Battle for Heartland Starts at Gas Pump
By David Finkel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 23, 2004; Page A01
STURTEVANT, Wis. -- In the last days of gasoline that costs less than $2 a gallon, a 1995 Plymouth Neon and a 1993 Ford Ranger pickup truck are making their way toward the gas pumps in front of the Village Food and Liquor Mart, where the price of regular gas is moments away from jumping from $1.939 to $1.999.
The Ranger has one person inside, a recently divorced man who is on his way to a restaurant for a dinner of liver and onions. The Neon has four people inside, two of whom are small children drowsy from a long afternoon drive.
The man in the Ranger, whose wife walked out on him 18 months before, will be dining alone as he tries to bring steadiness to an off-balance life. The two adults in the Neon, a man of 20 and a woman of 19, are adjusting to some lopsidedness as well, in their case the fact that life has so quickly come to mean an aging Neon with tension in the front seat, children in the back and hardening french fries in between.
From separate directions, they head for a gas station in a village where the difference between George W. Bush and Al Gore in the 2000 election was nine votes. The village is in Racine County, where Bush beat Gore by fewer than 2,500 votes, and the county is in a state where Gore's overall margin of victory was 5,708 votes, a mere 0.2 percent. Four years later, with another presidential election underway, Wisconsin has become a pivotal swing state, Racine will play a central role in determining Wisconsin, and Sturtevant -- Gore 894, Bush 885 -- is a perfect indicator of the split heart of Racine.
All of which is why the arrival of two cars at a gas station late on a mid-May afternoon is a significant event.
Both contain voters who have been affected by the record-high price of gas.
The man in one car doesn't blame Bush for this.
The man in the other car does.
'Paycheck to Paycheck'
What is the political price of a gallon of gasoline? In Sturtevant, population 5,300, the answer can be heard in the quick whistles of people as the cost of a gas purchase spins past $35. No one filling up this day at the Village Mart, or the Shell and Marathon Oil stations across the street, says their vote for president will be based solely on gasoline. But factor the price of a fill-up into what has happened to the economy in Racine County since Election Day 2000, and the price becomes more important. The unemployment rate has almost doubled from 4.1 percent to 8 percent, and 4,800 fewer people are working. Four thousand of those losses have been in manufacturing, part of 86,000 such jobs lost statewide. So when someone exhales a whistle, it's a sound that has some resonance.
In comes the Plymouth Neon. Dena Stich, the 19-year-old girlfriend and mother, drives up to the pumps, and Shawn Poquette, the 20-year-old boyfriend, father, political conservative, Republican and solid Bush vote, gets out. "With the Neon, it's not horribly bad," he says. He swipes a debit card, squeezes the handle and watches the numbers fly.
The place he and Stich live with their two children, 15-month-old Dakotah and 10-week-old Haydyn, is just around the corner. In Sturtevant, nothing is more than a five-minute drive away. The prison on the north end of the village. The stores on the east end. The industrial park to the west where a Golden Books printing plant shut down in 1999 and became Artech Printing, which went bankrupt in 2001 and became Bombardier Recreational Products, which makes gasoline-powered outboard motors for boats. And the houses and apartments to the south, including a claustrophobic, 800-square-foot apartment that Poquette and Stich want to get out of as soon as they can.
The air conditioner barely works. The heat isn't much better. The furniture, what there is of it, is more borrowed than new. The clothes are a mix of discounts and hand-me-downs. The groceries are generics, down to the frozen waffles. "It's pretty much paycheck to paycheck," Poquette says of how things are going, but he doesn't say it as a complaint. One of the traits he admires in Bush, he says, is that Bush seems a self-made man, independent rather than reliant, and that's how Poquette sees himself, too: someone who wants nothing to do with public assistance of any sort, even though his family's income, while above poverty level by several thousand dollars, is the income of the working poor.
He is a broadband cable installer who makes $11.86 an hour. For a while Stich worked as a cashier until they subtracted taxes and day care costs and realized that her $7 an hour was netting about 45 cents. So $11.86 an hour is what supports a family of four, a rate at which 44 hours of work pays the rent, nine hours pays for the utilities, five hours pays for a few days of groceries, and, as of this day, two hours pays for one tank of gas.
For which Poquette blames nobody.
"I think it's high," Poquette says of the price, "but I don't see how anybody can blame one person."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Dena Stich, with daughter Dakotah, and Shawn Poquette rely on his salary to cover necessities for their family of four.
(Photos David Finkel -- The Washington Post)