Sunday, October 15, 2006

"Most voters say they are willing to put party affiliation aside to focus on what they want to change most about the state of Texas."

War, transportation, illegal immigration frustrate Central Texas voters

October 15, 2006

By Dan Genz and Mónica Ortiz Uribe
Waco Tribune-Herald
Copyright 2006

If elections matter most when the public is anxious for change, local voters suggest the Nov. 7 election may be pivotal.

Citizens say they care deeply about a variety of burning issues as they prepare to vote in as little as eight days, expressing frustration over America’s two wars, porous southern border, unbalanced budget and a bitter political climate.

Approached at a parade, a fair, two candidate forums, a church and a cafe, Central Texans said they believe many politicians are avoiding tough decisions and dodging pressing issues to focus on what will score them points in newspapers, on TV and over the radio.

And when it comes down to choosing one candidate over another, voters say the issues hitting closest to their family and way of life will guide their decisions.

One woman who works with youth at her church said the basics of the education system — teacher salaries and school safety — hold sway.

The war dominates for a Waco Army officer preparing for a third Iraq tour next month after previous service in Baghdad and Ramadi.

A controversial transportation initiative is a favorite of a young voter whose father commutes to Dallas every day on packed Interstate 35 while also being the public enemy for a rural land owner whose property may be near the path of the proposed new toll road and railroad network.

On issue after issue, most voters say they are willing to put party affiliation aside to focus on what they want to change most about the country or the state of Texas.

Waco Tribune-Herald interviews with about 30 citizens from across town suggest that they are pushing for a government that will more thoroughly engage topics dear to their daily lives and probe deeper for the best answers.

A chief topic among them is an unpopular war in Iraq.

Sgt. Mark Sheets, 23, lives in Waco with his wife of 86 days, and talked about the politics of the war Wednesday night at the Heart O’ Texas Fair & Rodeo.

He is preparing to deploy for a third tour in Iraq with Fort Hood’s 1st Cavalry next month.

He wants a clear new vision instead of more bickering over the war he knows well.

“The Democrats say, ‘Bush is stupid, we’ve got to get out of Iraq’ and the Republicans say, ‘The Democrats are stupid, we’ve got to fight,’ ” Sheets said.

A real solution involves something more complicated than withdrawing altogether or staying the current course, he said, calling on the nation’s leaders to put it together.

Mary Nell SoRelle, 81, listed the war as a top priority at a League of Women Voters candidate forum Wednesday afternoon.

She has lived through wars that had a clear purpose the nation could rally behind, but Iraq is not one in her mind.

“I think it’s useless,” said SoRelle, who was raised on a farm in Robinson. “I think the war on terrorism is necessary, . . . but Iraq is not the way to go. No, I don’t feel safer at all.”

For a barber who lives in rural Coolidge, it took a few minutes talking about Iraq to settle on the fearsome threat posed by a North Korea government armed with nuclear weapons as his top issue.

Facing down bad actors is an admirable thing, said Charles Carr, 32, but he can’t shake the feeling the national leadership has been pursuing the wrong ones all along.

“North Korea has got the (nuclear) bomb,” Carr said. “You know they are going to shoot it off, but we may not be able to stop them because all our soldiers, thousands, are over there (in Iraq), doing something else.”

But some see those wanting to leave Iraq behind as too quick to give up on what soldiers have sacrificed so much to build.

Waco businessman and prominent Republican veteran leader Carey Hobbs, 70, said, “I don’t think it is going as well as we would like — it’s a war. We think we know what the enemy is doing, but we don’t know. I wish we were getting better control of the insurgency.”

His daughter is “fixing to go back” to Iraq in a couple weeks with a private security firm. He hopes things improve.

Transit matters

One statewide transportation issue is providing a lot of controversy and is driving voters this election season.

Josh Childers, 21, of Waco, said he is supporting Gov. Rick Perry because he is leading the push to build the Trans-Texas Corridor toll road and railroad network to add capacity to the state’s roads in time for a population boom in the coming decades.

“My dad drives to Dallas every day on I-35, and it would be so much easier if he could just hop on there,” Childers said. “They have to build it. It makes sense.”

But at the same time the project is the very idea of forward thinking for Childers, a McLennan Community College real estate student, it is a nightmare for others.

James Smith, 47, a recreational vehicle repairman living on 20 acres in Downsville, is supporting candidates who will fight the venture.

Knowing that the government would need to take thousands of acres to build the project across Texas and that its path is expected to come through McLennan County east of I-35, possibly in Smith’s small town, he is concerned he could be forced to sell the property.

“Downsville is right in the middle of where they want to build the thing,” he said.

Transportation also is a driving force for Donna Ferguson, 34, a public school fine arts teacher.

While she is voting on education issues such as teacher pay and better conditions for public schools, one of her biggest gripes right now is the fluctuating gas prices that make it difficult to plan vacations.

“We can’t afford to do it at $3 per gallon,” she said, but the inconsistency is alarming. “I just get a kick out of the fact that prices can go from $2.89 to $2.07 in what seems like a few weeks.”

In reality, prices have fallen 78 cents over the last 10 weeks, according to AAA Texas, helping some family’s finances.

But fuel costs still are too high for farmers like Don Richter, 82, of Leroy, who is anxious that farmers are barely making it these days.

Border concerns grow

Another issue many voters see as hitting them in the pocketbook is illegal immigration.

Before a recent parade, Bob Grunska sat on the back of a firetruck with his wife, Lolly, wearing a sticker supporting GOP nominee Van Taylor.

“I am concerned with immigration, with lack of enforcement of the law that allows them to qualify for a lot of things they are not entitled to get,” said Grunska, 83, of Hewitt.

He said the Mexican border is not secure and the federal government has looked the other way as the problem gets worse.

John Gomez, 23, and Ray Arias, 38, agree with Grunska that illegal immigration is a major issue, but to them, it is one tinged with animosity and misplaced anger.

“It’s all messed up with so many points of view,” Gomez said. “They want to talk about the crime, but most immigrants come here to work.”

New multibillion-dollar fences on the U.S.-Mexican border are symbols that could be circumvented with “wire cutters or a good shovel” the Waco-born-and-raised Gomez said. By building immigration as an issue, politicians have hurt Hispanic Americans, he said.

Many of these debates have been raging for years, which has done little to cool their fire.

Anxiety high; values key

Lolly Grunska, 79, is voting on what she calls a “values” basis, citing her opposition to abortion and gay unions.

“A marriage is between one man and one woman,” she said.

Recent developments continue to shake up voters.

Some complained about a recent congressman’s resignation after sending sexually-charged e-mails to teenage former pages, mounting concern of North Korea’s confrontational posturing and the school shootings that continue to hit the daily news, or a frightening small plane crash in New York City.

Though turnout is expected to be low, those who plan to vote appear anxious on many fronts.

Dolores Melendez, 48, who works at a local Baptist church, has just finished putting her children through Baylor University.

Her main concern is education and the future of American school-aged children.

“Teachers should be some of the highest paid people in this nation,” she said. “The beginnings of children’s education can make or break society.”

The list of other issues is long, chief among them national security in a vexing international climate.

When a small plane crashed into a residential high rise last week, the children Melendez works with exhibited an immediate alarm.

“The first thing they said they thought about when they heard about the crash was: terrorists,” she said. “That word is part of our vocabulary now.” 757-5743 757-5751

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