Cross-country: The view from my political perch

Campaign 2010

After 4,250 miles and 14 states, I did my last cross-country visit on the roof of a house overlooking the Seattle area.

John Jensen, 49, fixes roofs. He also organizes well-attended candidate forums for King County.

This county outside of Seattle is part of the 8th Congressional District, currently represented by Dave Reichert, a Republican. But the area leans Democratic. And since this is one of the seats Republicans must hold if they want to win control of the House, people around here said I ought to talk to political junkie Jensen.

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He agreed to meet with me. But he couldn't leave his current job replacing tile on a multi-million dollar home. So, just days after climbing some Montana mountains (admittedly by car), I put aside my fear of heights (I don't even do Ferris wheels) and took hold of a metal stepladder to join Jensen at his work site.

The view was gorgeous and a fitting end to my journey. Jensen eagerly put aside his tools to give me his views on the current state of politics.

"I'm concerned that there is a lack of understanding by many in power of the real impact that taxes and regulations have on businesses," said Jensen, who recently had more than 150 people come to one of his forums to meet the candidates.

Locally, sales taxes have nearly doubled, from 5.6 percent to 9.5 percent in recent years. Now there is talk of it increasing to 9.8 percent. This would add thousands of dollars to the cost of an expensive project like roofing.

It is already forcing Jensen to compete against other roofers who cut their prices drastically by doing the work off the books. He says the continued costs of federal, state, and local government regulations is fueling the growth of this underground economy.

"I'm confused," Jensen tells me continuing to talk about politicians. "I don't understand how smart people can continue to do these things."

These comments, for my last visit, seemed similar to the opinions of people I met in Canonsburg, Pa., on Day One of my trip more than a week ago.

There I met Martin Beichner at the sheet metal manufacturing company he started in 1980.

Beichner said the speed by which Congress has moved the last two years has "fried my brain."

"Regulation after regulation after regulation," continued Beichner, a registered Democrat.

He worries that the country can't afford these sweeping changes like Obamacare.

"They tried to do too much," he said. "You can't keep giving away money that you don't have."

From the suburbs of Pittsburgh to the suburbs of Seattle, such fears over the fiscal future of the country topped all concerns among the people I visited. Close behind came the anxiety over the new health-insurance overhaul. Surprisingly, just one person mentioned the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

When most people decide to drive across the country, it is to see the sights. This trip, for me, became all about seeing the people.

After meeting small business owners, doctors, educators, Rotarians, and pastors in nearly two dozen stops along the way, another common concern emerged: Americans are tired of the political parties. Most flinched when I asked them if they were a Republican or Democrat.

"A good idea is a good idea whether you are Republican or Democrat," Beichner told me, a sentiment echoed by others in every state.

Anger with the parties is really anger with incumbents. Few interviewed had any answer for how to end their frustrations with the party system other than through the ballot box.

But last Tuesday incumbent Democrat Sen. Michael Bennet, with campaign help from President Obama, cruised to a nine-point victory in Colorado.

Will this apparent on-the-ground voter anger over the establishment translate into election victories by outsiders?

Jensen, a Republican, is skeptical about recent experts labeling as "in trouble" the reelection bid of Washington's Democrat Sen. Patty Murray. The race may be listed as a toss up, but Jensen thinks Murray will win thanks to the fundraising and infrastructure advantages of incumbency.

In the end, Jensen concluded, citizens need to look in the mirror for the source of all their anxiety and anger over the current direction of the country.

"I blame bad contractors for bad houses, and I blame voters for bad politicians," said Jensen.

With that, I climbed down the roof and began my journey home … thankfully by plane this time.

Follow Lee's reports as he travels from Washington, D.C., to Washington state.

Edward Lee Pitts
Edward Lee Pitts

Lee teaches journalism at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, and is the associate dean of the World Journalism Institute.


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