Economic worries strike at fabric of suburb's life

FEAR SHADOWS CATONSVILLE VOTERS

September 20, 1992|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,Staff Writer

For the first time in U.S. history, the suburbs will account for th majority of votes cast in a presidential election. This is the first in a periodic series of four articles about the residents of Catonsville, part of the most sought-after segment of the American electorate this year.

If George Bush and Bill Clinton campaigned door-to-door in Catonsville, stopping to chat on the wraparound porches in stately Oak Forest or sipping iced tea on the decks of Ellicott Mills, they could gauge the mood of voters by a single word:

Fear.

Good humor, hard work and community spirit characterize this relatively well-off Baltimore suburb of joiners and doers. But in a recession long enough to seem permanent and broad enough to reach the middle class, fear has been stitched into the fabric of community life.

Every new "For Lease" sign along Frederick Road, every white-collar layoff at nearby Westinghouse Electric Corp., every telltale parochial-school vacancy left by a child quietly withdrawn by parents trying to save money sends another tremor.

Welcome to Catonsville, Md., population 35,233, one of the suburbs that constitute the battleground in the race for president, 1992.

The candidates may never get here even in a year when bus trips and street-corner press conferences are all the rage. But they will aim their messages at sprawling suburbs like this one -- that shelter almost half of the nation's 250 million people.

History shows that suburbanites are more likely to vote than city dwellers.

In Maryland, suburban growth runs ahead of the national trend. Between 1970 and 1980, the suburban population moved up 50 percent to more than 3.6 million, a figure that represents nearly 75 percent of the state's population of 4.8 million.

In Catonsville, which straddles the Baltimore Beltway and extends through a multitude of housing developments from Wilkens Avenue on the south to north of U.S. 40, the voters pick and choose, swallow no party line and defy expectations.

By nearly a ratio of 2-to-1, they are registered Democrats. But for the last 12 years they have voted Republican in presidential elections. During the same period, they chose Democrats for the U.S. Senate, the House of Representatives and the Maryland General Assembly. Catonsville, in short, is rife with Reagan Democrats there for the wooing by both sides.

Inevitably, economic fears drive thinking and decision-making about the presidential candidates this year.

No one can say, of course, how heavily the stress and worry will weigh in the voters' decision-making. They could be emboldened to vote for change or they could become more cautious, more likely to stick with the man they know.

"The last time we had a Democrat in the White House," says Lt. Gene Huppmann, a 40-year-old Baltimore County firefighter, "we had interest rates of 14 percent. We don't want that again. But we hear the current president is catering to the rich and forgetting about the poor and middle class."

Mr. Huppmann, whose children attend parochial school and whose wife does not work outside the home, cuts the grass for neighbors and does other odd jobs to make up for pay cuts forced by budget problems at the state and county level. He has had to take five unpaid furlough days and could face more soon.

"That's why I'm out busting my butt," he says. He wants to make it clear that he has no complaints about his regular job.

"I love my work. I'm very happy. My co-workers are great," he says.

An unemployed, 42-year-old white-collar worker would understand Mr. Huppmann's loyalty. In February, this man lost a $30,000-a-year job at a major Maryland manufacturing firm. He's been trying to find a comparable or better one ever since. He works the midnight shift at a discount store "just to keep food on the table."

But for his wife, who has a job with the federal government, "we'd be on the street," he says. He asks that his name be withheld for fear his comments could hurt his chances of finding a new job.

He is so discouraged and disillusioned now that he may not vote at all this year. But he is wrestling with that thought.

"I feel guilty because I don't plan on voting. I guess if I'm leaning toward anyone, it would be Clinton. The reason: Something's got to be done to get this country moving.

"Bush hasn't done it. Maybe Clinton could," he says. But he has no enthusiasm for the Democrat.

"I don't think I can afford him. He's going to raise taxes, particularly if you get him down there with a Democratic Congress." He doesn't believe Mr. Clinton's promise to limit tax increases to the top 2 percent of Americans.

"I think he's going to win whether or not I vote. Nothing's going on except people are struggling," he says.

The struggle is often visible. It is talked about constantly.

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