SEATTLE, Wash. — Space needles and coffee, salty mist off the Puget Sound, great wealth in a laid-back setting: Seattle is unlike almost anyplace else.
This is reflected in the attitude of the hip young professionals who flock to Seattle to staff companies like Microsoft, Boeing and Amazon that have made the city into a bubble of prosperity in the midst of the economic downturn.
On a recent evening, hundreds of twenty- and thirty-somethings crowded into the Brave Horse Tavern, a chic, warehouse-style bar in Seattle's South Lake Union district, known to many as "Amazonia."
"This whole neighborhood did not exist five years ago," said a local journalist. "Now they are edging out the newspaper."
The glossy skyscrapers and fashionable eateries cater to a small army of well-heeled Amazon employees. There was little evidence of the recession as the casually dressed but unquestionably affluent patrons ordered high-piled burgers and crispy corn dogs, washed down with "growlers" of designer brews.
"I think Seattle is a bit protected from the economic downturn," the journalist said. "The hi-tech industries have done better than the rest."
Seattle — a recent stop on Barack Obama's campaign trail — is a crunchy-granola kind of place, where people pay great attention to the environment, animal rights, healthy living and other issues traditionally associated with the left side of the political spectrum.
For some, like Nebraska transplant Scott Braswell, it can be kind of irritating.
"Seattle is this island of liberalism that is out of touch with the rest of the world," he said, over lunch at Specialty, a select sandwich shop near the university. "It gets kind of ridiculous. People become obsessed with certain kinds of foods and brands of exercise. You can't just ride a bike out here — you have to be a 'cyclist.'"
Braswell is a researcher in microscopy at the University of Washington, a specialized field that has been fairly well insulated from the general economic upheaval. Braswell and his wife, both in their mid-thirties, have already paid off their house, and enjoy a lifestyle that would be the envy of many of their cohorts in the East or Midwest.
Braswell understands and sympathizes — to an extent — with the vast hordes of the unemployed, but says he does not really feel the pinch personally.
"I know that kids at the university seem to feel more stress about getting jobs," he said. "But maybe it is the press sensationalizing things. I know friends of mine who lost their jobs and went skiing in Chamonix while they collected unemployment. They are all doing fine now. (The economic crisis) is just not happening here."
Aaron Malver agrees, more or less. He moved to Seattle from Minnesota in 1993 to work for Microsoft, and enjoys Seattle's ambience.
"I like the feel of the city," said Malver, sitting in his small but well-appointed home on a hill overlooking the Puget Sound and downtown Seattle. "Maybe it is a 'liberal bubble,' but it seems that people here think more about things that other parts of the country do not, like renewable energy and protecting the environment. Across the mountains," — referring to agricultural Washington on the eastern side of the Cascades — "people are more conservative."
Malver gave up his hi-tech job years ago to become a music teacher. His house contains pianos and organs, and he says music has become his life. But he has no intention of leaving the city.
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"There is no reason to go anywhere else," he said.
These young professionals are not paying close attention to the presidential race — perhaps because they already know how they will vote. While Braswell and Malver do not want to talk specifics, they both fall solidly on the more liberal side of the political spectrum.
Saul Pwanson is not so reticent — the 35-year-old engineer is also a Microsoft alum, although he left the software giant more than a dozen years ago. He now works for F5, which he describes as "the biggest IT company you've never heard of."
Pawanson is a bit quirky — his unusual last name is the product of a decision he made years ago.
"I was born Paul Swanson," he said. "But I thought, 'there are lots of Paul Swansons out there. 'So I changed it."
Pwanson is doing pretty well, although he has felt the heat from the financial crash.
"I had a house that I stopped paying on," he said. "It had lost value, I was under water on the mortgage, and it did not make sense for me to continue with it. I made too much money to qualify for refinancing or other programs. So I did what is called a 'strategic default.'"
Pwanson has been actively engaged in political campaigns, although recently he has become a lot more cynical.
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"Mine is a tale of political disenchantment," he said. "I am afraid our system is fundamentally broken."
The cracks in the foundation involve, among other things, election fraud, voter disenfranchisement, and, most of all, his crushing disappointment in the current White House incumbent.
"I was so excited in 2008," he said. "I thought Obama was destined to be one of the great men of our generation. But he turned out to be a career politician. He will not stand up for the things he promised to do. I will vote, but I will not campaign or donate. It is not worth my time or money to have business as usual."
Most of Seattle's voters will likely do their best to give President Barack Obama another term in office, although, judging from their discussions, their hearts are not exactly in it.
"I'm not sure it matters who wins," said Braswell. "Maybe that is one of the strengths of our government, I don't know. We try and elect somebody with good ideas and intentions, but we do not know what he can accomplish.
He shook his head and sighed.
"We will waste millions of dollars on this circus of an election," he said, "but in the end, nothing changes."