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The ‘Election’ that changed history

David Gura Feb 23, 2012

Kai Ryssdal: It was one of the closest elections in modern history. There were allegations of impropriety, ballot-box stuffing. A candidate was disqualified, even.

I’m talking, of course, about the student council race at Carver High School, as depicted in the minor cult classic movie “Election,” starring Reese Witherspoon and directed by Alexander Payne.

We’ve been looking at places made famous by movies this week, to get a sense of how people in those places locations are feeling, about what they’d hoped for when they were younger and what they expected would happen in life.

“Election” was filmed just outside of Omaha, where Alexander Payne grew up. From Papillion, Neb., here’s Marketplace’s David Gura.

David Gura: Tracy Flick is ambitious. She is a high school junior hellbent on becoming student council president. She is cloying and competitive, and she is convinced she’ll win.

Tracy Flick in “Election”: Some people say I’m an overachiever, but I think they’re just jealous. My mom always tells me I’m different. You know, special. And if you look at all the things I’ve accomplished so far, I think you’d have to agree.

For her, the election is a means to an end — her ticket out of small-town Nebraska.

“Election” came out in 1999. Back then, the economy was booming. President Clinton had vanquished his Republican rivals. The tech bubble hadn’t burst. And there was this sense that the country was moving fast, in the right direction.

Nebraskan Adrian Whitsett could’ve gone to school with Tracy Flick.

Adrian Whitsett: I don’t remember ever talking about money with my friends. It seemed like we could have it all.

Whitsett was in the class of 1999 at Papillion-La Vista Senior High. That’s where Alexander Payne filmed “Election.” There is no Carver High School here. Now he’s part of the news team at ABC’s Omaha affiliate.

Today, Papillion-La Vista is almost unrecognizable from the school in the movie. The trophy cases sparkle. There’s a big auditorium, two gyms, an indoor pool. Whitsett says the movie “Election” doesn’t have many fans here.

Whitsett: The feeling was the school itself, Papillion-La Vista, and the school administration, was not happy. They were very, very upset with what had happened in this movie. And if you see it, you might understand why. 

It’s a movie about adultery and divorce. Teachers’ lives are ruined. And if you’ve never been to Papillion, Neb., you’d think the local landmarks are motels and pizza restaurants. Josh Reeves also graduated in 1999. He owns two small businesses.

Josh Reeves: It kind of made our town look dingy and gross actually, and that’s, I understand that’s why they picked our school, because the idea behind the movie was to keep that kind of dark feel.

“Election” didn’t do well in theaters. It became a hit on video and DVD, and maybe that’s because it was too dark for 1999. Today though, it seems ahead of its time. The movie came out a year before Bush v. Gore; then, the tech bubble burst; then came 9/11; the housing crisis.

Josh Reeves met his wife Stephanie in high school. She’s a recruiter. And Stephanie says what did ring true to her at the time, was Tracy Flick’s determination to leave Nebraska.

Stephanie Reeves: When we moved away, I don’t know if we would ever come back.  Um, probably wasn’t thinking that I was going to come back.

They got jobs in Arizona. They bought a place there. But a funny thing happened to them — and to a lot of their classmates.

Stephanie Reeves: You have a family, and you’re in a really large city compared to where you grew up, and you just kind of start to miss that small-town feeling.

It didn’t hurt that, while Nebraska missed out on some of the economic highs of the last decade, it also skated through the lows.  Today, unemployment is just over four percent here. So the Reeves family moved back to Papillion.

Classmate Brian Meade had his sights set on D.C. He dreamed about becoming a spy.

Brian Meade: I would say that I hoped to see the world. But ironically, I wouldn’t say that I hoped to get out of Omaha.

After college, he moved east. But now, Meade and his family live just a few miles from where he grew up. Today, he’s a tax attorney.

What happened to the Papillion-La Vista Class of 1999 is part of a bigger trend. Demographer Bill Frey says that, in the early 2000s, the lights of big cities burned pretty bright. Midwesterners moved to the Sun Belt, to the coasts. But then:

Bill Frey: There was a mortgage meltdown and on top of that there was a lack of jobs. All of this kind of came bang, bang, bang between the end of 2007, through 2008, through the end of the decade.

And many of them moved back. At the end of “Election,” Tracy Flick winds up in Washington. We see her climbing into a limo, and we can only wonder what’s next for her, where she’s headed. If she’s anything like her real-life classmates, it just might be back home.

In Papillion, Neb., I’m David Gura for Marketplace.

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