JACKSON, MISS. — This is the second in a series of conversations with voting Americans. Throughout the presidential campaign, The Sun is talking with voters in different regions of the country, sounding .. out the electorate as the two major parties select nominees.
JACKSON, Miss. -- In a small real estate office in the town of Pearl, landlord John McDonough is working up a head of steam about the economy. The newspapers are loaded with help-wanted ads, he says, but nobody seems to want to work anymore. Don't blame George Bush, he says. Blame welfare.
About 100 miles to the northeast of Pearl, out on the bottom lands of the Mississippi River, Lona Franklin hobbles with a cane out the front door of the Issaquena County courthouse in the town of Mayersville, pop. 280. Across all the cotton fields that stretch to the horizon, he says, there isn't a steady job in sight. Don't blame welfare, he says. Blame George Bush.
Mr. McDonough is white. Mr. Franklin is black. While their views can hardly be said to represent all Mississippi voters, their opinions illustrate the state's black-white split that prevails in national elections. In 1988, when 80 percent of the black vote went to Democrat Michael S. Dukakis, 70 percent of the white vote went to George Bush.
Two days from now, Mississippi goes back to the polls, as one of five Southern states to hold a Super Tuesday primary. The racial split will again be part of the equation, and some candidates have already tried to capitalize, such as when Republican Patrick J. Buchanan played to white voters by visiting a Confederate cemetery.
But, first impressions notwithstanding, interviews in Pearl and Mayersville suggest that voting decisions this time will be based on a more complex mix of gripes and worries, a mix that crisscrosses liberal-conservative traditions.
Back in Pearl, for instance, Mr. McDonough seems at first to be a staunch conservative on just about everything, starting with his views on the welfare system. Just look at what it did to a couple of his tenants, Flo and Johnny, he says.
"They have 12 children. Of course, they waited till they had their ++ 12th child before she got her tubes tied, because your Aid to Dependent Children cuts off after that. The government pays me $620 a month for their rent. It also gives them about $1,800 a month in Aid to Dependent Children. They get food stamps and, of course, they get all the free cheeses, baby foods and free medical care. You sit there and add that up; there's no way that is less than $3,500 to $4,000 a month. There is no need for those people to go to work."
Mr. McDonough then opens a newspaper and thumbs to the help-wanted ads. "Look at this," he says. "One page, two pages, three and a half pages of ads saying, 'Please, somebody come to work for us.' The problem is, we have created so many methods of people not working."
Crime touches all
But the more important issue to Mr. McDonough is crime, and on this matter he is in sympathy with his lower-income black tenants.
Most of the 37 homes he rents are in lower-middle class neighborhoods in nearby Jackson, the capital city of about 200,000 people, and he says, "Black people do not have police protection. Period."
He describes one tenant, "a real nice lady with three children. Two guys were breaking into her house. She called 911. It took them about 20 minutes to get in; then they they went in and terrorized her for two hours. Then they wanted to steal something so they could go buy some crack so they stole the air conditioner." The police didn't come until he called the next day, he says.
As a result, he says, his tenants are victimized time after time. "Out of my 37 houses last year, I had 16 burglaries, one armed robbery, two knife stabbings, one ice pick stabbing and two murders. I can't see the two murders as typical, but the robberies are."
Mr. McDonough says he would go for any Democrat who could come up with a solution, but he has yet to hear one, so he's backing Mr. Bush.
On the maps of pollsters and political professionals, Pearl shows up as 88 percent white, and mostly middle to lower-middle class. About half its 22,000 residents make $15,000 to $35,000 per year, and most of the rest make less.
Driving around town, one sees block after block of tract homes, broken up by shopping centers and strip development. On practically every street an American flag hangs from at least one front porch. "The redneck vote" is how one Democratic official, sitting in a Capitol Hill office 900 miles away, described the place.
But the reality is more complex, as demonstrated by people like Ken Adcock. Mr. Adcock is a beefy, curly-haired fellow with a quick smile. He sells homes for a living. He is sitting in the same real estate office with Mr. McDonough and, as various topics come and go, the two disagree often, such as when Mr. McDonough mentions that President Bush "is doing a wonderful job."
"On what?" Mr. Adcock says with a snort.