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Beyond the Beltway: La Crosse, Wisconsin

February 6, 1998 at 12:00 AM EST
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BETTY ANN BOWSER: People in La Crosse, Wisconsin have a lot to cheer about these days. They have a new, professional basketball team which is attracting loyal fans. All over the city there are sounds of prosperity. High-tech firms like First Logic have come to town, creating hundreds of new jobs. The Heileman Brewery–which had to cut back operations six years ago–is now back to full capacity with dozens of new workers.

Throughout the city unemployment is below 3 percent. But things weren’t always so upbeat in La Crosse. Back in 1992 the economy was sour. Companies were laying workers off. So when the Clinton-Gore campaign buses rolled into town at 2 a.m. back then, Mr. Clinton knew exactly what people wanted to hear.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: They want their government to work for them again. They want America to work again.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But eighteen months after Mr. Clinton won the election, the economy had only improved slightly. And the cross-section of Clinton voters we spoke with were disappointed in him. Independent voter Mike Furr had recently been laid off by a defense contractor. He was trying to get a lawn mowing business going.

MIKE FURR: (1994) He hasn’t been able to get anything through, and it’s all been compromises. And it’s been a real battle to do anything.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Democrat Kathy Berrier was working in boot factory. The divorced mother of four was struggling to make ends meet and didn’t think President Clinton cared enough about the needs of working people. Pam Zink’s family was running a 220-acre dairy farm. She and her husband were working full-time jobs just to get health benefits.

PAM ZINK (1994) He really had some new–and he did have worthwhile ideas.; He just didn’t implement them.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Bishop April Larson, a registered Independent, thought the president didn’t follow through with his big ideas. Retired history professor Jean Helliesen was also concerned that President Clinton was inconsistent.

PROFESSOR JEAN HELLIESEN: (1994) He seldom maintains a firm position. As in Bosnia, for instance, he says one thing and then he doesn’t hold to it.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Lawyer Brent Smith was worried about the President’s leadership ability.

BRENT SMITH: (1994) People start again to kind of have this pause and say, you know, I wonder if it’s these other, these personal issues, these character issues. Is that why things aren’t going the way we thought they were and the way we thought we elected him for in 1992.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But what a difference a few years of an expanding economy can make. In 1996, our six La Crosse residents voted once again for President Clinton. And several of them went to hear him speak last week when he came back to town. Earlier this week, we went back to see how those voters feel about the president now.

Although Mike Furr’s lawn business failed, he went back to school and got a business degree. Today Furr makes enough money as a manager at a cabinet-making company to own horses for his family. He says he’s much better off today than four years ago. Kathy Berrier isn’t. She is still working in the same boot factory for less money. She had to give up her car and today relies on public transportation. But she doesn’t blame her situation on the president.

KATHY BERRIER: I have even greater confidence in him because he’s accomplished things that, you know, with a Republican Congress he finally was facing, that most people would have never thought would happen–such as a raise in the minimum wage.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Bishop Larson says there’s one reason for such widespread support.

BISHOP APRIL LARSON: Truthfully, the economy has everything to do with the fact that we like our president. When our economy is strong, interest rates are down, unemployment is the lowest it’s ever been. I’m not going to add to case for removing our president, when all these good and healthy things are going on in our nation.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: All six of our La Crosse voters had good feelings about the president, feelings that seemed to transcend any concerns about his private life. Seventy-one year old Jean Helliesen is a lifelong Democrat who thinks what the president does in private should stay that way.

JEAN HELLIESEN: It doesn’t concern me. It doesn’t interest me. What do they say? He who is without sin let him cast the first stone–you know, that sort of stuff. That’s the way I feel about it.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Pam Zink had to sell her dairy operation and now works as a data processor at a hospital. A devout Catholic and former Republican, she says these all the allegations about the President do not lower her opinion of him. Instead, she’s angry with the media.

PAM ZINK: I find it very disgusting. I think those are issues that he and his wife–if there is a problem–those are the people that should be discussing it–not me or anyone else really. The problem lies there. I can’t see why they feel we have to judge him.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Mike Furr argues there are more important issues facing America.

MIKE FURR: We should be focusing on how we’re going to fix Social Security and what we’re going to do about health care and what we’re going to do about racism and the environment and things that matter to everybody.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Several voters said the scandal has made them more sympathetic to President Clinton. They see him as a victim of political attacks.

KATHY BERRIER: And some of us are actually thinking that if this kind of thing can be done to a sitting president, it could be done to other individuals who might have something to say, who might speak out.

BISHOP APRIL LARSON: The truth is I don’t know if somebody’s always putting the least kind construction on what you do, in other words, negative constructive on every aspect of your life, every check you’ve written, every action you’ve taken, everything you’ve said out of context, taken out of context. If somebody would take that apart, piece by piece, who of us could stand?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Bishop Larson says she does not condone the kind of behavior that has been alleged. But, she says, it’s more important for the President to remain faithful to his oath of office, which she believes he has done.

BISHOP APRIL LARSON: I wish he were faithful always to his spouse. I wish that my children could look up to the president and say I would like to be like him. But I know in this area, I wouldn’t want my children to even think about being like this person in this area. Now, if I would say how has he led this country, then I would say I am thankful. I am very thankful. We have somebody who has taken on some of the most difficult issues that other presidents have been afraid of and done it with some real courage, with some significant success.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Brent Smith says it is unlikely the president can maintain 72 percent approval ratings, and he says support for Mr. Clinton would evaporate if the more serious allegations were proven true.

BRENT SMITH: This is where the line is drawn between, in my view, between private life and at least the allegations that he urged somebody to lie under oath. If, in my view, that would come to be the case, that would be a much more serious allegation and one that might well end his presidency.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: All six of our voters said if it can be shown the president committed a crime, that would lessen their support. But unless that happens, they say they will stand by him.