Gray Vote No Longer Reliably Red

By Anne Hull
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 15, 2008

SUN CITY CENTER, Fla. -- The sign over the woodworking shop says "Sawdust Engineers," and there was a time when the men now bent over the tools used to put on ties or make sales calls, building their pensions so they could one day leave the rat race for this warm world of unbroken sunshine.

"Retirement is the best!" says Jerry Decker, 73, one of the Sawdust Engineers tinkering in the wood shop at this over-55 retirement community of 19,000 residents outside Tampa.

But the tranquillity of palm trees and wine gatherings that sustained Decker's dreams all those years in the snow has been upended by the financial crisis. Even here in paradise, nothing is for sure anymore.

"Who isn't afraid of getting a 'Dear John' letter from GM saying your pension is in danger?" he asks. "You look at all these companies and what they are doing. We worked so hard to put them first, and it's just not right for them to be reneging."

The other men share the outrage, spitting out the names of corporations and their golden parachutes and lavish indulgences.

"I wasn't invited to the AIG spa weekend, were you?" one asks aloud. "You didn't get the manicure?" another asks.

"If we ran a household like they ran their company, you'd be bankrupt in five months."

The Sawdust Engineers should be an easy sweep for Republican presidential nominee John McCain. All five are Korean War veterans and registered Republicans. George W. Bush nailed every one of their votes. But three weeks before the election, only three of them are supporting McCain.

Sun City Center is in the hard-fought electoral quadrant in Florida known as the I-4 corridor, home to 43 percent of the state's voters. The Republican Party has always counted on the retirees here to deliver in bulk, but this year a more severe calculation is at play. To win Florida, McCain needs to capture a bigger slice of older voters than President Bush won in 2004 to offset the high numbers of young voters supporting Democratic Sen. Barack Obama.

"I'm ready for a change," says Ed Bearer, a retired public school teacher from Delaware who recently received a letter saying his wife's medical expenses may no longer be covered under his pension plan. "McCain turns me off. I can't explain it," he says. He's voting for Obama.

That leaves Jerry Decker. Last week, during the second presidential debate, Decker kept waiting for McCain to come out swinging. "What he should have said was 'We're going to prosecute AIG to the fullest extent,' " Decker says. Instead, only vague promises to clean up corruption.

It's easy to see why Decker wants more heat from a candidate when his own steady discipline is compared with the reckless indulgence of Wall Street. For years, Decker brown-bagged his lunch, even when he went over to the corporate tower as a director of human resources for Formica Corp. His wife, Jeannie, was his barber. The Deckers had one son and the family lived fully but frugally: They were the ones on the side of the ski mountain with their lunch and cans of soda packed from home. Jeannie watched the budget, and for more than two decades she gave her husband $25 each Friday for his weekly spending money.

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