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Listening Posts: Where People Talk Politics Healthy Debate Still Thrives

Hurried, harried lives make casual political conversation less common than it once was. But it happens.

At cafes and coffee shops throughout the region, The Spokesman-Review found people chatting with strangers and friends about the day’s political news and their worries for tomorrow.

Here are some examples:

‘I’m not voting for them anymore’

Joe McClain laments his loss of innocence.

“When you were growing up, when I was growing up, didn’t you think politicians were supposed to be honest?” McClain asks Matthew Felton, seated beside him at the Waffles Plus lunch counter on North Monroe.

“They should be honest,” says Felton, a field supervisor for a security company.

“I think they get a class on how to be dishonest,” says McClain, who’s on disability after four back surgeries. “I know if somebody’s dishonest to me, that’s all it takes.”

“I’m not voting for them anymore,” says Felton, finishing McClain’s line of thinking.

It’s 6:30 a.m. The place that nearly bursts at the seams some days is quiet. Police fill out reports in the corner. Three men sit at the counter, eating breakfast and skimming the newspaper.

Owner Dale Westhaven pretty much knows what days will be busy and what days won’t. “Tuesdays are slow,” he says, sweeping by with a coffee pot on his way back to the kitchen.

The small cafe is a mom-and-pop place where waffles are the size of dinner plates. Coffee comes from smiling waitresses who gently tease customers as they take their order.

Photographs of regulars line the walls.

“There’s a picture of my customers mauling a waitress,” says Westhaven, pointing to a photo of a grinning woman surrounded by men.

Nearly every day, McClain says, people on their way to work stop for a taste of political talk over breakfast. The talk gets more animated as the weekend nears. “When Friday gets here, people get happier,” he says.

They discuss everything from restaurant smoking to Coroner Dexter Amend’s latest misadventure. “We have to find something to argue about in the morning,” McClain says. “It gets you started.”

This particular day, McClain, Felton and Vern (“don’t use my last name”) are in agreement - politicians have lost touch with the people they serve.

“Politicians have nothing in common with common people,” says McClain. “If you’re going to walk in someone’s shoes and do something for them, then you need to know something about them.”

“The only way I get to judge them on is what I read in the paper,” Felton says. “But I met George Nethercutt. I liked the guy.”

“I like the guy, too,” says McClain. “I like you, but I don’t know how you’d be as president.”

“They shouldn’t be spending so much money out of the country,” Felton says. “They should be spending on their own needy.”

“They’re buying friendship,” interjects Vern.

“Didn’t your parents tell you you can’t buy friendship?” says McClain.

Cups of conversation

Pat Soderquist works a crossword puzzle at Lindaman’s Gourmet-to-Go when Dave Jensen reaches across to grab the front page and comment on the day’s banner headline: “Swamp swallows airplane wreckage.”

The conversation shifts quickly to Whitewater, then segues into politics.

“Where’s Al Gore? Is he still vice president?” demands Soderquist, baiting Jensen. “I thought Dan Quayle had a low profile a few years ago, but geez.”

Conversation goes with the coffee at the South Hill restaurant most mornings as the folks who go to work in jeans mingle with those who go to work in suits.

Topics follow the news most days, says Kirk Haan, who has worked off and on behind the white tile counter for five years.

Regulars like Soderquist and Jensen know each other well enough to guess which side of an issue the other will take. But sometimes talking things out is more important than reaching conclusions.

“It’s just a good way to vent frustration,” says Soderquist, 29, co-owner of Brews Brothers espresso stand on Southeast Boulevard. “Just open up the paper, look at the first three pages. I’d guess 80 to 90 percent is something negative.”

The South Hill restaurant may be regarded in some parts of Spokane as a yuppie spot, Haan says, but conversation at the coffee bar is eclectic. Democrats mix with Republicans, and there’s even one regular who might best be classified as a conspiratorialist.

“We’ve solved the world’s problems many times over in here,” says Haan.

Doughnuts and Democrats

It’s mid-morning and seats are hard to come by at the Donut Parade on North Hamilton in Spokane. The shop is packed with people who’ve stopped for cup after cup of coffee and maple bars warm from the oven.

The place is so thick with doughnut grease customers feel it on their skin. Waitresses know regular’s names. Most men wear baseball caps.

Howard Cameron sits at a table with his buddies. They gather nearly every morning, trading newspaper sections, talking fishing and politics - mostly fishing, they say. They flit between subjects, never idling too long or wading too deep.

“Dole’s brought up that Star Wars thing again,” Cameron says, scanning a newspaper headline. “That was a Reagan deal.”

“He was stupid,” says a man a few seats away.

“Reagan brought that up because he was a movie actor,” Cameron says.

Most of the people at the long, narrow table are retired men. Many are diehard Democrats. An exception is Doug Myhre, who takes offense when someone jabs U.S. Rep. George Nethercutt, saying he “wouldn’t even make a good janitor.”

“Neither would Clinton,” says Myhre. “He’s lying to us.”

“They need to kick Bill out and put Hillary in,” says Cameron.

“She’s in anyway,” says the group’s lone woman, who won’t give her name. “She tells him what to say.”

“What’s new?” says Cameron.

The doughnut shop ribbing is good-natured. “We’re like a family,” says a woman who passes quickly by the table on her way out the door.

Darrell Jones says after 28 years in business, he’s developed a loyal clientele that comes in daily and helps “solve all the problems of the world.”

At a booth by the window, a group of men describes themselves as “mostly independents.”

“I’m a Perot man,” says one.

“Me, too,” says his friend.

“He’s the one that ruined the (last) election,” says a third.

“I argue politics with that Republican right there,” says Victor Naccarato from a nearby table, pointing at a man across the aisle. “I tell them off.”

“I’m a Democrat,” says Bob Lewis, sitting just across from 90-year-old Naccarato. “I voted for a Republican last year and I’m sorry I did.”

“I just want to get a fish on my pole,” says Arv Engdahl, effectively changing the subject.

Cutting to the chase

A retired railroad worker watches tufts of hair float to the floor as he rails about rising gas prices.

“Damn oil companies are socking it to us, ain’t they?” he asks no one in particular.

Barber Richard Bird nods his head in agreement, a metronome keeping time against the hum of his clippers. A national gas tax doesn’t help, he says.

“That’s liberals for you,” Bird adds, and runs the blades up his customer’s neck. “At least Helen Chenoweth is doing good.”

The railroad man screws up his heavily lined face and jams his hands in a flannel jacket.

“Shoot, she’s not worth the effort it’d take to blow her up,” he says, disgusted, but clearly meaning no harm.

So begins a typical day at Best Avenue Barber, a tiny three-stool clip shop in Coeur d’Alene, where locals gather to talk issues, catch up on news and - perhaps - trim a bit around the ears.

Topics range from county politics to local crime to the U.S. Constitution. The best discussions occur before 9 a.m. and on Saturdays.

Customers are mostly men, mostly retired, mostly conservative.

“But even when a liberal comes in here, we’ll argue and debate and smile and shake hands when it’s over,” says barber Mike Cheevers.

“Politics is not worth getting mad over,” Bird says.

The shop is comfortable-yet-spare and rarely holds more than a dozen people. A “protect your hunting rights” sign rests along one wall. A poster reads: “If the answer is (Bill) Clinton … then it must have been a stupid question.”

There is no telephone - the ringing would interrupt conversation. The barbers occasionally wheel in a television to watch Rush Limbaugh.

Cheevers sometimes sparks chatter, with barber George Inglis playing straight man. But Bird is the primary instigator.

“You believe there’s such a thing as an honest politician?” he asks patron Bill Mayberry between snips.

“Never heard of one,” Mayberry responds. “Well I guess Eisenhower was pretty good.”

“Truman?” Bird asks.


“Carter was honest, but he was inept,” Bird says.

“Yup … don’t know who to pick this time,” Mayberry muttered. “Don’t like Clinton. Dole’s too old.”

Bird stops, scissors frozen in air, and cranes his neck to face Mayberry.

“How old are you?” he asks.

Mayberry smiles. “Seventy-two. Same as Dole.”


“I’d settle for a farmer as president,” Mayberry says.

Bird stares at Mayberry’s reflection in the mirror. “What’d you do before you retired?” Mayberry smiles again. “Farmer.”

Beside them, Inglis deadpans: “Out-standing in your field, were ya?” The barbers often know their customers by their opinions. Although the railroad guy is a regular, no one knows his name.

After bantering about gas prices, political parties and threats to his pension, he moves to the Star Wars program.

“What do we need with all those space stations anyway?” he asks. “You got any idea how much gas it takes to power them space ships?”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

MEMO: Changed from the Idaho edition.

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = This article was reported by staff writers Kristina Johnson, Jim Camden and Craig Welch

Changed from the Idaho edition.

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = This article was reported by staff writers Kristina Johnson, Jim Camden and Craig Welch

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