For shop owners of Catonsville, ballot on Nov. 3 is crucial business decision

October 18, 1992|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,Staff Writer

For the first time, the suburbs will account for a majority of votes cast in a presidential election. This is the third in a periodic series of four articles about the residents of Catonsville, part of the most sought-after segment of the electorate this year. Fran Medicus expects to vote for George Bush on Nov. 3 because she fears Bill Clinton will heap more taxes on small businesses like her flower shop on Frederick Road.

As Election Day draws near, Mrs. Medicus and her neighbors are focusing greater attention on the candidates' positions. Though Democrats hold the voter registration edge by better than 2-to-1, Catonsville has gone with the GOP by comfortable margins throughout the Ronald Reagan-Bush years.

Charged by all three presidential candidates with a responsibility for producing more jobs as big industry in the United States declines, the 1,000-plus owners of small businesses in Catonsville are doubly challenged as they make up their minds. In this election, the stakes are, perhaps, more immediate and the list of issues longer for them than for other voters.

Health-care costs, access to start-up or expansion credit, government regulations that multiply even under conservative administrations, worker-training needs and a decaying infrastructure help to create a sense of uncertainty.

Many Catonsville businessmen and businesswomen, of course, disagree with Mrs. Medicus. They say change is essential, and they will vote for Mr. Clinton.

Still others are somewhat nostalgically attracted to the promise they once saw in Ross Perot. They love his forcefulness, his plain-spoken critiques. But they doubt his temperment, his fortitude and his ability to cope with Congress. They don't forgive his fickle approach to the presidency.

In the end, the choice will often be a matter of feeling and instinct, says Roy Bray, who employs 15 people at his electrical contracting company, also on Frederick Road.

Of "seams" and taxes

From what Fran Medicus can tell from her post as president of the 150-member Catonsville Chamber of Commerce, Mr. Bush is right when he insists, "America is not coming apart at the seams."

At the same time, she sees loose threads and frayed edges.

She and her husband, Howard, were thinking of renovating the weed-fringed building that houses their Hilton Flower Shop. In time, one of their children will take over.

But for now, the building improvements will wait.

"The difficulty of borrowing is one reason," Mrs. Medicus says. "Plus, we don't know what's going to happen to this block." She worries about the future of the place she has worked so hard to preserve.

Mr. Clinton, though, strikes her as a menace, not a savior.

The Bush campaign has charged that he would raise taxes on small businesses by $150 billion. The Democrat says he will raise taxes only on the wealthiest Americans while cutting taxes for many, including small businesses. He would invest in worker retraining and in infrastructure -- the roads and bridges that hold the marketplace together by linking shoppers and suppliers with businesses ready to sell.

Mr. Bray thinks Mr. Clinton's promise to tax only those who make more than $200,000 will necessarily be broken in order for the Democrat to do all the things he is proposing.

"We want the economy to turn around," he says, "but we don't like what Clinton is offering us."

Fear of change

Mr. Bray will vote for Mr. Bush. He is reluctant to change presidents now because he sees signs of recovery. He concedes the upturn is spotty: His company is called to work on six or seven new houses one month, none the next.

Dealings in commercial real estate have been slow as well.

Steve Whalen, who has developed several office complexes along Frederick Road and in Columbia, says one of his properties has a vacancy rate of 20 percent -- a record high. One tenant, a mortgage banker,went bankrupt. A title company failed. Others are struggling to hang on.

"Our salvation has been low interest rates," Mr. Whalen says. He has been able to pass interest savings on to his tenants, hoping to avoid the costly process of finding new occupants.

The tough economy leaves this 42-year-old businessman wondering if he can maintain his unblemished record of voting for the GOP in presidential elections. He is dubious.

"I wish I could come up with a real good reason to vote for President Bush. He doesn't seem to have an economic program that he's willing to fight for. The whole thing just doesn't seem to excite him."

And while Mr. Clinton "is a little more middle of the road" than the Democratic candidates he has rejected all his voting life, Mr. Whalen is still "very skeptical."

Tax increases aimed at the wealthy, he says, inevitably land on the lower-income groups because the wealthy pass along added costs. But something else worries him even more, he says.

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