Volunteers in City Heights have a saying: “The rush of democracy.” It’s a euphemism for the quick jolt of nerves residents get when they first call an elected official to give feedback. “Get on the phone and feel the rush of democracy,” community organizers will say when they’re encouraging residents to stand up for a cause.

I felt something like that today.

I spent the morning visiting polling places in the immigrant and refugee-heavy neighborhood. At the first location, Church of The Brethren in Fairmount Park, I ran into a woman who asked me to take a photo of her standing next to one of those yellow directional signs. Emanuela Soldana, 37, wanted to document her first time voting. She’s an Italian immigrant who became a citizen in October.

Meeting a brand-spanking new citizen gave me a buzz much stronger than the one from that hammerhead I downed hours before. This was democracy. This was City Heights.

Emanuela Soldana, 37, #CityHeights is from Italy and JUST became a US citizen. Is voting because she can now! #sdvote twitter.com/spkcityheights…

— speakcityheights (@spkcityheights) November 6, 2012

Soldana said she was most interested in Prop. 34. She said she voted to repeal the death penalty because criminal justice in the United States is too tough, especially when some death row inmates have been found innocent.

She’s not completely against capital punishment, though. She said her home country, Italy, should instate the death penalty “because Italians do whatever they want.” Both countries need to find their own criminal justice sweet spot, she said.

I also met Howard Foster, 65, in Fairmount Park. He’s the father of school board candidate Marne Foster, who’s running to represent schools in parts of City Heights and southeast San Diego. He said he had two reasons for coming to the polls: to support his daughter and to vote for President Barack Obama.

Howard Foster (dad of schools candidate Marne), 65: Voting b/c can’t trust Romney. Obama needs 4 more yrs. #sdvote twitter.com/spkcityheights…

— speakcityheights (@spkcityheights) November 6, 2012

Foster voted for Democrat Bob Filner for mayor because “he’s more accessible” to constituents. He said he turned down school bond measure Prop. Z because he doesn’t trust all the funds will go toward schools.

Like Soldana, Foster said the most important proposition on the ballot was the measure to repeal the death penalty.

Foster: Most important prop was death penalty. Innocence Project has shown innocent are on death row. Can’t release a dead man #sdvote

— speakcityheights (@spkcityheights) November 6, 2012

Rethinking California’s punitive justice system became a common thread during my time in City Heights. The community shoulders a large percentage of the city’s gang activity, and residents often say the neighborhood has a strained relationship with the police.

At the City Heights Recreation Center, 20-year-old Joshua Rivera, who asked not to be photographed, said he voted to amend California’s Three Strikes law. He said it hit close to home.

Rivera vote to amend 3 strikes. “I have uncles who have gotten in trouble for petty things b/c they were nearby and Hispanic.” #sdvote

— speakcityheights (@spkcityheights) November 6, 2012

Saurice Grady, 44, had a similar take on the Three Strikes law. She said it isn’t working the way it was intended to, and applies serious punishments to petty crimes instead of violent ones.

Grady, 44, #CityHeights: Obama speaks for me. Mom Williams: We gotta keep him in there. #sdvote twitter.com/spkcityheights…

— speakcityheights (@spkcityheights) November 6, 2012

Grady said she had to drag her mom to the polls this morning. Her mom, Beatrice Williams, admitted she was “huggin’ the bed.” That was the only point of contention between them; Grady said they both voted for Obama, Filner and Prop. Z.

Across the street from the recreation center, residents were voting at a police station. I asked 29-year-old Queta Franco if the location was intimidating. “I could see how it would be for some, but I’ve been voting here for four years,” she said. As we talked, I saw more people trickle into the police station to vote than into the recreation center.

For Franco, Prop. 30 was most important.

Franco came out for Prop 30 – nothing else. “I have sister and friends in education. I believe in education.” #sdvote twitter.com/spkcityheights…

— speakcityheights (@spkcityheights) November 6, 2012

I rounded out the day by talking to Abdi Rashid and Ayan Mohamed. It was his second time voting and her first. They came to the United States from Somalia in 2005.

Voters Ayan Mohamed & Abdi Rashid came from Somalia in 05. They have cute kids (each gave me mini handshakes) #sdvote twitter.com/spkcityheights…

— speakcityheights (@spkcityheights) November 6, 2012

Rashid had a one-word answer for why he voted: “Freedom.”

As we said goodbye, his kids lined up to give me handshakes. Two-year-old Sucdi put out her left hand. It was a teaching moment for Mohamed, who coached her to outstretch her tiny right hand.

We shook. I felt it again — that rush of civic engagement.

Megan Burks is a reporter for Speak City Heights, a media project of Voice of San Diego, KPBS, Media Arts Center and The AjA Project. You can contact her directly at meburks@kpbs.org or 619.550.5665.

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Megan Burks

Megan Burks is a reporter for Speak City Heights, a media project of Voice of San Diego, KPBS, Media Arts Center and The AjA Project. You can contact her...

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