking the Republican over the Democrat, including what he sees as the Clinton Adminstration’s lack of honesty and integrity.

“Clinton has introduced an ‘anything goes’ attitude into American society, the likes of which we’ve never seen before,” Ikstrums added. “Gore will continue that. This has got to be stopped.”

While Ikstrums pointed to his disagreement with what he expects would be Gore’s continuation of Clinton’s foreign policy, George Zuments of Arvada, Colo., found himself agreeing with Bush because of domestic issues.

“As a small company owner, several things were important,” Zuments said. “I did not want larger government programs and more entitlement programs.Tax cuts were important.

“The ‘surplus’ is a result of too much government income vs. expenditures,” Zuments added, noting the federal tax revenue that has increased in recent years during the country’s economic expansion.

Similarly, Eriks Lielbriedis of Grand Rapids, Mich., supported Bush because of his stand on issues such as limiting and decreasing taxes, decreasing the size of government and added accountability in public education.

For several respondents, the opportunity to change leadership in Washington was among the main factors influencing their vote for Bush. Said Hugh A. Kalns of Williamsburg, Va.: “We need someone with fresh blood that can restore America’s dignity in the world, someone that will make a good leader and someone that presents statesman-like appearance instead of preaching half-truth and jumping like a clown all over the stage.”

A resident of Richmond, Va., didn’t view Bush as the ideal candidate, but a far better choice than Gore.

“I cast my vote for George W. Bush because he is pro-free market,” said Eriks Gudvins, “whereas Gore wants nothing but the kind of nonsense that caused Latvia so much pain for so many years under Soviet occupation.

“I cannot comprehend why Americans are even tempted to vote for a man who so obviously is no friend to true freedom,” Gudvins continued. “Didn’t the pain and suffering of Eastern Europe, Russia and the rest of the world that was mutilated by communism show the pointlessness of any form of socialism or communism?”

It wasn’t Bush but his running mate, Dick Cheney, that swayed Ivars Bezdechi of San Diego, Calif.

“I grudgingly voted for George Bush because of his running Dick Cheney,” he said. “Dick Cheney understands military affairs and foreign affairs. He understands the reality that the ‘cold war’ is really not over and knows that Russia is not a friend of the world community.”

Why they voted for Gore

A psychologist in Quakertown, Pa., Aivars Straume was among those respondents who said they voted for Gore.

“He is intelligent, has a positive reputation with world leaders, I agree with his philosophies and proposals about health care, the budget surplus, taxes, Social Security and the environment,” Straume said of the Democractic candidate.

Bush, according to Zinta Aistars of Michigan, “is an intellectual lightweight like none I have seen in my lifetime.” Among key issues for her were the environment, Social Security and the death penalty.

“Bush’s approach is very cavalier and calloused,” Aistars said of the last issue. “Too many innocent people have been put to death, yet he treats this with a smirk. Which brings up his lack of respect to minorities—racial concerns, gays, etc. Oh, I could go on forever…”

Silvija Vecrumba of New York City also noted several issues with which she found agreement with Gore, although she said the vice president wasn’t a particularly strong candidate.

“Gore takes a strong stand on something that is one of my pet peeves—the American drug companies,” Vecrumba said. “Pharmaceutical companies have the highest profit margin of any other company in the U.S., yet they whine about the costs of research and development and lobby to have patents extended to keep costs high for consumers.”

Juris Odiņš of Denver, Colo., also was not 100 percent in the Gore camp.

“I voted for Al Gore not out of real enthusiasm, but primarily because George Bush is completely unsuited to be president,” he said. “Gore has solid governing and political experience, breadth of knowledge and intelligence. Bush gets by on personality, family contacts and monied supporters.”

Odiņš, however, did agree that Gore would do a better job of paying down the national debt and strengthening Medicare and Social Security.

In Grand Prairie, Texas, among those voters who did not help Bush carry his home state was Gay Gaisma and her husband. Gaisma found disagreement with the native son on several issues, including his stand on offering vouchers for parents wishing to send their children to private schools.

“Teachers’ salaries in Texas are amongst the lowest in the country,” she said. “Bush’s voucher plan and support for private schools would further erode the public education system. Comparing education achievements of the two (systems) is like comparing apples to oranges. Public schools have to accommodate every child while private schools pick and choose from wealthy and high-scoring academic enrollees.”

Why they voted for Nader

Many political observers have called them spoilers: those who voted for Nader and supposedly “stole” votes from Gore, potentially costing the vice president the election.

“I voted for Ralph Nader because I could not bring myself to play the ‘lesser of two evils’ game,” observed Silvija Klaviņš-Barshney of Chicago. “I consider both Bush and Gore horrible candidates, although Bush is worse. I was hoping that Nader would get 5 percent of the vote, so that he could run a real campaign in four years.”

Others, too, voted for Nader to give the third-party candidate a better chance in the future, although Kaspars Zeltkalns of Michigan also flaunted his “spoiler” privileges. “I felt that a Nader vote would at least help Bush, because I did not want Gore at all,” he said.

At least a few Latvian-Americans, however, supported the Green Party nominee because of genuine interest in his platform.

“The other candidates did not offer me a real choice,” said Dace Zoltners of Wisconsin. “Neither Gore nor Bush have a stellar record. Ralph Nader has been a proponent for the citizens of this country since the late sixties.”

NATO mostly a non-issue

A number of Baltic-American organizations have focused part of their lobbying efforts on convincing the U.S. government that it should support expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to include Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. In the runup to the Nov. 7 election, they also tried to promote NATO expansion as an issue to watch in the presidential campaigns.

Our readers generally consider NATO expansion an important cause, but remained unconvinced that it was an overriding consideration in deciding whom to support for president. Said Bush supporter Valdis Siliņš of Minneapolis: “I cannot nor will I ever expect America’s leadership to actively promote Latvia’s NATO membership if it is not perceived as being in America’s best interests.”

Violeta Byrum of Coopersburg, Pa., agreed: “Issues affecting everyday life are going to have a higher priority even though I am passionate about the Baltic States being able to become members of NATO.”

And one reader in Washington state criticized Baltic-American organizations in their efforts to influence voters.

“I don’t trust the Russian Federation and think security for the Baltics and other ex-republics is important,” she said. “But I was really insulted by e-mails that suggest that because I am a Latvian-American that I have to vote for certain candidates and not others based solely on the issue of NATO enlargement.”

However, a minority of respondents suggested that the issue of NATO expansion played a strong role in their choice for president.

“This is extremely important to me and further supported my argument for Gore,” said Diana Robeznieks of Cleveland, who went on to compare the politics of the Republican candidate and his father, the ex-president. “I never cared for George Sr.‘s take on the Baltic States and I am fairly confident that George W. would end up being another Republican isolationist.”

Bush supporter Aldis Puriņš of Grand Rapids, Mich., saw danger in Gore’s policies and their potential impact on NATO.

“I truly believe that Gore would weaken our military even more, which translates to a weaker NATO,” he said. “I’m not sure that NATO can continue to exist without a strong U.S. presence.”

(Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on

Andris Straumanis is a special correspondent for and a co-founder of Latvians Online. From 2000–2012 he was editor of the website.

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