Reagan rides on an upbeat economy and worker values

Darlene Garland is a single-parent who once lived in public housing and received welfare aid and food stamps. Now she has a job as a light spot welder at the Steelcase office-equipment factory and has purchased a suburban home.

Mrs. Garland probably will vote for Ronald Reagan again, although she describes herself as neither a Republican nor a Democrat.

''Things are much better for me personally,'' she says.

''Whether Reagan has anything to do with this I don't know. I'm not that enthusiastic about him. It bothers me what he's doing for the rich and not for the poor. But I do know the good Lord is helping me and I feel very fortunate to be here.''

''Also I'm upset about (Geraldine) Ferraro because of her feelings about abortion,'' Mrs. Garland says. ''I'm a Christian and I'm into the right-to-life movement.''

A visit to this largely Republican area in western Michigan points up how President Reagan is able to ride an upbeat mood of better economic times and capitalize on strongly held religious views.

''We Midwestern Republicans have a choice - between a man who mentions God and one who only mentions 'religion,' '' said Dan Pearson, the local sales manager for General Foods.

''Reagan's a Christian and believes in God and the Lord Jesus Christ. He's pro-family and pro-moral and that's mainly why I'm for him.''

Grand Rapids is an up-and-coming city of 182,000 people (the second largest after Detroit) and more than 500 churches. Its strong ethnic communities - Polish, Dutch, German - are hard-working, proud of their foreign roots, and devoted to neighborhoods and churches.

Once the furniture-making center of the nation, Grand Rapids has in the past decade diversified its industry and is registering healthy growth though unemployment still stands at 11 percent.

Thanks in part to government help, the city is now attracting new business. Within the last five years, some 400 firms have undertaken over $540 million worth of commercial and industrial renewal projects, utilizing federal tax abatement and tax-exempt bonding.

Today downtown Grand Rapids is graced with a soaring 700-room hotel, a new center plaza, and the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum. At one end of a handsome outdoor mall, ethnic groups hold festivals, and on a late summer day the air fills with the sounds of a lively German polka.

''We are seeing developers flock here,'' says Mayor Gerald R. Helmholdt enthusiastically. ''Now we'll have a major housing market-rate complex and the riverfront will be improved. Eventually we hope to have parks along the river.''

The nonpartisan mayor acknowledges the importance of government aid but says that Grand Rapids has received far less of it than other cities.

''This is pretty Republican-type thinking here,'' he says at Helmholdt's Home Decorating Center, a family business. ''People are not anxious for government help. We believe in hard work and not relying on somebody else.''

But Democratic residents suggest that Mr. Reagan, when he flew in here on a campaign swing last week, took advantage of a more optimistic climate created by programs he himself probably would not have supported.

''Now he takes credit for Grand Rapids,'' says Dorothy Newman, head of a UAW local community council. ''But the rebuilding was not done by him but by federal funding which he opposes.''

Stephen Monsma, chairman of the Fifth District Democratic Committee, also sees irony in the situation.

''Reagan would have voted against the government programs that have made possible the revitalization of Grand Rapids,'' he says. ''But it all helps Reagan because of the upbeat spirit in town and the community pride.''

Like other Democrats here, who comprise perhaps half the voters in the city proper, Mr. Monsma blames the President for the depth of the recent recession, the massive deficits, and environmental setbacks. ''Reagan stood on the banks of the Grand River, where you couldn't fish when I was growing up,'' he says. ''Now we're catching salmon, thanks to cleanup programs.''

But the former state senator offers a philosophical explanation for Reagan's popularity which goes beyond the President's personality. The conservatives, he suggests, have captured the sense of American idealism.

''Democrats were once the idealists and conservatives came on as crotchety businessmen,'' says Monsma.

''Reagan is floating a vision of what we can do, telling the 'tired old men to get out of the way.' I see it as phony, as a symbol over substance, but it's working for him.

''My own party is floundering right now,'' he said. ''We don't know what our soul is.''

One feels the frustration of Democrats here over such issues as foreign competition. They fear the loss of American jobs.

''We can't compete with Asiatic steel wages and subsidies unless we drag outselves down to their level,'' remarked Robert Fliearman, a regional director of the United Automobile Workers.

''It's vital we keep our industrial base for our defense. How can you fight a war with a computer chip?''

Workers who have good jobs, however, seem conscious mainly of their improved economic prospects. Even some blacks in Grand Rapids will vote for Reagan.

''I don't care for Mondale's views about raising taxes,'' says Earl Talbert, a black worker at Steelcase. ''I've been doing pretty good here, and Reagan's put the country back in swing again. And as long as defense is up, there won't be another war.''

John Mitchell, a 21-year-old black waiter at the ultramodern Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, sees his lot improving. ''My parents are still Democrats, but I'm more into a modern trend that knows opportunity exists,'' said Mitchell, the beneficiary of low-income minority hiring at the hotel. ''I'm for what Reagan stands for - for the dream of becoming what you want to be instead of the system of handouts.''

In casual conversations, however, issues of family and religion seemed to crop up most of all. On the Steelcase factory floor, one worker voiced concern about a court suit against a school district for allowing Bible Club meetings to be held during school hours.

''If these kids want to read the Bible during lunch, they have a right,'' said Charles Olds. ''When I went to high school, we had Bible clubs. I like Reagan's attitudes.''

Democrats, for their part, voice bitterness that Reagan seems to have appropriated the family issue.

''If they feel so strong about abortion and human life, they should start taking care of children already born and raising them properly,'' says Mrs. Newman, a lively mother of two and grandmother of three.

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