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Sense Of The District Primary Concerns Region’s Voters Are Worried About Way Things Are, Yet Skeptical Of Major Changes

Voters in Eastern Washington find themselves in electoral limbo.

Looking for answers, they find only questions.

On Tuesday, they will be asked to pick from a crowded presidential field. Many say it’s too early to be sure which candidate best represents them. Others say it’s too late to matter, the races on the ballot already were decided elsewhere.

Collectively, they appear to be less angry than in 1994, when they led the nation in sweeping the status quo from Congress by ousting House Speaker Tom Foley. They may not be as alienated as 1992, when they jettisoned George Bush.

But they are uneasy, concerned and skeptical.

That’s what Spokesman-Review reporters found during a day of talking politics with people throughout Eastern Washington.

From Cusick to Colfax, along South Grand in Spokane and East Trent in the Valley, in the parks, the cafes, the watering holes and meeting places, voters talked about what’s important to them as the nation begins to pick a president.

They see a sputtering economy: Better for some than the last time the nation named a president; not as good for others.

They watch the nation’s debt climb to unfathomable heights: A four followed by 12 digits.

They ponder the puzzle of welfare: Problems persist despite years of promises to fix it.

Leadership is lacking, the choices uninspiring and the selection process suspect, some say.

Apathy and cynicism stalk some voters’ political conscience. Others weigh the wisdom of yet another round of change against a desire to see something - anything - done.

Limbo is not a friendly place for politicians this spring.

Government spending

Jackie Groh is cynical about politicians.

“I think they should all be spanked and put to bed. They’re so busy blaming each other for everything, it’s just like a bunch of grade school kids,” said Groh, 46, as she washed the windows on her espresso and art store in Chewelah. “If I ran my business the way they run the government, I’d be in jail.”

She wants more accountability for the way the government spends her tax dollars, less government intrusion on her life and lower taxes for small business.

“We have no tax shelters, no loopholes, nothing to hide under. It seems like all I do is pay taxes.”

Spend less, tax less and balance the budget was a chorus sounded by voters around the region.

“Get our country out of debt. That’s the most important thing,” said Ralph Wilcox, 56, an Army retiree from Hay, Wash., while he watched his grandson roller skate at Riverfront Park. “But not defense. They’ve cut the military budget way too far.”

Wilcox is undecided on his choice for president, now that his old commander, Colin Powell, has decided not to run.

Others weren’t so sure that less spending would solve the nation’s problems, or theirs.

Rick Walsh said government can - and should - try to improve people’s lives.

The deficit is going down, the economy is better than four years ago, said Walsh, who owns Sure Fit Auto Tops and Seat Covers in Spokane’s West Central neighborhood.

He hates the simple answers some politicians offer to complicated questions, and their tendency to blame economic problems on immigration laws while ignoring the massive layoffs taking place at U.S. companies.

He doesn’t want the government to wipe out its social programs in pursuit of a balanced budget.

“They can better the quality of life through arts and sciences,” Walsh said. “You’ve got to care about other people. And that’s what government should do.”

In the Palouse, Jim Larsen tightened a massive nut on a bright red cultivator and wondered if reductions in federal farm payments would prompt farmers to drop out of programs altogether.

“If the farmer doesn’t have the money to get by or make it, he’s either going to have to quit this game or take his (Conservation Reserve Program) land and put it back into production,” said Larsen, 26, a foreman at the Diamond Distributing shop between Colfax and Endicott.

Putting that land into production could result in more soil washing or blowing off the Palouse. Reduced federal payments could make it tougher for farmers - including Larsen, who also raises wheat and cattle near Genesee, Idaho - to pay for their land.

The economy

“It would be nice to work just one job and make some money,” said Andy Kumpon, 25, an undecided voter who thinks economic issues are the key to the elections.

Kumpon works three jobs - security guard at the Amtrak station, enforcer for a local bail bond company and bouncer at a tavern - while pursuing a dream of producing science fiction shows on a community access cable channel. The most he earns at any job is $6 an hour.

The federal government should do more to help young people get the education and training they need for good jobs, he said while scanning newspapers on the counter at The Elk, a cafe in Spokane’s Browne’s Addition.

“I wish the government could do something to make jobs more accessible. It’s hard nowadays for young people to make a living,” Kumpon said.

At the Valley, Wash., General Store, Lee Cliett might have amended Kumpon’s economic observations slightly: It’s hard for anyone to make a living.

Cliett, 54, lives with his wife and five children in a log home on 20 acres outside of town. He builds log houses with a portable sawmill while his wife sells and teaches arts and crafts. “It’s real hard to survive out here,” Cliett said. “There’s just no jobs … so it’s hard to get too involved in politics.”

Although he’s more concerned about pellets for his wood stove than Tuesday’s primary, Cliett said he likes President Clinton - “although a lot of people disagree.”

One of them would be Bob Gronholz, owner of the Town and County Men’s Wear on Main Street in Colfax. Fashions in the store lean towards the conservative: dark ties, lots of solid-colored socks.

Gronholz, 65, leans that way, too.

“My biggest concern is that Clinton might be re-elected,” he said. “I see the country turning more to a socialistic state by leaps and bounds. And taxes are a major concern.”

He hopes a Dole presidency will create the right climate for lower taxes and welfare reform.

Welfare reform

In the beauty salon of the Camlu Retirement Apartments in the Spokane Valley, Linda Odell twirled Wilma Nicholas’ hair while the two talked about welfare. The incentives in the system are haywire, said Odell, 36. They encourage people not to work.

Nicolas, 78, recalled seeing a woman buy expensive groceries with food stamps, then drive away in a new car.

The federal government has far too much waste and fraud. But Nicholas also worried about calls to cut Medicaid, government health insurance for the poor.

“We do need it,” she said. “They just can’t take it away from the children.”

Welfare should be a stop-gap, not a solution, said Delmar Garrod, a Spokane postal worker whose earliest memory is of his brother dragging him around a cotton field on a picking sack, when he was 4. His family worked as migrant pickers, sunup to sundown.

“I look at it very philosophically,” said Garrod, 47. “If people don’t take care of themselves, they’ll let other people take care of them. And then they don’t have any self-worth.”

Jimmy Hatfield was less philosophical, in fact, downright blunt: “There should be no welfare for able-bodied people.”

Those with a disability should receive assistance and training programs for two years, tops, said the construction supervisor taking a break from a job in the basement of the Seafirst Building in downtown Spokane.

People on welfare are “basically lazy,” Hatfield contended. “The working man is carrying the load for everyone.”

Given the chance to sit down with Hatfield, Patty Wolbrecht would probably disagree.

As she watched her two children play on the jungle gym at Manito Park, Wolbrecht, 27, said she favors some welfare limits. She knows how difficult it is to get off.

She was on welfare for almost three years, after being forced out of a job when she was pregnant and sick.

“It took me forever,” Wolbrecht said. “But I just wanted to be completely off it.”

She took a job here, a job there, in the struggle to find health insurance for her family. Now she works two jobs, folding hospital gowns and sheets at American Linen and working behind the counter at a Texaco station downtown.

She reached in the pocket of her jacket for Gummi bears and crackers to hand her children. Inside her fanny pack was a gun, she said.

“I work 6 to midnight, and I have to go outside, with the drunks and the gangs,” said Wolbrecht, who lives near Moran Prairie. “They argue about the price of a pack of cigarettes and threaten to blow up your station.”

Health care

Like most parents, Wolbrecht wants what’s best for her children, and that means better health care. She thinks the government should have a hand in controlling costs in a system where doctors “get richer and richer and we get poorer and poorer.”

Pat Hussey would argue against anything that led the country toward socialized medicine. Hussey, 38, lived in Italy for four years under such a system, which she said encouraged sloppy care and under-the-table payments for better treatment.

“This is the best place in the world to get health care,” said the mother of six, who had just finished exercising at the South Spokane Sta-Fit with her 5-year-old son.

Asked about her choice for president in Tuesday’s primary, Hussey said she opposes abortion and favors family values. She likes Buchanan, but doesn’t think he has much of a chance.

“It’s good he ran,” she said. “He forces the Republicans to look at certain issues.’


Candidates who emphasize family values also get the attention of Bea Nevin.

The owner of Aunt Bea’s Antiques in Hillyard is undecided on her choice for the primary, and searching for candidates who realize the country “needs to take care of Americans and their needs and return to basic values. I think we should also have prayer in school and the Pledge of Allegiance.”

There’s so much disrespect in the world, said Nevin, 57, as she unloaded boxes filled with other people’s things.

“Even the kids are disrespectful. We’ve got boys wearing earrings in their eyes and their nose. Do we want these people to be leaders?”

Current leaders leave much to be desired, she said, backstabbing one another instead of talking about issues. “What they do is undermining and demeaning. We don’t have time for this.”

The process stinks

Voters like Cheryl Barkdull and Don Higgins are worn out by negative campaigning.

“I want to hear what they’re about, not what they’re against,” said Barkdull, 39, a crossing guard for Spokane School District 81 as she finished shepherding her last group of elementary kids for the day at the intersection of Ash and Jackson.

“They seldom get to real issues,” said Higgins, 49, director of Spokane’s West Central Community Center. “It’s a blight on the whole political system.”

Neither let their pessimism about the process darken their optimism for the eventual outcome.

“I always vote, and I always vote in the primaries,” Barkdull said. Her family is better off than four years ago, so she’ll vote Democrat, looking for candidates who are pro-education and favor abortion rights.

Holly McNeil, however, considers the primary “a big joke” and thinks the chance for real change are slim. Look at the track record, said the 24-year-old Chewelah homemaker as she took advantage of a sunny day to do some yard work with husband, Shane.

“I think they take all their media time to run each other into the mud instead of dealing with the real issues,” she said. “We’re supposed to have been doing welfare reform for the past two or three years, but nothing ever happens.”

Many voters said they would use the “lesser of two evils” standard for picking their candidates this year.

For Vic Mostly, it is a way to balance his experience-earned pessimism with his hope.

A political activist in college, the 26-year-old manager of a “60s garage punk band,” says he is now apolitical, but not completely uninvolved.

“The reason people still vote is that we must maintain hope,” said Mostly as worked the counter of a North Monroe alternative clothing and nostalgia shop his band owns.

His criteria for voting - he’d pick Clinton over Dole - was unique, albeit angst-ridden: “Dole’s the kind of person who wouldn’t have a conversation with me. I think Bill Clinton wouldn’t hate me quite so fast.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 4 Color photos

MEMO: The name of this occasional series was not published with this story.

The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = Jim Camden, with reports from Kim Barker, John Craig, Kristina Johnson, Jim Lynch and Eric Sorensen.

The name of this occasional series was not published with this story.

The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = Jim Camden, with reports from Kim Barker, John Craig, Kristina Johnson, Jim Lynch and Eric Sorensen.

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