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Hard Times, Disillusion Weigh Heavily on Mich. Congressional Race

October 29, 2010 at 7:39 PM EST
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Special Correspondent Betsy Stark examines how the sour economy is influencing voters and a close House race in Michigan.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Back to campaign politics, and the third of several stories from our Patchwork Nation project. On air and online, we have been reporting on how the bad economy is affecting political attitudes across the country.

Tonight, special correspondent Betsy Stark reports on a contest for a House seat from a hard-hit district in Michigan.

BETSY STARK: Ice hockey is a way of life in Michigan, often starting at the tender age of 3 or 4. The Mighty Mites of Chelsea, Michigan, are at the rink up to five times a week. But just beneath the surface of this favorite pastime, in a state where job loss has also been a way of life, is a palpable anxiety about how the people of this state will make their way into the future.

CRYSTAL HEATH, voter, Michigan: My husband’s been laid off twice. He’s gotten a job twice, thank God. But the rich keep getting richer, and the poor get poorer. And the middleman, we’re just hanging on. And that’s all we could say is we’re hanging on. A lot of people aren’t hanging on.

BETSY STARK: Michigan’s economic problems, so tied to the fortunes of the auto industry, are still very much in evidence at South Central Michigan Works, a state employment office in Jackson, in the heart of the 7th Congressional District.

WOMAN: Got laid off, yes.

So, with the economy, things changed, right? You didn’t have to work and you had a great job, and now they’re gone.

BETSY STARK: The area is home to many auto suppliers and service businesses that feed off Detroit. And while the Big Three are showing signs of recovery, they have been slow to make their way here.

ALVIE DUNGY, director, South Central Michigan Works: I’m not seeing the mass layoffs that we were seeing a year-and-a-half or two years ago. But, by the same token, we’re at a point now that’s so low, there are still huge numbers of people that are either unemployed or underemployed in this marketplace right now.

BETSY STARK: Jan O’Shaughnessey, who was laid off by GM after 27 years, knows there is no returning to what she called her dream job there. For the past 18 months, she’s been trying to figure out a new career.

JANET O’SHAUGHNESSEY, voter, Michigan: I have a bachelor’s degree in education. I have a master’s degree in business administration with an international focus. So, I thought, OK, this won’t be too bad. I will tumble through this for a short while and come out, and be able to find a job.

BETSY STARK: In fact, what happened?

JANET O’SHAUGHNESSEY: Unfortunately, in Michigan, the tsunami hit, and it’s extremely difficult to get a job.

BETSY STARK: Today, Michigan has the second highest unemployment rate in the country, a step up from its previous ranking as the state with the highest jobless rate in America.

Typically, those grim statistics would be enough to sink an incumbent.But, as we learned, voters here expect no magic bullets on jobs from their congressional representative and are fiercely independent.

It’s ironic that this very spot in Jackson, Michigan, here, under these oak trees, lays claim to being the birthplace of the Republican Party, because neither party seems to have a very firm grip on voters in the 7th District. In each of the last four congressional elections, voters sent a different representative to Washington.

At this coffeehouse in Battle Creek, a part of the district that leans slightly left, we found voters more inclined to vote the person than the party.

DONNIE FIELDS, owner, Brownstone Coffee: There’s a lot of moderates. You don’t see anybody leaning hard really one way or the other.

BETSY STARK: Does that define this area, do you think?

DONNIE FIELDS: In my experience, it really does. I — but I don’t know. You know, I have a select group of people here. Maybe more moderates drink coffee. I don’t know.

(LAUGHTER)

BETSY STARK: Jim DeKam, a regular at the coffeehouse, is a retired electrician from Post Cereals in battle creek and officially a registered Democrat.

JIM DEKAM, voter, Michigan: I have been an independent most of my life, and I have tended to be more central with my beliefs. I voted for Reagan. I think one of the worst things that people can do is to listen to one side.

JANE WILSON, voter, Michigan: I have been very disenfranchised by the very negative campaign. It bothers me that they have had to go to the mudslinging tactics.

BETSY STARK: The congressional contest in the 7th this year has been dubbed a grudge match. The challenger, Republican Tim Walberg, held the seat from 2006 to 2008, and he wants it back from Democratic incumbent Mark Schauer, who won it from Walberg by a slim margin.

Each is relying on an arsenal of TV ads, several financed by the national parties, to paint their opponents in this moderate district as extreme.

TIM WALBERG (R-Mich.), congressional candidate: Wow, Rachel, that’s a lot of money you have been saving.

But, Mr. Walberg, they keep taking it.

TIM WALBERG: That’s Mark Schauer and the big spenders in Washington who keep taking your money.

BETSY STARK: Walberg has been trying to tar Schauer as a left-wing, big-government spender.

GIRL: Tell them to stop.

TIM WALBERG: That’s exactly what I’m going to do. I’m Tim Walberg, and I approve this message.

WOMAN: Tim Walberg.

MAN: If you think you’re going to privatize Social Security…

WOMAN: … you’re going to have go through me.

MAN: And me.

MAN: And me.

WOMAN: And me.

BETSY STARK: Schauer has taken aim at Walberg’s statement that he would consider privatizing Social Security.

WOMAN: You’re going to have to answer to us.

(D-Mich.): I’m Mark Schauer, and I approve this message.

WOMAN: Tim Walberg, you’re going to have to answer to us.

WOMAN: That Schauer guy is full of baloney. You wouldn’t do that to your mom, would you, Tim?

BETSY STARK: Even Walberg’s 94-year-old mother has been dragged into the fray.

TIM WALBERG: I’m Tim Walberg. And my mom and I approve this message.

BETSY STARK: Schauer is clearly hoping the Social Security issue will help him with seniors, who usually turn out in reliable numbers, even in midterm elections. But the seniors we met at this morning exercise class in Tecumseh, Michigan, had a lot more than Social Security on their minds.

ALICE SCHELL, voter, Michigan: I’m very disillusioned with the whole thing. I am going in the voting booth, and I am going to vote against every politician in office.

BETSY STARK: Like other voters in this district, these voters are looking not for the right party, but the right candidate.

RUBY HOWARD, voter, Michigan: My concern is to vote for the person that I feel is the most sincere to bring our area and contribute to our country to get us back on track.

DAVID WAYMIRE, political strategist: I think a lot of them have come to realize that politicians themselves are not the answer to these issues that we’re facing here in the state.

BETSY STARK: One reason the race here is such a tossup, says Waymire, is because neither candidate is as moderate as the people in their district.

DAVID WAYMIRE: Walberg is clearly very, very conservative, I would argue, more conservative than this district. At the same time, though, Schauer, I think, and some of the positions that have been taken by the Democrats in the House are also perhaps a little too extreme for this district.

BETSY STARK: If that analysis is right, this race, like so many others, will come down to turnout.

Dante Chinni of the Patchwork Nation project says the population centers in the suburbs of Lansing, Ann Arbor, and Battle Creek could make the difference.

DANTE CHINNI, project director, Patchwork Nation: By square miles, this is a somewhat rural district, and it’s not a very wealthy district. But, again, miles don’t vote; people vote.

BETSY STARK: Which is why the national Democratic Party sent Bill Clinton to a community college in Battle Creek to whip up the party faithful, and particularly the youth vote.

BILL CLINTON, former president of the United States: Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, you can do all that stuff. You can e-mail all your friends. You can put up signs in the student union. You can tell people this. We can take this viral. This one place could change America.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

BILL CLINTON: We could change 2,000 to 10,000 votes in every congressional district in America if you would put it out.

Would you do that for your future?

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

(SINGING)

BETSY STARK: A couple of days after Mr. Clinton’s visit, at a much smaller gathering of the Sweet Adelines, a chorus of women who sing barbershop-style, women 18 to 80 spoke to us about how they have downsized their lives and their expectations of what politicians can do.

WOMAN: I don’t know if being Democratic or Republican really is going to make a difference. It’s not an easy job. And no matter who gets that job, it’s going to be hard. And there is no easy answer.

(SINGING)

BETSY STARK: Hard times are built into many parts of Michigan right now, and what will drive this economy into the future is still unclear. So, voters here are facing the music as best they can, and reserving the right to change their conductor every two years.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dante Chinni, whom you saw in that piece, has co-authored a book called “Our Patchwork Nation.” It’s based on his NewsHour project of the same name. You can find more insights about American communities in it and on our Web site.