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Politics at the Five-and-Dime

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By Anne Hull
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 5, 2008

FARMINGTON HILLS, Mich. -- Pam Fleck has just finished vacuuming and scrubbing her mobile home into potpourri perfection when her phone rings and it's her sister, Sherry. Sherry lives over in Brighton. She drives a school bus, likes to hunt and votes Republican.

"Hi," says Fleck, an assistant manager at a Dollar General store. Her mind is on the 18-wheel delivery truck she'll have to unload at work later that night. Lifting cases of bleach take its toll at the age of 55.

Sherry is on the phone talking politics, trying one more time to talk sense into her sister. Anyone who votes for Barack Obama will not be welcome in her house -- a joke, but Fleck knows exactly where her younger sister stands. She takes a sip of coffee.

"Yeah, I'm still listening," she says.

If Obama gets in, Sherry says, he will take away everyone's guns and control what roads they can and cannot drive on.

Fleck interrupts. "We are not going to be able to afford any guns to shoot or cars to drive on the roads if things don't change, Sherry, honest to God."

With no pension and sore legs from seven-hour shifts at Dollar General, Fleck is what political pollsters classify as "working-class," "blue-collar" or a "disaffected Democrat." She is white, skipped college for motherhood and considers herself a Democrat but did not vote in the last two presidential elections because both Al Gore and John Kerry left her cold.

Fleck is exactly the kind of voter that Obama needs to win in November but has struggled to persuade. She's ready to roll the dice.

To understand why -- and to understand Obama's widening lead over McCain in a crucial state -- is to see an American worker pushed to desperation. A Wall Street bailout for $700 billion dollars? After six years at Dollar General, Fleck earns $10.35 and hour and receives an annual raise of 25 cents. She gave up Fantastic Sams and now cuts her hair over the sink in the bathroom.

Michigan is in its eighth year of a ransacked economy that has lost 322,000 manufacturing jobs in this time. The state's unemployment rate is 8.9 percent, the highest in the nation. The Pew Charitable Trust is predicting that one of every 36 homes in Michigan will fall under foreclosure by next year. The evidence is everywhere. Fleck's son tells her that poachers are stripping metal and copper from abandoned houses. The family living next to her sister lost their home, leaving behind a deep freezer full of meat that began to rot and gas the neighborhood.

Fleck grabs her pack of Misty cigarettes and goes out to sit in the warm sun of a late-breaking autumn. "You don't have to have a college degree to see what's going on," she says.

The situation calls for a leap of faith. "Maybe he'll really make a go of it," she says of Obama. "Maybe he'll say, 'Look past me and see what I do.' " Sometimes Fleck wavers, and this fragile commitment suggests the candidate's path to the White House is far from certain. "They keep saying we need a change," she says. "Well, this is definitely going to be a change. He's young and he's black."


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