Seventy-odd years ago, Everett Poole recalls, the first Democrat appeared in Chilmark. He ran the post office.
“The reason he was a Democrat was that Franklin Roosevelt was President and those jobs were all political appointments. So he had to be a Democrat. He came from Maine,” said Mr. Poole.
“As the post office grew larger, they wanted a clerk, so his wife became a Democrat too.”
Gradually their numbers grew. The postmaster’s wife’s brother declared as one. He even managed to get elected as a selectman — not that party political allegiance mattered any more than it does now in local elections.
But it remained the case that a non-Republican was a rarity in Chilmark for many more decades, as it was everywhere on the Island.
One such rarity was Robert Carroll, born in Edgartown in 1924 and a lifelong Democrat. He was not quite so politically lonely as the Chilmark post office guy. In his early voting days, he remembers there were “maybe 10 or 12” registered Democrats in town.
“There was a little nest of Democrats, right near the Gazette here,” he said.
Today it might come as a shock to a lot of people who lack the long residency and long memories of the likes of Mr. Poole and Mr. Carroll to learn that Martha’s Vineyard was once a bastion of political conservatism.
But it was, and remained so until comparatively recent times — well after the rest of Massachusetts.
After the 1972 presidential election, for example, the Gazette carried a headline: “Dukes County Out of Step with State.” The story began: “Dukes county voters reasserted their traditional Republicanism on Tuesday by marching to the polls to register their approval for four more years of Richard Nixon and his running mate Spiro Agnew.”
The rest of the state (although not the rest of the country, of course) voted in favor of George McGovern; here the vote favored the Republicans, 2,312 to 2,001.
Amazing as it may seem these days, with Democrats now outnumbering Republicans by more than three to one, the Vineyard used to like Nixon. In 1960, when John F. Kennedy narrowly won the Presidency, Dukes County voters went heavily for Nixon — 2,001 to 1,282.
Indeed, until the 1980s, Democratic associations remained the kiss of political death on the Island.
“When I first ran for election in 1976,” Dukes County Superior Court clerk Joseph E. Sollitto Jr., a Republican, recalled this week, “there was nobody who had been elected to any county office that was a Democrat. I think John Alley was the first, in 1980.
“Of course there were Democratic selectmen in various towns, but they were nonpartisan elections,” he said.
“I don’t think there’s ever been a Democratic state representative from the Vineyard. Terry McCarthy was elected to the House of Representatives as an independent [in 1972]. If he’d run as a Democrat, he would have lost,” Mr. Sollitto said.
So what happened to turn this Republican stronghold into a Democratic one?
“It happened because people learned to read a write and understand,” said Mr. Carroll, a tad provocatively.
But the consensus among those interviewed for this story was that the relative growth in Democratic numbers relates more to the Island’s population growth and other factors than to its collective educational achievement.
The change from Republican to Democrat appeared to accelerate along with the in-migration rate, starting in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Heidi Schultz moved to the Island in 1956, when Republicans were “quite dominant,” she said. As West Tisbury town clerk from 1974 to 1995, she saw and recorded the shift away from the GOP.
But she notes that the big movement, at least until fairly recently, was not so much toward the Democrats as toward nonalignment with any party.
“There were more Republicans than Democrats until the concept of being independent caught on. Then slowly the independents outran everyone else,” Ms. Schultz said.
There are still more independents here than people affiliated with either party, although there has been major growth in this election year in the number of registered Democrats.
Ms. Schultz said during her 21 years as town clerk, there was a clear pattern of change: Islanders were more Republican, and the younger, newer residents were more Democratic.
Rufus Peebles, president of the Vineyard democratic council, was one of those Democrat immigrants.
“Yes, I think much of the change is due to us washashores,” he said.
“When I purchased a house here in 1972, the Republican party was number one in registrants here in West Tisbury,” he said, adding:
“Now unenrolled is number one, then Democrats and then, way behind, Republican.
“I think a certain sort of person was attracted here in the Seventies, Eighties and even today. And although there’s enormous variety in income, wealth, education, professional life, we tend as a group to fall into the liberal Democratic camp.”
He said much of the new population tended to come from already liberal areas, particularly elsewhere in the Northeast, attracted by an environment which he described as “gloriously live-and-let-live, I don’t care what my neighbors do as long as they don’t keep me up at night.” He continued:
“I lived in Cambridge 37 years before I moved here. There was a question in my mind that the Vineyard would be full of compatible people,” he said.
But even in the days when Republicans ran the show, the Island was a tolerant place — liberal in its approach to its black community, its Portuguese community, its Native Americans and so on.
Perhaps it was not so much that people left the Republican party as that the Republican party left the people.
Mr. Peebles thinks there is something to the theory.
“I think also the status of the Republican party changed in Massachusetts overall. There used to be a lot of what you might call old Yankee Republicans, including a lot of Vineyarders,” he said. “Not any more.”
Everett Poole agreed. He’s no longer a Republican these days, although he is no liberal Democrat either.
“The modern Republican party is not the sort of party I grew up with,” he said. “We believed in little government and in being very fiscally responsible. The Republican party these days is not fiscally responsible,” he said.
Mr. Sollitto had a similar lament.
“Me, I’m a fiscal conservative but a social liberal,” he said. “I’d probably be considered a liberal Democrat down south. But I think that’s what a Massachusetts Republican always was.”
Which makes him and those like him increasingly estranged from the party of George Bush the younger.
“Maybe we’re a bit like his father, but not like the present President,” Mr. Sollitto said.
The fact is, an old-style Yankee Republican feels like something of an orphan these days.
Like Clarence A. (Trip) Barnes 3rd, whose grandfather was once the Republican Attorney General for Massachusetts.
“I guess I’m still a Republican, if that means you believe in governing yourselves and being responsible for yourselves,” he said.
Mr. Barnes regrets not so much the changing political complexion of the Island as the changing social complexion of it. He fondly recalls the day back in 1947 when he went to Oak Bluffs to see his grandfather and the big parade and “the whole of Gay Head” in attendance, and everyone a Republican of the old school.
“It used to be people were here because they had a real commitment to the place and liked the other people here,” he said. “I hate seeing what we had and what we’ve lost.”
It used to be that people looked after one another, he said, that Islanders were interdependent on one another and independent of big government. It used to be that people minded their own business, did things for themselves, went to town meeting, addressed their own problems through their churches or clubs, were frugal, distrusted bureaucracies and believed in self-determination.
Mr. Barnes said the Republican party has long been a disappointment to him. The last straw was the selection Sarah Palin as the Republican Vice Presidential nominee.
“I just can’t take that woman,” he said. “She really upsets me.”
And so he is probably going to vote for Barack Obama next Tuesday. All the indications are that will put him on the winning side.
But his will be the reluctant vote of a man whose party has left him.