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Politics at the Five-and-Dime
Where Pennies Matter, Change Is a Powerful Idea

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."

But on most days she's sure. "I'm 55 years old. I don't like the way the world is going."

For every Obama believer swept up in a sea of "Change" bumper stickers, there are others who are tentative, whose slow gravitation is nothing short of a radical act.

* * *

The conversion is not shared across her family.

There's Sherry. "She said she doesn't like the way Obama was raised and the whole business with his church," Fleck says. "She was talking about his religion. Something about his stepbrother, who lives wherever. This is stuff that I didn't know about."

And there's the man she has been dating for the last few years, who works on prototype cars for Ford. "He's not real happy about Obama being black," Fleck says. "I said to him, 'Close your eyes and what do you see?' " But it is an impossible sell.

Until a week ago, Oakland County in suburban Detroit, where Fleck lives, was called the battleground of the battleground for the 2008 election: a must-win county in a must-win state. A mix of astonishing affluence, blue-collar workers, new immigrants from India and Japan, townships with 20 percent Jewish populations and a growing African American middle class, Oakland is known for its independent and swing voters. For that reason, McCain based his Great Lakes Regional Headquarters (Michigan, Wisconsin and Indiana) in Oakland, and Obama positioned seven of his 49 state offices here.

Then came the economic apocalypse, and almost overnight the race no longer seemed close. Last week's polls showed Obama pulling ahead by nine points; McCain decided to suspend campaign operations in Michigan to focus efforts elsewhere. If Michigan is any kind of barometer for Ohio and Pennsylvania -- both crucial states in the struggling Rust Belt and replete with blue-collar workers and union retirees -- the transcendent issue of the economy could nudge tentative Democrats toward Obama. But not all.

Clayton Taylor is a 26-year-old Democrat who lives in Oakland County's working-class section of Troy. He supports abortion rights and loved Hillary Clinton but will not vote for Obama. He worries about the candidate's lack of experience and that he'll promote welfare. "He's gonna give too much away," said Thomas, outside fixing his porch. "There are a lot of people who will sit back and take it. He tries to be too 'We the People,' like he's an average Joe. He's hiding some beliefs."

From bowling alleys to bars, the economy dominates all corners of public discussion. Not the war, though Michigan has suffered 165 deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan. Not abortion, not same-sex marriage, not national security, not terrorism. The economy.

A sign in front of a dental clinic advertises "Free Gas Card with Teeth Cleaning or X-Ray." A radio ad urges listeners to take advantage of the opportunity-rich foreclosure market -- "Order your 'Flip and Grow Rich' CD now!" Obama lands a populist punch with a TV ad showing McCain pledging his loyalty to American cars before an ominous voice-over comes on saying that the Republican senator owns 13 vehicles, including three foreign-made cars. The anxiety reaches the rolling emerald lawns up in Birmingham, where layoffs and job losses from the auto industry have started hitting executives and engineers.

But in Birmingham, there is still osso buco, and cases of new fall pinots are stocked at Papa Joe's Gourmet Market. At the Dollar General store where Fleck works, the anxiety is on naked display.

"I watch the elderly people come in and ask how much something is," Fleck says. "You see them counting their money. Here they are putting back a can of tuna fish or some cookies, and you know that's their treat. And I'll say, 'Don't worry about it, I got it.' I'm not supposed to do that. But in the back of my mind I'm thinking: Is that tuna fish what they are going to eat for the day or for the week?"

From her vantage point of Dollar General, amid the Apple Jacks and tube socks and scratchy Made in China toddler suits and cans of cling peaches and bottles of Motrin (kept up front to prevent theft), she sees it all.

"I'm not gonna lie about it," she says. "Some people come in with their food stamp cards, dressed to the hilt and gold chains hanging off them and their hair and nails done. I'm thinking: What's wrong with this picture?"

She believes immigrants should learn English. "I have no problem with someone coming to America, but don't you want to be 100 percent of it?"

Not only does she drive strictly American, she drives a Ford Taurus because a large number of its parts are manufactured in the United States.

She grudgingly supports abortion rights but thinks that "women's lib and all of these working mothers" are short-changing their children.

Fleck lives in the Flamingo Court trailer park in Farmington Hills at the south end of Oakland County. Her mobile home is spacious, decorated with curtain valances and matching towel sets and a candy dish. Before Flamingo Court, Fleck was married for 31 years. Three kids. Her husband -- her junior high school sweetheart -- worked as a millwright (an industrial maintenance mechanic) with the Big Three automakers and brought home between $1,000 and $3,000 a week with his union card.

Good money and a decent life were built on sweat, then the marriage ended. A photo album on Fleck's coffee table shows pictures from the birth of her recent grandchild, and everyone is crowded into the hospital room -- Fleck, her ex, their three grown kids, spouses and grandkids. Some things have held.

Others have not. Both of her sons are millwrights, but the work has gone overseas. They wait for the union hall to call with jobs, and they sometimes draw unemployment. Last month, Fleck's ex-husband lost his house to foreclosure.

Fleck treats her own job as if she were a mid-level executive. Her phone rings on her day off with calls from work. She tosses and turns over tasks left undone. Her conscientious habits have not gone unnoticed.

Two years ago, on her fourth year at Dollar General, the store manager came to her with a proposal.

"What would it take for you to be an assistant manager?" he asked.

"I said, '$9.25 an hour,' " Fleck says. "He said, 'We can't do that, but we can do $9 an hour.' "

She takes home $300 a week. Dollar General provides her health plan, and she pays in $42 a week for it. She drives her Taurus four miles to work, but because of gas prices, no more aimless drives. To help with expenses, she rents out a spare bedroom of her mobile home.

So when a candidate comes along and uses the word "change," she is receptive, even if his name is Barack Hussein Obama. "A part of me thinks that, and I hate to say this, that because he is black -- or partly black -- and then struggling to get to higher places in life, maybe he will say, 'I know what you are going through,' " Fleck says.

* * *

Forty-one days before the election, she wakes up and puts on make-up, has a cup of coffee and then vacuums. On the drive to work, she passes an old ranch house with a "Veterans for McCain" sign in the yard. Moving through the more upscale section of Southfield, she notices an Obama sign in front of a gated mansion and wonders who lives there. The Dollar General sits in the corner of a concrete plaza in Southfield. Fleck works the register, restocks and rides herd over the part-time employees who work the aisles of discount life. The customers are mostly working-class and African American.

Fleck was at the register recently when two female customers picked up a copy of the Globe tabloid with the headline "SARAH PALIN SEX SCANDAL: the lies, the baby secret, the raunchy photos." One of the women said to the other that if a black candidate's 17-year-old daughter were pregnant, America wouldn't be so charitable. Fleck glared at the customers but kept ringing them up. "If I said something like that in front of a black person, do you think I'd get away with it?" she later asked. If she was willing to put race aside, why couldn't they?

There is a donation jar at the register for a literacy fund and Fleck notices how even the poorest customers put a few coins in. She worries about them. "Prices have gone up more in the last six months than the entire six years I've worked there, " she says. "I'm so glad my kids are grown." She takes her lunch hour in her car. Walking out to the scrappy parking lot, she sits in her Taurus with a bag of chips and uses the time to think. "Once in a great while I'll go to Subway," she says.

On the night a truck brings a delivery, she arrives at 8 and doesn't stop moving till past midnight. "No matter if you're male or female, 20 or 60, it has to get done," she says.

The next morning, she's at home when her store manager calls. The manager suspects an employee stole a bottle of green tea while unloading the truck because she found the empty bottle. The conversation about the missing green tea goes on for 10 minutes. Finally she hangs up and shakes her head. "As manager, she is accountable for everything," Fleck says. "I feel for her."

Recently, and somewhat tentatively, she asked her manager whom she was voting for.

"Uh-oh, I don't want to start a war here," the manager said, according to Fleck. "Who are you voting for?"

Obama, Fleck said.

So am I, the manager said.

Her drive between work and home takes her past the campaign signs again.

In the ranch house with the "Veterans for McCain" sign is Donnalee Eirschele, age 57, a former public school custodian on disability: "I'm a conservative. I don't like Obama's ideas. He's going to run our economy into the ground. Obama is more for giving money to poor people, like the ones on welfare."

At the modern split-level house with the Obama sign: Derek Forney, age 40, an account manager for a benefits company. "What Bush and his party have failed to deliver on is inclusiveness," says Forney, an evangelical Christian who voted for Bush in 2000 and 2004. "I'm very interested in bringing people together. I have a young daughter. I don't want her to grow up in a divided country."

* * *

On her day off, Fleck visits her month-old granddaughter. "Hello!" she says, dropping her purse as she walks through the door of her daughter's house and rushes for the baby girl named Ireland.

"Here you go, Mom," says Nicole Patterson, 29, handing over the infant. Fleck comes to life: smiling and cooing and miles away from the missing bottle of green tea. Her 31-year-old son, Kelly, is also here. The union called him with a three-day job starting the next day. "All jobs are good," he says. "They just don't last long."

The big dilemma is that Nicole's company just told her that she can't come back part-time after the baby -- it has to be full-time. "The way Michigan is now, my boss is leaning on me," Nicole says. Her husband's job as an auto-body technician at Chrysler has slowed to nothing. Kelly gives his familiar refrain: "Stop outsourcing jobs." He won't vote in November, disillusioned by the vote-count fiasco in Florida in 2000.

Nicole, a Democrat, is leaning toward Obama. "When he speaks, it's almost inspirational and promising."

Kelly laughs. "As long as he doesn't pull some ghetto-fabulous [expletive], like they did in Detroit," he says, referring to Kwame Kilpatrick, the former Detroit mayor brought down by scandal this year.

Nicole tells her mother that Aunt Sherry has been working on her, too. "Aunt Sherry said, 'You gotta drop with the Democrat and Republican stuff.' And I said, 'You are gonna have to drop the race and Muslim thing.' "

"She is very passionate," Fleck says of her sister. "She has strong feelings. You hear so many things, it's hard to believe what's true."

Nicole lifts up Ireland and kisses her. "I guess my big downfall is that I'm overly optimistic," she says. "I have to be. Look what's in front of me. If you don't have hope that things will get better, what's the point? God, if you don't have hope, you don't have nothin'."

The day is warm and they go outside to sit in the back yard. A deer statue stands in the grass. A grill. A garage full of tools. Fleck tells her kids that Dollar General wants her to move to another store. Nicole wishes her mother could stay home and watch the baby, but Fleck explains that she can't go without health insurance.

"I hate her job," she says. "They take advantage of her."

Fleck's voice is soft. "I put my heart and soul into it."

She drives home, past campaign signs and foreclosure signs. "One way or another, something is going to work out for us," she says.

Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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