'Families' issue irks the electorate A POLITICAL FOOTBALL IN CATONSVILLE

October 04, 1992|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,Staff Writer

When people think about family values in Catonsville, the think about elementary schools bursting with kids, about the day-care deficit, about keeping demonstrators out of the Fourth of July parade and about making the house payment.

But in this presidential election campaign, they have watched as first Republicans and then Democrats reduced families to the status of political football.

At times, says Kathy Brettschneider, a 42-year-old mother of three, the candidates have insulted the voters and diminished themselves by "talking out of both sides of their mouths."

"We have Dan Quayle out there with his family values and then President Bush vetoes the family-leave bill," she says.

Even when Mr. Bush has acted on behalf of families and children, as when he visited Catonsville last winter to announce a $600 million grant for Head Start, his actions seemed to some to be politically motivated.

The positive impact of the presidential visit, says Bill Holley, an officer of the Emily Harris Head Start Program, was wider recognition for the program among parents of children who are eligible but not enrolled.

The down side: There's still no room for them.

"Sixty more kids in Catonsville are eligible, but we just can't take them. We don't have the money," says Mr. Holley, 72, community representative to Head Start from the Winters Lane neighborhood. He says Mr. Bush's speech in the tiny auditorium at the Banneker Community Center will never be forgotten by his hosts in Catonsville.

"Euphoria aside," he says, the visit was just as political as the president's recent announcement of fighter plane contracts that saved jobs for voters in the Middle West.

"He's a strong man," says Valencia Wilkerson, 31, director of the Morningstar Baptist Church Day Care Center.

"But he's getting away from the political issues. I think he could do more for cities if he provided more jobs for young people. I think that's more important than worrying about who's a single parent."

Bill Holley, Valencia Wilkerson and Kathy Brettschneider live in Catonsville, one of the nation's many suburban battlegrounds in this election.

With almost half the population now living in suburbs -- where people vote almost as regularly as they wash their cars -- the Catonsvilles of America will produce most of the votes.

In this suburb of 35,233, the voters are registered Democrats by a ratio of nearly 2-to-1. But they have voted Republican in presidential elections for the past 12 years.

Searching for stature

Catonsville is a place where family has always mattered, a place where the home truths are straightforward: church on Sunday, work on Monday, safe streets and help for your neighbor.

It is a place where gay and lesbian organizations and various protest groups have not been welcome in the Fourth of July parade, but where members of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, headquartered in Catonsville, can march as they did last summer, exchanging "Hare Krishnas" with friendly onlookers.

It is a place where the severity of the recession can be measured for the first time in memory by empty food pantries and by an inability to help in housing emergencies.

Like many Catonsville residents, Mrs. Brettschneider is a Democrat who voted for George Bush in 1992. She is one of the Reagan or Bush Democrats who are regarded as the swing voters of this election.

Whether Mr. Bush wins her vote again this year is very much in doubt.

"I think George Bush has gotten small all of a sudden. I've lost a lot of respect for him," says this insurance underwriter for Lloyd's of London.

Yet, she has not seen the stature she wants in his opponents.

She resents Democrat Bill Clinton's suggestion that insurance companies bear most of the responsibility for the nation's health care problems.

"He doesn't know what he's talking about," she says.

She is even less happy about Independent businessman Ross Perot.

"I wouldn't vote for him," she says. "He's so wishy-washy. He's got an ego that's unreal. This campaign is all about ego. We're talking major egos here."

Bill Holley will vote for Bill Clinton -- "for a change." Ms. Wilkerson is undecided.

In the real world

The discussions of TV heroine Murphy Brown's travails, however harmless they are on one level, have seemed to many to minimize the importance of health insurance, education, jobs, affordable care for the elderly and other issues that help families stay intact.

"I sometimes think they're in their own little world. Bush seems to sympathize, but at the same time I don't see him proposing anything," Mrs. Brettschneider says.

The Bush campaign has moderated its focus on family values as defined during the GOP convention -- in response to the negative reaction it drew.

But the theme has not disappeared. What Mr. Bush means by family values, according to his campaign in Maryland, is best described in this paragraph from a speech he made last spring:

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