Folks back home speak their piece to representatives
Fort Worth, Texas — When House majority leader Jim Wright talked to the Fort Worth Jaycees earlier this week, he addressed only one subject: the shooting down of the South Korean airliner. During a question period, that was the only issue his listeners raised.
The Texas Democrat and fellow lawmakers returning to their districts have found a nation gripped with the Soviet Union's attack on the passenger plane.
But the United States response is chiefly in President Reagan's hands. So many congressmen, including Representative Wright, have been listening to other concerns as well during a five-week recess that ends next Monday.
For Wright, second in command in the House of Representatives, the listening extended to church time on a recent Sunday. Leaving a service at the First United Methodist Church in Fort Worth, he was beckoned by a fellow member worried about a new tax law. It's a ''backdoor'' effort to tax municipal bonds, the constituent warned his congressman, who listened attentively and promised to look into the matter.
During a reception in the town of Hurst, Texas, a mother approached Mr. Wright as he rounded a food table. She wanted to know if she would see her son shipped off to fight in Central America. The majority leader assured her that US soldiers would not fight in Central America and that Congress is not giving a ''rubber stamp'' to the administration's policies there.
Nearby, a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars who served in Vietnam heartily endorsed the Reagan administration's firm stand in Central America. But he also praised Wright, who opposes the administration's covert aid to rebels in Nicaragua.
The stand against Reagan foreign policy, a recent switch in Wright's long record of supporting presidents in foreign affairs, caused little fuss in his Texas district. Residents here seem more puzzled than polarized by US policies in Central America.
''It's one of the things on their minds,'' Wright said during an interview in Fort Worth. But he added that the issue has faded compared with a few weeks ago , ''when the President was sending gunboats'' to Central America.
Wright's visit home has largely been a time of renewing already strong ties in a district that has returned him to office for nearly 30 years and where fellow Texans are openly proud of his powerful role in the House leadership.
From downtown Forth Worth, where federal money helped spark a major renewal, to the old stockyard area, now a restored commercial center that boasts an indoor rodeo, the Wright touch is visible. Residents credit him for bringing them at least their share of federal grants, not to mention defense contracts for their aerospace and electronics industries. In the fast-growing suburban town of Hurst, close to 200 residents turned out for a stifling hot outdoor dedication of the new police building. After the featured speaker, Congressman Wright, finished, local residents listed instances - from a post office to flood relief - in which their congressman had aided them.
While the recession has strained many communities, the defense contracts have helped cushion the blow of the recession for the Fort Worth area. The jobless rate is now about 8.5 percent, lower than in many parts of the nation. ''It's high for us,'' Wright said, recalling that his area had been accustomed to only 4 percent unemployment.
The majority leader called the current economic upswing fragile. ''My personal opinion is we'll have a recovery only when we can bring interest rates down and keep them down,'' he said. He blamed Federal Reserve chairman Paul A. Volcker for keeping interest rates up and Mr. Reagan's ''tax cuts for the wealthy'' for the growing federal deficits.
''For two years we've been eroding our revenue base while indulging the biggest military spending growth in peacetime history,'' he told a meeting of the Texas Coalition of Black Democrats in Fort Worth during the August recess. And he upbraided the Reagan administration for taking 60 percent of its cuts out of programs for groups such as ''the homeless, the handicapped, the elderly.''
President Reagan will now have more support for his defense program, Wright predicted in the wake of the South Korean airliner tragedy. But not from Mr. Wright, the majority leader maintained through a spokesman. ''I still have the same basic questions about our spending priorities as I did before,'' he said.
There are only some 50 people scattered through the audience of this town meeting, and they have questions about a lot of subjects that hit close to home - pocketbook issues, some of them emotional.
But US Rep. Matthew G. Martinez's (D) comments on foreign policy draw outbursts of spontaneous applause:
''The United States has never won in fighting communism with a military action, . . . We would have a lot more friends in Central America if we stopped supplying the guns that kill people.''
This little town in Congressman Martinez's district east of Los Angeles is 70 percent Hispanic, and the first questions the congressman takes - on Central America and rent control - are in Spanish.
The freshman representative, a former mayor of Monterey Park and proprietor of decorative workshops? in private life, has faced more town meeting questions on Central America than any other topic.
And sentiment is against White House policy. Is it because this district - in all, 53 percent Hispanic - is a major settling ground for Latin American immigrants?
Martinez says he doesn't think so. Rather, Central America is seen here as a defense spending issue, he says. But he adds that the American Hispanic feels strongly about foreign policy out of pride. Hispanics are embarrassed to see the US make what they feel are mistakes.
Martinez's district, which he won from conservative Republican John Rousselot in the last election, is a strong mix of poor neighborhoods and high-income suburbs.
The mood in this district, he says, is not one of satisfaction. His office, he says, gets a lot of desperate letters. But this doesn't mean that people here - who are Democrats by almost two-thirds - are fed up with Republican government , he says.
Rather they are frustrated with politics, not interested in party one-upmanship. People are not asking, for example, about the partisan battle over redrawing district lines in California - a hot issue among state politicos.
At his office in Montebello, he reads from a letter someone handed him at a town meeting that speaks for what he hears often from the local public:
''There are major problems American people are having every day and minute of their lives, and you people totally ignore them. You have all lost respect for the American. All you care about is two words: Democrat and Republican.''
This letter is from a bitter woman who is struggling economically, yet feels that immigrants and minorities are favored for government help, Martinez explains.
''It's a funny thing,'' he says, ''people want to support the President because they're fiercely patriotic. They see Ronald Reagan as a great leader. But things aren't turning around for them. They're very bitter.''
When in Washington, Martinez can't wait to return to his home turf and talk to people, he says. Plainspoken and without the sophistication of his predecessor, he says he learns from unexpected sources. The letter he read was full of misspellings, he points out, rendering the President's name ''Reagon,'' ''but it's sincere and the thought is accurate.''
There may be hunger and high unemployment in Democratic US Rep. Katie Hall's blue-collar steel-mill district of northwest Indiana. But the severity of those problems pales in comparison to what she saw on a three-week congressional fact-finding trip in August to the drought-stricken areas of six North African countries.
In northern Ethiopia where the delegation helicoptered in to land in a field, she saw masses of starving people, wearing little and their faces covered with flies, who think only of getting enough food to survive. They are grateful beyond words, she says, for kernels of corn, the likes of which Mrs. Hall (who grew up as one of 12 children on a farm in Mississippi) used to shuck in late August and feed to the animals.
''I'd seen a lot in my 45-year lifetime, but I'd never seen anything like that before,'' she says. ''While I have a lot of people in my district who are poor and suffering, they're still far better off than in many other parts of the world. People here who don't have food can turn to food stamps, surplus food from the Department of Agriculture, public welfare. . . . America is still blessed, regardless of its problems.''
Still, against the backdrop of that widened perspective that comes from travel, Representative Hall is convinced of and determined to fight for the special needs of her district, where unemployment stands at a high 25 percent. She is more aware of those needs because she commutes every weekend to Gary, where her husband still practices law.
Her chief concern, she explains in her yellow-walled district office here in Indiana University quarters, is for the many ''good, honest decent people - the backbone of America who have made this country great - who have worked and will work if only given the opportunity.'' To underscore that point, she says, hundreds of them rode to Washington on 30 buses lent by district churches for the Aug. 27 ''March for Jobs, Peace, and Freedom.''
''What my constituents want is a job - that's No. 1,'' she says.
Also, she says, large numbers of senior citizens in her district lean on social security as their only source of rent, food, and utility dollars. Accordingly, she says, she voted against an amendment to the law that passed the House last March, raising the retirement age, delaying cost-of-living increases, and allowing taxation over a certain income level. ''I thought it would put an undue hardship on many of my constituents and they appreciated my stand,'' she says.
A longtime junior high and high school social studies teacher - ''my first love is still teaching children'' - Mrs. Hall also puts a high priority on federal help for education.
''I know I go overboard at times, but I don't think we can invest too much in education,'' she says. ''The average person in my district would like me to vote to cut defense spending, and I think we could certainly take a little from the Pershing II missile program and put it into education.''
Representative Hall, who is black and represents a district 70 percent white, says she also hears a lot from constituents on women's issues.
''They feel the President has failed women, and I have to agree,'' she says. ''He has not enforced equal opportunity (laws) in employment or affirmative action.''
While his appointment of one woman to the Supreme Court and two to his Cabinet are good moves, she says, ''there are many highly educated, qualified women around and he should have a lot more of them involved'' in his administration.
Everyone in US Rep. Cardiss Collins's Chicago district office on this late Friday afternoon is either on vacation or out running an errand. The phones are ringing off the wall and the congresswoman is doing her best to catch them.
One caller who works at a federal hospital objects heatedly to the fact that she's just been laid off. Mrs. Collins tells her how to file complaint forms and how the propriety of the action can be checked.
''She wants to hold me hostage for her vote,'' the congresswoman tells a visitor. ''But what can I do? The President 'riffed' (reduction in force) her - I didn't. The money isn't there.''
She hears of similar situations quite a bit these days, she says as she walks the streets visiting with her constituents and getting their phone calls and letters. ''Jobs are far and away the number one issue,'' she says. On one recent Saturday, while she attended 14 block parties, time and again jobless college students approached her and recalled how often they'd been told an education was the way out of poverty.
''I stood there with egg on my face,'' she says. ''You want to encourage someone 22 or 23 who wants to get on with his life. But what can you say? The only thing that's really going to help is for this economy to pick up.''
Her district, which is 68 percent black and 28 percent Spanish-speaking, stretches from Chicago's lakefront skyscrapers, through the city's West Side, out to the city's Western suburbs. This racial and economic mix leads to some special problems in her district, she says.
''As long as we have a large number of unskilled and semi-skilled workers who don't have the basic education skills they need and who tend to live in areas where there isn't anything available, it becomes a vicious cycle.'' She says she thinks enterprise-zone legislation can help. She is less sure about retraining. ''The question is: retraining for what? Who knows what the needs will be in three years? And you can't take someone who worked in a steel mill for 20 years and suddenly make him an engineer.''
A lawyer who took over her congressional post in 1973 after the death of her husband George, Mrs. Collins packed a lot into the August congressional recess: a stop in Florida to see the first black astronaut head for space aboard the Challenger; and a study trip, as a member of the House Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control, to the coca and marijuana fields of Mexico, Peru, Colombia, and Bolivia.
In one sense, her constituents have a direct stake in the success of the delegation's efforts to convince foreign leaders to tighten curbs on narcotics production. Two of Chicago's main drug-trafficking corridors are said to run through her district. But generally when her constituents speak out on international issues, she says, they urge her to support a nuclear freeze, strict domestic-content requirements for importers, less restrictive rules on immigration, and curbs on defense spending.
She says she has had a few letters in recent years urging her to ''give the President everything he wants'' on defense spending (''those letters are hard to answer'') but expects no big increase in those or a change in her own defense spending views as a result of the Soviet downing of the South Korean airliner. As her top aide, Rufus (Bud) Myers, says, ''The MX missile wouldn't have prevented that incident - spending more money for defense wouldn't have stopped it."