EAU CLAIRE — Democratic voters from the Chippewa Valley celebrated the beginning of a new era Wednesday with the inauguration of Joe Biden as the nation’s 46th president.
Renee Maddox, 99, of Chippewa Falls, said she feels hopeful again after being so frustrated with the behavior of President Donald Trump that she voted in November’s presidential election for the first time in 76 years.
Eau Claire attorney John Hertz just felt like sharing his elation, so he set up a photo booth in his driveway where visitors could take their picture with large cutouts of President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.
Jim Coy, an Eau Claire native now living in Australia, was pleased to see the result he desired after making several middle-of-the-night phone calls and spending more than $100 in international courier fees to ensure his ballot supporting Biden made it to the Eau Claire city clerk’s office in time to be counted.
The trio of Democratic voters, who joined more than 81 million others whose ballots helped install a new president in the White House on Wednesday, expressed hope that Biden and Harris will succeed in their pledge to help reunite the United States after a divisive four years.
A long absence
Maddox, who celebrated her 99th birthday on Christmas Eve, had simply gotten out of the habit of voting since last casting a presidential ballot for Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944.
“I guess it hadn’t seemed important enough ... the stakes perhaps weren’t high enough ... to convince me I needed to vote,” said Maddox, indicating she was too busy raising five sons to do much else for many of those intervening decades.
Asked what about the 2020 election prompted her to bring her right to vote out of retirement, Maddox pointed directly at Trump.
“After witnessing the almost endless succession of Trump’s bullying, antics and foibles over the past 4½ years and being encouraged by my eldest son and daughter-in-law to register and vote, I finally decided to do so,” Maddox said. “The fact that the necessary paperwork and the voting itself could be done without leaving the house helped a lot.”
Maddox said she reacted with fear and disbelief to the Jan. 6 raid on the U.S. Capital by Trump loyalists — an action that led to Trump’s second impeachment.
“Trump, in my humble opinion, has never been adequate, never capable of fulfilling the job of being president of this nation,” she said. “He has demonstrated that over and over again. This, however, takes the cake.”
By contrast, the new Biden-Harris administration has Maddox feeling optimistic about what she called “fresh leadership.”
“Finally, I feel hopeful,” she said. “We’ll soon know how much is rhetoric and how much action. ... Again, I am hopeful. That’s something, isn’t it?”
Marking the occasion
For Hertz, the photo booth was a scaled-down celebration from the “dancing in the streets” party he proposed in a series of exuberant texts to friends after Biden’s win was finally confirmed.
Thanks to what he called the better judgment of his wife, Lynn Wilson, Hertz recognized that a big party amid the COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t a good idea.
“But I didn’t want to let this day go by without doing something to celebrate,” Hertz said this morning while setting up a photo booth complete with bales of hay to sit on while posing for photos between Biden and Harris in an enlarged photo of them holding hands aloft after the election.
Hertz decided the outdoor photo booth would be a chilly but safe and socially distanced way for supporters to mark the day of Biden’s inauguration.
In addition to the photo booth, his display includes a sign welcoming all to “take your own photo with Joe and Kamala,” other enlarged photos of the two Democrats and a giant pad of paper where people are encouraged to share their well wishes for the new administration or write their hopes and dreams for the nation.
Hertz kicked off the messages with a note of his own congratulating Biden and Harris and urging them “to lead with honesty, integrity, generosity (and) inclusivity.” He closed by writing, “We are excited today for this new day!”
While Hertz was in a celebratory mood after what he described as a “difficult four years,” he said he understood that Trump supporters likely were feeling sad about the transition. Still, he expressed optimism that a bitterly divided nation can begin to heal under Biden’s leadership.
“I hope we can find a way to come together and give this new administration a chance,” Hertz said.
To maintain the spirit of his initial idea of a party, Hertz and Wilson delivered bottles of champagne to several neighbors and friends with letters encouraging them to enjoy their own toast and to dance in the street in front of their own homes to mark what he called a “historic day.”
Even from his temporary home in far-off Sydney, Coy celebrated Oct. 26 when he checked the Wisconsin Elections Board website and saw confirmation that his family’s absentee ballots had been received by the Eau Claire city clerk’s office.
It had taken several hours of work, multiple phone calls at odd times to account for the 17-hour time difference and an investment in express delivery service to ensure the ballots reached their destination by Election Day. But it was all worth it, Coy said, because of what he considered the high stakes.
“It’s trite to talk about the most important election of our lifetime, but the bar keeps moving, and we have never seen a moment like this before,” Coy said, adding that he believed the election represented “our last, best chance to make it clear that this is not who we are as a people and to determine the direction of our country and our democracy.”
“That probably sounds a bit dramatic, but it feels that consequential to me,” Coy said. “That’s why it mattered to us to get our votes in.”
Coy, a 1979 Memorial High School graduate and attorney who has devoted much of adult life to advocating for human rights around the world, said he is appalled at the kinds of things that have been normalized over the last four years and the damage that has been done to U.S. institutions and the nation’s international reputation and relationships.
On the day before the election, Coy called the vote a referendum on representative democracy and, in words that could be deemed prescient after the deadly Capitol siege, said, “It is truly terrifying to have to be contemplating what will happen if the president loses but refuses to leave office, or if armed groups take to the streets to contest the results or to stop votes from being counted, but that is what America has come to.”
That explains why he said Biden’s inauguration left him feeling a huge sense of relief, mixed with concern that such a significant minority of Americans, despite everything, still see Trump as their standard-bearer. Coy said his hope is that casual supporters, and even true believers, eventually will appreciate more stable leadership and “make their way back to the light.”
Now that the inauguration is over and the balance of power has shifted, Coy looks forward to Americans moving forward — together — to address the many challenges facing the nation.