Wary N.H. voters certain only of their uncertainty

January 26, 1992|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Sun Staff Correspondent

MANCHESTER, N.H. — This is the first in a series of conversations with voting Americans. Throughout the presidential campaign, The Sun will talk with voters of other regions of the country, sounding out the electorate as the two major parties select nominees. MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Three are Republicans and three are Democrats. Two are tumbling in the free fall of unemployment, and the other four are hanging on while the economy gives way beneath them. The youngest is 33, the oldest 66.

But these six voters of New Hampshire have plenty in common when they speak their mind about their country.

All sense a grumpy, worrisome nation awakening from a decade-long binge of quick-buck greed. They see a corporate culture in which the strong gobble the weak while trampling jobs underfoot. They moan in frustration about a government that does nothing, expending only enough energy to bicker.

As the presidential election year begins they are restive, and some of them say they may even get up off the couch to get involved in a campaign, if only a candidate would come forward with the an- swers and the mettle to enact them.

The six -- Jim and Janna Dewitt, Walter Robinson, Gerry and Veronica Sherman, and Ron Szarek -- soon will have a decision to make. On Feb. 18, they will vote in the New Hampshire primary, which -- for better or worse -- has become the nation's screening device for presidential candidates. Since 1952, no one has won the White House without winning in New Hampshire.

With more than three weeks to go before the primary, The Sun recently spoke with these six voters, asking them to assess the nation's health and to describe their own national agenda. For now, at least, the voters of New Hampshire have the floor, and the rest of the nation and all its candidates are listening.

Jim and Janna Dewitt

It isn't hard to see why the economy is the most important issue to the Dewitts. Both are unemployed, and they have a 2-month-old daughter to support and a monthly mortgage to pay. On a recent, chilly morning they sat in their modest home and talked about how control over their lives began to slip away as the state's economy fell apart.

They had chosen two of the supposedly "safe" careers of the 1980s. He was an electrical engineer; she was a loan officer for a bank. In the late 1980s they moved to Milford, a southern New Hampshire town where real estate prices were soaring in the midst of a high-tech boom.

"I first started out with a company called Accutest in Chelsmford, Mass.," Mr. Dewitt said. "They no longer exist. I went to Computervision in Manchester. They no longer exist. I went to Norden Systems in Merrimack. They've pulled back that division and shut it down." Accutest and Computervision were squeezed out of existence in buyouts. Norden disappeared in a consolidation.

"Then you have my situation," Mrs. Dewitt said. "Good old safe banking. My first bank was relatively safe because they never lent any money. But I went to work for Yankee Bank, which was a bank in Boston. They were taken over by the feds and liquidated.

"Then I went to work for First American Bank in Boston. They were taken over by the feds and liquidated. Then I worked for Dartmouth Bank in New Hampshire. They were taken over by the feds and reorganized. I'm the kiss of death. . . . The jobs just go away."

What's gone wrong? Short-sighted thinking and planning, they said. Show a profit for the quarter at the expense of long-term growth. Or, in government, scrape up a "pork barrel" appropriation for a project that voters back home will like, but neglect the deficit.

"Take the Japanese," Mr. Dewitt said. "When they say long-term, they mean five to 30 years. In the U.S., when it says short-term, it means like, 20 minutes. When it says long-term, it's usually a year, and maybe two."

"The way the tax law was structured, and just the way the whole culture was in the '80s, nobody was thinking about saving," Mrs. Dewitt said. "It was like, 'well, I want the BMW, so I'll make my quick hit and invest in this because I know it's going to go up, then I'm going to sell it right away.'

"There's got to be leadership to turn that kind of mentality around."

Along with the leadership, Mr. Dewitt said, should come changes in the tax structure. Instead of just cutting taxes on capital gains, incentives should be offered so people would hold onto investments longer.

The Dewitts haven't always been unanimous on these issues. She's a longtime Democrat who voted for Michael Dukakis in 1988. He votes Republican. But neither has ever voted with enthusiasm for a presidential candidate, they said.

Ron Szarek

From all appearances, one wouldn't expect the same sentiments from Ron Szarek. He's a quiet-spoken man who runs his own printing firm in Manchester, tending a payroll and negotiating with his union employees while keeping an eye out for profitable investments. "A country club Republican" is how one friend genially described him.

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