A Michigan County Provides Barometer Of Blue-Collar Vote

On Saturdays, Steve Newland engages in a driveway ritual: He washes his truck.

More than a labor of love, the task is maintenance of a symbol. For a garbage man who grew up in a ghetto, the new burgundy pickup is shining evidence of his rise to the middle class. A Ford, it bears his commitment to blue-collar colleagues who work in the nearby assembly plants.

But the truck is also a reminder of forces Mr. Newland feels are trying to push him back into poverty. Automobile prices rise but his wages stay flat. Area corporations post profits but thousands lose jobs. Workers clock longer hours but still can't pay bills. "They say the economy is doing all right," he says, a yellow rag dripping suds on his feet. "But that is because everyone is working more hours. It is the only way to get by."

Newland belongs to one of the most important segments of the American electorate - blue-collar workers, a class whose voices have fallen faint on the job site but resound ever louder at the polling booth. For 30 years, few groups have ensured the dominance of either political party as much as the blue-collar middle class.

Once a bedrock constituency of the Democratic Party, this segment of the electorate - predominantly white, seldom college-educated, and earning between $15,000 and $40,000 a year - has become the most influential swing vote in the country. It paved the road to the White House for Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, then handed Republicans the keys to Congress in 1994. An estimated 1 in 5 now call themselves Independents - a ratio that has doubled since 1980.

Standing up for workers like Newland, who see themselves as vulnerable to economic downturns and victimized by corporate greed, may not win the White House in 1996, especially if Mr. Clinton maintains a wide lead over Bob Dole, the likely GOP nominee. But this block could once again determine who controls Congress, and so far it appears to be more unaligned than ever.

"This is one of the two or three most undecided voting blocs," says Mark Gersh, a pollster who tracks voter groups for House Democrats. "A change of 2 or 3 percent could make a difference in 20 to 25 House seats."

Few American communities carry as much weight on the national electoral stage as Macomb County, a suburb north of Detroit where pizza parlors are as large as car dealerships and every major boulevard seems to end at an automotive assembly plant. Since 1980, it has been a mandatory stop on the campaign trail in every presidential election.

The reason is simple: Macomb County, an almost exclusively white community, is the ultimate blue-collar prize, the most reliable indicator of the working-class vote. Two-thirds of adults here never went to college, yet most own homes. In 1985, a high point in terms of purchasing power, median income was $24,000. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson won 74 percent of the vote. Twenty years later, Mr. Reagan captured 67 percent.

Grousing from Macomb

Three months before the election, the Macomb County vote is unclaimed. Driveway interviews in several townships suggest that voters feel more abandoned and disillusioned than at any previous time. Many say neither the mainstream parties nor Ross Perot is concerned about their economic security. Most think the political system is severely broken.

"Things didn't get better with Republicans in control of Congress," says Jim Mugridge, a technician for Detroit Edison, standing inside his neatly arranged garage. "They choked on most of the things they said they were going to do something about, like term limits [for elected officials]. Under the present system, I feel it's my duty to vote against whoever is in power."

"I have a mixed review of the Republican Congress," says Ken Hiltunen, a civilian worker at a military tank-building complex a few blocks from his house. "They started well, but momentum fell off. I'd tend to leave Republicans in control for a few more terms to see if they follow through on the the changes they have proposed."

Several factors helped dislodge this community from the bedrock of either party. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, voters here grew increasingly estranged from a Democratic Party they felt was being overrun by environmentalists, feminists, and minorities. They joined forces with Reagan, but by the end of the 1980s they felt betrayed by his supply-side promises. From 1980 to 1989, working-class wages rose just $2.50 per hour nationwide.

For his part, Newland backed Reagan and George Bush through the 1980s, swung to Clinton in '92, then back to the Republicans in '94. His wages explain why. In the early '80s, Newland says, his wages rose $3 per hour over three years. Since then, they've gone up $2.50.

"I have to work 12 hours every day," he says. "My wife works, too. I have two stepsons. Things like college are getting out of reach, and we have no home life."

Newland isn't looking for the government to boost his wages. Like many of his blue-collar brethren, he views the recent debate in Congress over the minimum wage as an election-year gimmick. Rather, these voters want lower taxes, health-care reform, welfare reform, job security, and affordable college fees for their children - in short, measures that help them keep more of their earnings and stretch them further.

These desires place voters like Newland behind neither political party. To many, Republicans seek tax cuts but carry the stigma of a rich man's party. Many said the GOP is too apt to defend corporations that dip into pension funds and lay off thousands of workers to satisfy shareholders. Democrats propose a tuition tax credit for the middle class but are still viewed as the party of expensive social programs.

As interviews here suggest, these voters are angry at both sides for failing to change government, such as imposing term limits on elected officials. Yet they are also disillusioned with Mr. Perot, whose political maneuvers prompt their suspicion.

Pocketbook issues

This is one reason the debate over welfare reform may be pivotal. Voters here, who view welfare more as a pocketbook issue than as a social one, are waiting for Washington to remove what they regard as a costly burden.

"The key in 1996 is to let [the working class] know that you still care, that you are still listening and fighting for change," says Frank Luntz, a Virginia-based GOP pollster. "What frustrates them is that they really do need their income. They are afraid about what they are able to put away at the end of the week."

But voters here are so frustrated that many may simply stay home in November.

Late on a recent Saturday afternoon, Rick Nawrocki leans up against a black pickup in his driveway and ponders the choices he will make at the ballot station in November. After a pause, he concludes it may not make much of a difference.

"Everyone says they're for the middle man, and it always turns out they're not," he laments. "We always hear about change, change, change, but get nothing. We're on our own."

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