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Fair politicking


The State Fair, which runs through Sunday, isn't all cows, chickens, dizzying rides and fried dough. It's also a soapbox for political groups that try to hawk ideas instead of cotton candy. For $550, plus the cost of mandatory insurance, a group such as North Carolina Coastal Federation and the state Democratic Party can get a space among the hundreds of venders who keep the fair buzzing 15 hours each day.

Despite the conservative character of the fair, those trying to hand out peace stickers and collect signatures on petitions say they get mostly positive response from the thousands of people who file past the snugly fit booths that occupy the Education and Commercial buildings.

At the booth where the N.C. Green Party is soliciting names on a petition to get the party on the state ballot, state party secretary Jan Martell of Durham called out to passersby last Sunday night asking them to take the clipboard and sign on. Most silently drifted past or shook their heads "No," but many took Martell up on her offer.

"It's actually a very conservative atmosphere here," she said, "But many people do look and listen."

Martell says others--presumably Democrats--are hanging on to their anger over Green candidate Ralph Nader's role as "spoiler" in the 2000 presidential election. "They just say, 'Don't want to talk to you. Nader ruined everything. It's all your fault. Good bye.' "

Teresa Piner of Wake County has volunteered in the North Carolina Coastal Federation booth for a decade. The group uses 40 volunteers to staff the booth.

Bill Pate, who's with the Wake County Democratic Party, coordinates the state Democratic Party booth. Both parties offer free candidate stickers and literature as well as other items, such as buttons, for sale. But the Republicans' booth is almost always more active. "They have a well-oiled--Texas oil--operation, especially this year," Pate said.

At the Peace Booth--under the theme "There is no way to peace. Peace is the way"--people can sign petitions against a U.S. invasion of Iraq and in support of moratorium on the death penalty, and pick up lots of literature.

Michelle Rose of Cary has been a Peace Booth volunteer for about eight of the last 10 years. She says public reaction to the booth runs from supportive to the occasionally snide comment. She admits nonviolence and peacemaking are a hard sell at the fair.

"Most people are there to have fun, and they don't want to deal with a heavy issue," Rose said.

But there are affirmations. During her shift on Oct. 18, the fair's opening day, a World War II veteran stopped by the Peace Booth to argue a bit, and to listen. His closing comment: "It's totally nuts what we're doing with Iraq."

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