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Week of 2.19.10

Transcript: Angry Voters

BRANCACCIO: Come fall will there be a rout of the Democrats in Congress? The rise of Tea Party activists and the surprise win of Scott Brown in Massachusetts have the Dems mighty worried. But it turns out that Republican incumbents are feeling the heat as well. We've been looking into what motivates the folks who are behind the anti-tax and anti-government slogans, and discovered there is pain and fear and anxiety about where America is heading. Senior Correspondent Maria Hinojosa and producer Karla Murthy have our report.

HINOJOSA: On January 1st, the residents of Nassau County, New York rang in a new year and a new leader. in an election few predicted, Republican Ed Mangano won the county executive race against a popular Democratic incumbent. His victory is part of a wave of stunning election upsets across the country... all fueled by a groundswell of voter discontent.

WILLIAM MCCAFFERY: The election of Ed Manango shows the anger and the frustration of the people in Nassau County.

RICH: You can only push people so far. Our politicians think money grows on trees.

KEN SCRYPEK: Everybody is hoarding money now because they're afraid of what's going to come in the end.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Taxes are crazy. And as you get older, they hurt more, they hurt more.Our children and our grandchildren the way things are going. I don't know what's going to be there for them when they get to be our age is there anything that's going to be left for them.

HINOJOSA: Fear, anxiety, anger and uncertainty about the future, across the country its become a common refrain. On the streets at rowdy Tea Party protests...and behind closed doors from families who are struggling to make ends meet. As the effects of the recession wear on, there's a growing mistrust in government to get the country back on track- and this wave of voter angst could have a dramatic effect on electoral politics.

LARRY LEVY: It's clear that there is a wind at the back of the Republicans and people who are frustrated and upset. There's a real question of just how strong a wind that is

HINOJOSA: Larry Levy runs the Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University. He points to the string of Republican upsets in New Jersey, Virginia and most recently Massachusetts—where Republican Scott Brown decisively won the senate seat in this historically bluest of states. Levy says - to see if this trend continues - you have to pay attention to what's going on in the suburbs.


LARRY LEVY: Most people don't understand just how much power the suburbs have in national elections. The suburbs really are the home of Independents in this country. And these swing voters within swing communities are the people who determine not only local elections, but the national elections too.

HINOJOSA: But the suburbs are showing signs of strain that have never been seen before. And the voters are taking out their pain on their politicians. To see how this is playing out on the ground, we spent some time in the suburbs of Nassau County in Long Island, NY. A train ride from New York City - this bedroom community is home to America's first suburb, Levittown. After World War 2—families moved into these small modest houses—nothing like the suburban mcmansions of today. This is where you could buy your own home, raise a family in a safe neighborhood, and send your kids to the best public schools. But today, the lure of the suburbs is fading. Sue and Jimmy Bruckbauer have lived in Levittown their entire lives.

Oh this is you guys.

SUSAN BRUCKBAUER: Yeah this is -

HINOJOSA: They met when they were in high school and have been married for 35 years. So they left Brooklyn, and moved to Levittown and that's where you were born.

SUSAN BRUCKBAUER:
My parents were from Brooklyn, and to move out here and have a house and a yard and a community and a neighborhood. That—that was the American Dream back then.

HINOJOSA: Like their parents—sue and jimmy built their lives in Levittown. They bought their house in 1977, had four boys and sent them to Levittown public schools. They thought if they just worked hard enough, one day, they'd be able to sit back and watch their grandkids grow up.

JIMMY BRUCKBAUER: The way we did it, you know, was me working two or three jobs, you know, to make ends meet. And sacrificing and going without. We didn't even go on, like, a honeymoon or vacations. I took—away for the first time to Aruba. We're married 25 years. You know?

HINOJOSA: To support the family, jimmy works as a heavy machine operator. He's had the same job for 35 years. He made enough so that sue could stay home and raise the kids. And eventually, they were able to pay off the house. But now that their sons are old enough to start their own families, their future looks uncertain.

So Levittown for both of you, was the place where the American Dream came true. Do you think that Levittown will be the place where the American Dream will come true for your four sons?

SUSAN BRUCKBAUER: No.

HINOJOSA: Could they actually afford to buy a home in Levittown.

JIMMY BRUCKBAUER: No, No way.

HINOJOSA: And when you think of your sons, do you think that they'll be able to say, "I've put 35 years in one job. I'm good to go. I could retire."

JIMMY BRUCKBAUER: Not unless they get—a civil service job or—for utility. Something that's not gonna go under. You can work in a private sector for 20 years and they'll say—"We'll see you later. We're done." You know? There's no guarantee.

HINOJOSA: Sue and Jimmy are especially worried about their two youngest sons -who are both marines. John got out of the service 4 years ago, and has been struggling to find work ever since. It got so bad that john and his new wife have moved in with his parents. He did find a part time job at a deli near their house. It's the same job he had when he was a teenager. Their other son, Billy, will be home this summer. But because of what's happened to his brother, he's thinking he might stay.
So your son is actually contemplating reenlisting and making that decision, not as a patriotic decision.

SUSAN BRUCKBAUER: No.

HINOJOSA: But as a financial.

SUSAN BRUCKBAUER: Financial.

JIMMY BRUCKBAUER: And I said no. You're done. You've done you're part now. Get out.

SUSAN BRUCKBAUER: Two deployments, that's you know, that's good enough.

HINOJOSA: You're saying, look even if you have to live at home for the next 10 years, at least..

SUSAN BRUCKBAUER: Don't say ten years, my husband is going to have a heart attack.

JIMMY BRUCKBAUER: I'll leave it in God's hand that hopefully this will all come to pass. I mean, these are my children. I make it clear to them that they will always have a home here

SUSAN BRUCKBAUER: This is home base.

JIMMY BRUCKBAUER: This is home base.

HINOJOSA: But having a home base on long island does not come cheap. Nassau county has the second highest property taxes in the country—an average of ten thousand dollars a year. Many of their neighbors couldn't afford to stay and left town. One of their own sons moved out to a cheaper neighborhood in New Jersey with his family. To pay the bills, sue has gone back to work as a secretary.

SUSAN BRUCKBAUER: I have to work. I mean, we need the money to—to run the household. You know, yeah did I think—yeah, well, yeah, I have four grandsons now. Was I gonna be retired and watching them? I always thought I was. But—no. Not—not yet. I have to work for a couple more years.

HINOJOSA: The county government has it's own fiscal troubles too. Foreclosures are on the rise, businesses are leaving and sales tax revenue—which makes up over a third of the budget - has plummeted. Last year, the county decided to pass a tax on residential home energy like electricity and oil. For Sue and Jimmy Bruckbauer, it was one tax too many.

JIMMY BRUCKBAUER: The residents of Nassau County they're fit to be tied. They've had enough, you know? People work hard. They work hard out there for their money. And they don't mind paying taxes, but there's a lot of waste. You know? Where do we get a chance to say, "No." Where do I get to say, "No, I—I—I don't wanna do this no more."

LARRY LEVY: The suburban American Dream has been turning for more and more people into the suburban American nightmare. There's a level of—of economic insecurity, of fear that the suburbs had not seen.

HINOJOSA: Larry Levy says, in the past the suburbs were often considered recession proof. But now, it's the suburbs that are being hit the hardest. And in an election year, Levy says this important constituency will take their anger out in the voting booth.

LARRY LEVY: They don't—immediately—and completely hate taxes. What they want is value for their dollars. And if they—you deliver value, whether you're a Republican or a Democrat, or you fail to deliver value, you will either be rewarded or you will be beaten badly.

HINOJOSA: Last November, the voters in Nassau County got their chance to be heard—in the election for county executive. Tom Suozzi - a Democrat - had run the county for the last 8 years - overseeing a budget of 2.6 billion dollars. That's bigger than 11 other states. Suozzi had made a name for himself when he ran against Eliot Spitzer in the primary for New York state governor back in 2006. In Nassau County, he was a popular Democratic incumbent with a lot of campaign money. His challenger for county executive was a Republican local legislator named Ed Mangano - who had no name recognition and little campaign money to speak of... as you can see by his ads. All the polls predicted that Tom Suozzi would win this race, even though he had pushed for the unpopular energy tax. But when the votes came in, the election was too close to call. After a month long recount - Republican Ed Mangano came out the victor - defeating Suozzi by a mere 386 votes.

HINOJOSA: The conventional wisdom around these parts was that Tom Suozzi was essentially a shoo-in. And you came up from behind and took this election. How did you do it?

EDWARD P. MANGANO: I—was tuned into—the pulse, I think, of the public. I understood—what they were going through. And we just spoke with residents and small business owners, and we spoke about their struggles, and the type of reform that they would like to see in government. It's just a crushing, crushing fiscal mess that is really spiraling this county towards insolvency if it's not corrected.

HINOJOSA: Mangano had a lot of appeal with the locals. He was born and bred in Long Island. He started out as a janitor at this printing company - and worked his way up to eventually own the company. We caught up with him at this fire station - where he was made an honorary chief. Unlike Tom Suozzi—who was seen as a slick career politician - Mangano came across as just one of the guys...

FIREFIGHTER: The county was starting to spiral the out of control spiral circle the bowl how ever you want to say it. I just think he's in touch with the average working person.

HINOJOSA: And Mangano struck a cord with the tax weary voters when he and other Nassau Republicans formed a brand new political party. It was called—the Tax Revolt Party.

EDWARD P. MANGANO: The tax revolt—sentiment here on Long Island means the people are speaking. And they're telling government, "We can no longer afford the cost of government you're imposing on the people." And—it's a loud message. It's a message to cut wasteful spending.

HINOJOSA: Mangano says his main goal is to fix the property tax system—a complicated problem that has plagued the county. But his predecessor—Tom Suozzi says, he's been trying to do that for years. In fact - he was appointed by the governor to oversee a commission on property tax relief.

TOM SUOZZI: I've tried to be a leader of the property tax revolution. In this election, I turned out being a victim of it. My announcement for my reelection campaign for county executive You know what I said? It's time for a property tax revolution. Vote for Tom Suozzi so I can go out and fight the fight on property taxes.

HINOJOSA: But you got beat by the Tax Revolt Party.

TOM SUOZZI: I didn't fix the problem, and people want the problem fixed.

HINOJOSA: Looking back on the election, Suozzi says that as the incumbent - he had a tough sell to make to the voters.

TOM SUOZZI: One of the things that happened in our debates was—Mr. Mangano said, "Are you better off today than you were eight years ago? If you're not better off than you were eight years ago, vote for me." You know, Mangano was saying that. And I said, "Of course you're not better off than you were eight years ago. Things are horrible. People are losing their jobs. Their property taxes are too high. Their home values are deteriorating. You're not better off than you were eight years ago."

HINOJOSA: Did you completely misread that in terms of—of your constituency?

TOM SUOZZI: Totally. Come election night, I'm, like, "Could you imagine if I lo—oh, that's impossible." But the reality is that I represented the status quo. And the status quo's no good.

HINOJOSA: But critics say not only did Suozzi misread the voters—he failed to get Democrats out to the polls. Suozzi left millions of dollars in unspent campaign money. And that cost him in such a close election.

LARRY LEVY: The Democrats thought that this was a race they didn't have to worry about. And they just let it get away from them. You could say it was—over-confidence. You could say it was arrogance.

HINOJOSA: Larry Levy says, the election in Nassau County was the canary in the coal mine for what we saw later in the Massachusetts senate race.

LARRY LEVY: The people who came out to vote for Ed Mangano primarily were Republicans. They were angry about a—energy tax. They were angry about their loss of jobs. In Massachusetts you had some of the same phenomena. Scott Brown's Republicans were mad as hell, and they weren't gonna take it anymore. The Tea Party folks, they got their vote out.

HINOJOSA: Suozzi admits—the Democrats are not speaking to the voters needs. And he says - it's the loud angry rhetoric of the Tea Parties that's filling the void.

TOM SUOZZI: If you're not talking the language of what the people are concerned about and there's a vacuum there, then someone's gonna fill that vacuum. And right now the ones filling the vacuum are the Tea Party members because they're speaking to the fear and insecurity that the public has right now.

HINOJOSA: The Tea Party has been active on Long Island ... drawing dozens to their protests since last summer. Dan Maloney was an early convert to the Tea Party movement. He says - the protests are an outlet for people who are fed up.

DAN MALONEY: You think these people that come out in these Tea Parties have been doing this all along? No. These are ordinary Americans, who've been sittin' in their house screamin' at their TV, yelling at it—whatever, and suddenly, they've reached a point where they can't take it anymore, and they've gotta go out and say somethin'.

HINOJOSA: The Tea Party has become an umbrella group for an assortment of conservative, libertarian, independent ideologies. In their view—President Obama and the Democrats are destroying the country with a creeping socialist agenda. If there's one thing all Tea Partiers despise - it's big government.

DAN MALONEY: If you don't keep after the weeds, they're gonna take over your garden. Government is like a weed. And, if you let it propagate, it will take over the entire country.

HINOJOSA: Just name me the places that you believe the government is involved in not—that really make you kinda cringe.

DAN MALONEY: Telecommunications.

HINOJOSA: Telecommunications.

DAN MALONEY: The automobile industry. Transportation in general.

HINOJOSA: Okay.

DAN MALONEY: Banking. Manufacturing. Education. That's a state prerogative. Its a has been. Why is there a Department of Education in the federal government? Because they wanna control the way education takes place in the states. Get rid of all that stuff. Lop that stuff off. We don't need it. I mean—

HINOJOSA: You're talking really small federal government.

DAN MALONEY: Absolutely. Absolutely.

HINOJOSA: The vision of government that you—that you would like to see in our country, did you get closer to that vision with the win of Ed Mangano?

DAN MALONEY: Oh, I think we did, yeah. Yeah. It was the best thing that's happened in this county in years—years. I—I would go back 40 years. This is probably the best thing that's happened in this county. Its organizations like us and people like us that made the difference and pulled off one of the most stunning victories in Nassau County history.

HINOJOSA: We came to this Tea Party meeting at a library in Long Island. Bolstered by recent wins of candidates like Ed Mangano and Scott Brown in Massachusetts - the Tea Party wants to turn their anger into even more election upsets.

TEA PARTY SPEAKER: We want to make incumbency a disadvantage. And the ultimate means to hold the accountable is by throwing them out of office if they don't represent us.

HINOJOSA: On Long Island - they're next target is Representative Carolyn McCarthy, a Democratic incumbent who's been in office since 1997. The Tea Party sees her as an out of touch, liberal Democrat. At the meeting, Dan Maloney announces that he would like to run against her. He'll still have to gather enough petitions to qualify for the ballot. A few days later - Maloney and other Tea Party members hold a rally outside of McCarthy's office.

DAN MALONEY: Have you see Carolyn McCarthy? Where's our congresswoman?

HINOJOSA: They claim that McCarthy avoids meeting with her constituents face to face.

PROTESTER: Does anyone want to go up with me and say hello to people inside..

HINOJOSA: And they decide to go up to her office to prove a point. .

DAN MALONEY: Have you seen our congresswoman? She's lost. We haven't seen her, she hasn't come to talk to us, she hasn't listened to us. We were wondering if you might have seen her around.

WOMAN: I have no comment.

MALONEY: Hi. I was wondering if Congresswoman McCarthy is here?

AIDE: She's in Washington.

MALONEY: Ahh cuz we've been so worried. We haven't been able to find her.

HINOJOSA: The fact that she's in Washington doesn't seem to appease them.

DAN MALONEY: Well unfortunately - we have not found our congresswoman. The search will continue.

HINOJOSA: It's a stunt they've done before. Whether or not this type of political street theater makes any difference on elections isn't clear.
But the Tea Party is trying to become a political force. Two weeks ago, at the National Tea Party Convention in Nashville—- they announced the formation of a political action committee to raise $10 million dollars for conservative candidates. But Larry Levy says - the Tea Parties success has been seen in elections with low voter turnout. As the Tea Party gets more attention—Levy says it could create a voter backlash - sending more people out to the polls. And that could weaken the Tea Party effect.

LARRY LEVY: The Tea Party people, particularly in moderate suburban communities represent a very small percentage of actual voters. They're very good at getting attention. But they will not be decisive in a high turnout election.

HINOJOSA: But within the Republican Party - the Tea Party is creating a rift. Take Congressional district 23 in upstate New York. This district had been Republican since the 19th century. But that came to an end last year - when a more conservative candidate supported by the Tea Party ran against a moderate Republican who then dropped out of the race. In the end, the Democratic candidate won the election. But even though they lost the seat, the Tea Party doesn't see the loss of district 23 as a defeat.

GUYS TALKING: We gotta bite the bullet fall on the sword—like we did in 23. Or we're gonna keep getting progressives in the Republican Party, and it stinks.

HINOJOSA: On the national stage—the Tea Party is dragging the Republican Party further right. Senator John McCain who is up for reelection this year, and Florida governor Charlie Crist who is also running for the senate - are both popular Republicans. And both are being threatened by more conservative candidates. But once the Tea Party gets their candidates in office - Dan Maloney says - they will still hold their feet to the fire.

DAN MALONEY: It's put up or shut up time. If you don't work to do what you said you were gonna do, we're gonna be goin' and finding someone to run against you next time.

HINOJOSA: Now comes the hard part. Ed Mangano is taking over as county executive - and he's going to have to fulfill his tax revolt message. Like his predecessor, he's facing a budget shortfall and a dismal economy. Here's something good - Tom Suozzi left me note. "Says Dear Ed, think of me. Ok. Love Tom." Mangano's first act as county executive was to repeal the energy tax... which created a 40 million dollar hole in the budget. He's already cut over seven million dollars in county salaries, but he still has a long way to go.

HINOJOSA: You have very high expectations. People are expecting you to really make a change——pretty fast. And if it doesn't come fast. Time's up. Ed Mangano, out. On the same kind of——anger that you were brought in?

EDWARD P. MANGANO: Well, I am—going to fulfill my message. And if they're not happy with it, this is—our governmental system. And then there'll be somebody else sitting here, interviewing with you—

HINOJOSA: It is a volatile time in politics. Tom Suozzi says this movement of voter anger may not last... but right now, he says, it has to be confronted.

TOM SUOZZI: I think now we've come to a point, a cycle in American history, where the public is pulling into themselves. And they wanna know not what you're gonna do for everybody, not what you're gonna do for the country or the world, they wanna know what are you gonna do for me. I think when everything's said and done, the voters are usually right. When everything—as much as I would think that, you know, they would have been smarter to vote for me, and I'm gonna do a better job, as much as I believe that, the voters are generally right. And the voters are sending a very clear message that they're really upset and they're really concerned about their futures. And they want something done about it, and they want it done now.

BRANCACCIO: Love them or loathe them, the Tea Party activists certainly know how to get attention, but how much of an impact will the movements actually have on the midterm elections? Make your voice heard on our Weekly Q. Start your search at pbs.org. And that's it for NOW. From New York, I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week.

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