‘Life is good’ in Iowa’s Washington, but the candidates keep raising alarms

January 1, 2012

It is the final day of his best year at work, and Keith Lazar, 62, settles into his corner office at the community bank. He eats a doughnut with a fork and turns on an instrumental CD titled “Relaxation.” Outside his office window, the town square is bustling with proof of his impact during the past 12 months: trucks financed by his loans, restaurants expanding because of his savings advice and small businesses created with his support.

The first customer of the day arrives at 8:20 a.m., 40 minutes before the bank is scheduled to open. It’s a hog farmer wearing overalls and work boots, another longtime customer enjoying a record year. He wants to apply for a loan so he can expand his operation again. Lazar opens the door and waves him inside.

“Hiya, Keith,” the farmer says. “How’s it going?”

“Couldn’t be better,” Lazar says. “Life is good.”

Life is good. It has become Lazar’s default greeting, the motto he inscribed on the wall of his kitchen and printed on ­T-shirts to distribute at family gatherings. What could be better at the beginning of 2012 in this other city called Washington, a rural town of 7,200 surrounded by the corn and soybean fields of eastern Iowa? This is the Washington with a 4 percent unemployment rate, with record-breaking hog and cattle production, with a new high school and a $6 million library, with a newspaper that doesn’t bother to print a crime blotter, with heated sidewalks in front of the bank so customers never have to walk in the snow.

This is the place that officially refers to itself in all marketing materials as “Washington — Voted One of the Best 100 Small Towns in America Three Times!”

It is also a place where, day after day, presidential candidates make their case that the country is a horrific mess.

‘Life is good’

When Iowa holds its first-in-the-nation caucuses Tuesday, a major campaign moment will unfold here, in one of the most robust towns in one of the country’s most robust states. It is an ironic way for the 2012 election to begin: Politicians come here to talk about the problems of someplace else. Lazar and his friends in Washington can render a crucial verdict on issues from which they often feel disconnected.

“This is a nation in crisis,” Rick Perry said at a campaign stop at the local coffee shop last week.

“The Washington machine is strangling our economy,” said a local TV ad for Ron Paul.

“We’re seeing a war on our values,” Rick Santorum said on the evening news.

“Life is good,” Lazar says again, still at the bank, four days before the caucuses. He is a lifelong Republican who likes Mitt Romney best, although he doesn’t like any of them enough to participate in the caucuses. He has no problems in his life that require an election to fix, and he believes politicians rarely fix problems anyway. The economy is stable in some early-voting states such as Iowa and New Hampshire, so for some voters like Lazar the calculus is different. The population around the town square in Washington is growing, along with small businesses and the middle class.

Lazar is tall and stately in a dark suit and crisp white shirt, with a pen in his right pocket and the bank logo pinned to his jacket. The bank has yet to open for the day, but already he has underwritten loans for the farmer and for a single father trying to put two daughters through college. “Pretty neat to be able to help,” he says. “Pretty awesome.”

Another day in Washington is off to a great start.

Life is good at his morning Kiwanis Club meeting, where he stands for the Pledge of Allegiance next to the sheriff, the dentist, the hospital president and the middle-school principal — friends and customers all. They sing “America the Beautiful.” They solicit community-improvement donations, even though donations already have funded a weight room, a fountain in the park and a municipal bandstand. “Pass the hat for Washington!” the club president says, because they’d rather pitch in a few twenties than raise taxes or rely on government to fix their problems.

Life is good at home, a two-minute drive from work, where he goes on his lunch break to sit by the fireplace and eat with his wife, Sam. They turn on Fox News but keep the TV on mute. “What could they say that I really need to hear?” Lazar says.

While politicians talk about a country that is angry and divided, Lazar reads self-improvement books and eliminates the word “wrong” from his vocabulary. “It’s better to say, ‘I think you might be mistaken,’ ” he says. While politicians talk about a Washington that is dizzying and unpredictable, his life is an exercise in routine: Married 35 years. At the bank for 20. Vacations twice a year to Jamaica. “It’s a Wonderful Life” on his TV every Christmas. Sunday services at United Methodist Church.

Success for bank, town

And life is especially good at the community bank, where he closes his office door in the afternoon to look over the year-end financial statements. “Pretty awesome year,” he says, nodding. “Pretty fortunate.”

The bank has been on a corner of the square for 80 years, outlasting chain banks that moved into town and growing from six employees to 31. No year has been as good as 2011. Lazar’s year-end statement shows a net profit of $2.7 million. Local agriculture profits rose to record highs, and housing prices remained steady. Thriving farmers paid back their loans ahead of schedule. More than 98 percent of customers stayed up to date on their loan payments.

Lazar has given out $300,000 in bonuses to his staff, doling out $8,000 and sometimes more to greeters and tellers without college degrees. Now, on the last afternoon of the year, he wants to verify dividend checks totaling $1.5 million for the bank’s 430 shareholders, most of whom also live in town.

While he works in his office, bank customers continue to wave from the lobby and invite themselves in to see him. One wants $600 to cover Christmas presents; another wants a loan for a mobile home; another wants advice on how much to ask for his house; a retired couple want to chat and maybe buy some stock.

“Life is good,” he says again and again, inviting each customer to sit across his desk. This is his model of community banking. “If you treat someone like a crook, they will act like a crook,” he says. “My job is to believe in people, to treat them well, to help them and then to get out of their way.”

That is what irks him so much about government and politicians: All they do is get in the way, he thinks. There’s the Dodd-Frank act, which will result in a few hundred more banking rules and force him to hire another employee to sort through the mess. There are the farming regulations that make life complicated for local hog producers. There’s the endless stack of paperwork and the seven-day delays required to complete a mortgage. There’s the new law that requires bankers who deal with mortgages to undergo background checks and fingerprinting. “I pressed down one finger real hard,” Lazar says.

And now, in the heat of the election, there are the incessant presidential campaign calls to his home that have forced him to disconnect the land line.

“I’m sick of it,” he says.

So rather than think about the problems in Washington, D.C., and the rest of the country, he focuses on the occasional problem in his Washington. Late in the afternoon, the owner of a local tanning salon arrives at his office in black sweats and a jacket, looking frazzled. She calls him “Uncle Keith” because he offered her financial advice when she was opening her shop on the square. Now she explains that she is short on her mortgage payment for a rental property. Her renter moved out with no notice and left without paying.

“What can I do?” she asks. “I’m in trouble.”

Lazar looks back at her and considers his options. There are a number of ways a banker can handle defaults, and Lazar has tried most of them. Early in his career, when a customer lost his daughter to cancer, started drinking too much and defaulted on his farming loan, Lazar went to the property with a sheriff and hauled away 25 cattle and 365 hogs. It took about seven trips, and the farmer watched from his porch and threatened to go inside for a shotgun. Lazar saw him in his dreams for weeks. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” he decided then. Ever since, he has tried to restructure loans and defer payments to help customers avoid defaults.

Optimism. Trust. Kindness. Those are the values in his Washington. Those are the tenets that ensure life is good.

He looks across his desk at the owner of the tanning salon. There might be big problems elsewhere, but this isn’t one. “Just skip the payment this month and you’ll make an extra payment at the end of your loan,” he says.

“Can it be that easy?” she asks.

“It can be,” he says.

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