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Travels In The United, Divided States

Do we have Common ground with the delegates who will soon be our guests? A one-man welcome wagon from Brooklyn sets off to find out.

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Sheri Valera in Port Charlotte, Florida; she's 21 -- and never been kissed.  

This was about as close to being a NASCAR dad as I was ever going to get, I knew, as the van rolled into the 30-degree bank of Turn No. 2 on the track at the Daytona International Speedway.

Four months earlier, in February, 200,000 race fans, dads and otherwise, filled this place to watch the famous 500 and cheer the guest starter: W., in “the kickoff” of his 2004 presidential bid, consolidating his downscale base in a slick black jacket, shouting, “Gentlemen, start your engines!” Today, however, the track, once home to white-lightnin’-running grease monkeys like Junior Johnson and Fireball Roberts, but now as corporate as everything else, was empty except for me and Sheri Valera, who grew up a bit down the road in Ormond Beach and, at age 21, will be the youngest Florida delegate to attend the GOP convention in New York.

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State chairwoman of the College Republicans of Florida, recipient of the Ronald Reagan Future Leaders Scholarship, Sheri was my first delegate, the initial Bushie on my list.

It was part of an outreach project. The idea was that just because the Republican delegates were soon to launch their sure-to-be-surreal assault on the ole hometown, filling Madison Square Garden, home to Clyde, Pearl, and Ali, with teeth-brite cheers aimed at giving the war president four more years—that was no reason to hold it against them. Personally, I mean.

“Approach them as a missionary,” my wife said. Not all the delegates were Enron crooks, oil sluts, Armageddon lusters, and their Limbaugh-Hannity-programmed enablers. No, my wife said ecumenically, it wasn’t possible that every single one of the approaching delegates reflexively hated and feared the city of my birth, the city I grew up in and loved.

“Probably a lot of them have never even been to New York,” my wife said. That’s how it started, the notion to go to the heartland hometowns of the incoming Bush nominators. To arrive on their turf as a one-man big-city pre– Welcome Wagon. It made sense, since here I was, a living piece of New York, a real New Yorker, a former cabdriver to boot. An icon I was, less kinky than Woody Allen, not as obnoxious as Donald Trump, friendlier than Jimmy Breslin, and nowhere near as full of crap as Ed Koch with his typically sickening, no doubt paid, “make nice” spiel.

So what if I was from an Albert Shanker–worshiping union family that hadn’t had a Republican voter since they stepped off the boat from Romania? A uniter, not a divider, I would attempt to set GOP minds at ease, make them understand there was no need to bivouac on huge ships in the harbor as once suggested by the Neanderthal Tom DeLay. I would convince them there was more to do in New York than simply shop and scurry back to the hotel, congratulating themselves that it took Giuliani, hero of 9/11—a Republican like them—to save the city from itself.

That was the mission, to present myself relatively unvarnished and tawking like this—and to make clear that even if several hundred thousand New Yorkers would soon be gathering in the streets to tell their faux-cowboy candidate exactly what they thought of him, we were human beings here. People, just like them.

I got a list of delegates who had never been to New York from the Republican National Committee, and when Sheri Valera met me at the airport, I figured I’d been snookered. The RNC people said, “Oh, you’ll love her, she’s a star.” That much was manifest as she stood there in her jean shorts and stretchy top.

“Hi! I’m Sheri!” she said, kind of bubbly.

“Er . . . hi,” I replied. Sheri seemed like a real go-getter, but this was not quite what I was expecting. With that long dark hair, those beachy tanned legs and grand green eyes, and that fabulous smile, Sheri Valera looked better than Ann Coulter’s fondest dream of herself. What manner of Karl Rovean skullduggery was this?

“From the beginning, most everyone knew Sheri was special, not in any envious way—everyone loves her—but different,” says Sheri’s friend Kelly Hahne. It was Kelly’s dad, Dick, facility manager at the Daytona Speedway, who’d set up our ride around the track. On the day of the 500, Sheri, Kelly, and many of their friends went over to see W.’s campaign-kickoff event.

“We got right up front,” Sheri said. “That’s how I am. A lot of people sit around waiting for something to happen. It’s up to the zealous ones to make up for that. I’m one of the zealous ones.”

An icon I was, less kinky than Woody Allen, less obnoxious than Trump. A uniter not a divider, I would attempt to set GOP minds at ease.

The kickoff was exciting, Sheri said. But today, as we went into the backstretch not far from where Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s car hit the wall one last time, she was talking about the separation of church and state.

The issue had come up the night before, at Wednesday-night Bible study at Riverbend Community Reformed Baptist Church. Wednesday Bible class was a must, Sheri had said. And so it was that night, as Associate Pastor Tommy Clayton read from Acts 4:3–5, relating how the apostles Peter and John spoke the Gospel outside the Temple in Jerusalem. This was a bold move on the apostles’ part, said Pastor Tommy, a twentyish man in baggy jeans with punkishly close-cropped hair. “Them coming to talk about Jesus at the Temple would be like a Jew coming to preach to Hitler,” he said. This was the essence of Acts 4, Pastor Tommy said: Christians will always be persecuted for their religious—“and political”—beliefs.

What about this? I asked Sheri. What about the rehearsal we watched for the church’s “Celebrate America” Fourth of July pageant, in which congregation members, dressed up like Li’l Abner and Daisy Mae, mixed gospel tunes with songs like “This Land Is Your Land”? What about churches running voter-registration drives that often seemed like Bush pep rallies? Wasn’t it in the Constitution, the separation of church and state?

“It is not in the Constitution,” Sheri said sharply. A tenacious arguer who “takes pleasure” in crushing overconfident college Democrats in debates over affirmative action, Sheri has this church-and-state rap down cold. “The First Amendment says ‘that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.’ . . . The term ‘building a wall of separation between church and state’ comes from a letter written by Thomas Jefferson, plus later in the letter Jefferson says the nation should adhere to our Christian principles.”

Actually, Jefferson’s 1802 letter only extends salutary “kind prayers for the protection and blessing of the common Father and creator of man,” but Sheri had proved her point. Sheri says she got “the political bug” as a little girl when her father had her accompany him into the voting booth on Election Day, an experience she calls “almost mystical.”

Citing morality in government and low taxes as her “core issues,” Sheri takes inspiration from “strong women” like her idol, Condi Rice; Laura Bush; and Katherine Harris, who “stood up to a lot of heat” during the 2000 Florida-recount fight. On a first-name basis with presidential brother Jeb, Sheri discounts stories of blacks allegedly being disenfranchised in Jacksonville, but adds, “We probably haven’t heard the last of that,” because “Kerry will probably bring it up.”

But this election is about the future, not the past, says Sheri, a finalist in the MTV-GOP “Stand Up and Holla” competition, in which Republicans aged 18 to 24 were asked to videotape themselves speaking on issues that “best answered President George W. Bush’s Call to Service.” Sheri’s tape detailed how the Riverbend community came together during the 1998 Volusia County forest fires. “Our great American values are preserved through volunteers who have selflessly given their time,” Sheri says, a white flower pinned to her demure dark top. “President Bush understands the value of time and volunteering . . . ”

Posted on the RNC and MTV Websites, Sheri’s video gained a good deal of notice, some of it owing to an article from the University of Florida Blue and Orange titled “Liplocked,” in which Sheri explains why she is not only planning on saving herself for her husband but has decided not to even kiss a man until she gets married.

“What’s up with the no-kissing policy?” the reporter asks.

“To guard my heart. It protects me emotionally and spiritually,” Sheri answers.

“But if a guy would kiss you, how would you feel?”

“I’d slap him because that shows he is only thinking of himself.” Sheri says she doesn’t even like it in the movies. “In most movies, the girl is too good for the guy. I’m like, ‘Nooo! Get your hands off!! R-E-S-P-E-C-T!’ and I want to sing like Aretha Franklin.”

This engendered some snide Internet commentary, including on the July 29 edition of the blog Whizbang, where a poster with the potentially subversive handle of “Allah” opines, “Hot though she may be, do we really want a chick who refuses to kiss to be the voice of young conservative America at the convention?”

I don’t have to tell you that Sheri is a beautiful young woman,” said Roy Hargrove, senior pastor at Riverbend Community Church, whom Sheri describes as “one of the people whose ideas mean the most to me.” Pastor Roy, a casually impressive man from Rector, Arkansas (Sheri says, “That’s why he knows so much about the Clintons”), who has built Riverbend Community into an ecclesiastical presence with an annual operating budget of $2.6 million, said, “Someone with that sort of outward beauty might allow themselves to be seduced by it. But Sheri retains her inward life, her drive. That can be a powerful force. I can see Sheri becoming the first woman president of the United States.”


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