In the East, a deep disenchantment among voters CAMPAIGN 1994

October 30, 1994|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Sun Staff Correspondent

MARIETTA, Ohio -- In this riverboat town in southeast Ohio, the shopkeepers and firefighters and teachers are so proud of their historic city that they quickly tell you that "Marietta" was the answer -- in the form of a question, of course -- on "Jeopardy" the other night.

The city claims the mantle of being the first settlement in the Northwest Territory. But the game-show clue could have been something like this: a small town, typical of many across the country in the pre-election fall of 1994, where voters -- struggling to balance their own budgets despite an economic upswing -- are feeling everything from apathy to antipathy toward their elected officials.

"Government seems to be a good way to corrupt honest people," says Phillip O'Brien, who owns a camera and stereo shop in Marietta. "The whole operation has gone to muck."

A sweep of more than 1,000 miles around five states in the eastern part of the country last week revealed an electorate percolating with anxiety and insecurity, voicing skepticism about the improved economy and looking for someone or something to blame.

"The anxious class" is how Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich describes the middle class.

"For the first time, people have the idea that they're not going to leave things better for their children," says Frank Deremer, a retired banker in Cumberland, Md.

Running through their lives -- and their angst -- is a profound disenchantment with politics and government. They expected a boom after years of spiraling downward. And they haven't seen it or felt it.

In fact, Americans say they are working harder and getting less than they ever have, while seeing politicians indulge in perks and privileges, engage in partisan bickering and dirty campaigning instead of serious debate, and remain out of step with real America.

"You should take the average Joe off the street and make him a senator," says Virginia Stevens, a Ross Perot supporter who's slinging roast beef sandwiches and chef salads at Spanky's Restaurant in Lynchburg, Va. "Hard-working Joes like us know what it's like to scrape for a dollar, raise a family and work in a restaurant."

Much of the hostility is vague and unfocused, as if the president, Congress, the news media -- just by virtue of positions of influence -- were all the enemy.

Some of the anger, from both Democrats and Republicans, has been channeled into outrage over specific issues, such as welfare, illegal immigrants and foreign aid, which have become lightning rods throughout Middle America. Voters feel tugs at their purse strings, but see the government handing out money to others who they believe are less deserving, less hard-working.

"Being a Christian, I believe in missionary work," says Goldie Oskin, a retired teacher in Duquesne, Pa., a steel-mill town that is now a bleak and depressed relic on the Monongahela River. "But I also believe you should take care of your own."

And while the desperate cries of the unemployed have died down, the work force has become a different place, giving rise to new problems for Americans. As companies scale back and restructure, workers are often employed in part-time or low-wage jobs, fail to get health-care benefits and receive few raises or promotions.

Paula Meneghini is grateful that her husband, an engineer for a West Virginia defense contractor, was not laid off when the company stream lined. But because his salary has been frozen, she works part-time as a sales clerk at J. C. Penney.

Even those who have benefited from a healthier economy in the last year, such as Larry Hall, who bought a Marietta jewelry store three months ago after interest rates had fallen, feel overburdened and underserved by government.

"Unlike my customers, I don't think I'm getting my money's worth a customer," says Mr. Hall, who says he's "appalled" by the taxes he's had to pay on the business.

Much like the anger and revolt that fueled the change-oriented 1992 presidential campaign, especially the candidacy of Mr. Perot, this disgruntlement with government has fed on itself for the past two years and blinded many voters to the accomplishments of any politicians.

And it is playing itself out in the anti-incumbent sentiment that is expected to expel gray hairs and freshman members alike in next week's election. In some cases, voters know little about the candidates except who's old and who's new.

'A complete clean house'

Diane Adkins, 49, a widow and mother of three in Beckley, W. Va., says the much-ballyhooed economic recovery has not made it to her dinner table or her gas tank. And she is ready to take out her anger at the voting booth.

"I want a complete clean house -- and I do mean clean!" says Ms. Adkins, a Democrat who says she's in favor of "everyone new."

In this middle-class resort town, she stops in at a Wal-Mart to see her 73-year-old mother, Ian Daniels, who's working at the store to supplement her fixed income.

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