The police, firefighters and construction workers who filled the Laurel Hills Elementary School gymnasium were in no mood for a polite discussion. "I moved here to get away from the thugs and the drugs," shouted Greg Pugh, a 43-year-old mechanic who was on his feet throughout the 90-minute meeting.
The Kansas City Housing Authority, acting under orders from the federal courts and the Housing and Urban Development Department, had purchased a tract of land to build a 30-unit public housing project in this working-class community. In doing so, it added new strength to the political realignment of this section of Raytown: converting traditionally Democratic voters into anti-government Republicans.
"I just might vote Republican," said Jeff Thoms, a 42-year-old captain in the Kansas City Fire Department. "Democrats favor the union," he said, but "basically the Democrats are pushing this before the election because they might not get back in. They kind of turned their back on us."
The housing dispute has the potential to become a classic wedge issue, mobilizing a white, working and predominantly blue-collar constituency known as the "silent majority" in the '70s and as "Reagan Democrats" in the '80s on the basis of race, crime and neighborhood erosion.
Just over the border in Kansas, Democrats have the potential to revive a different wedge issue whose roots are as deep as race and crime: the threat of religious groups insisting their views be adopted as public policy.
Normally Republican suburban voters, many drawn to the area by the growth of high-tech jobs powered by Sprint's headquarters 10 miles from here, are fearful that religious right control of the state school board would result in downgrading evolution as part of science teaching and elevating creationism. These voters are crucial to the future of freshman Rep. Dennis Moore, the first Democrat elected to the House from the district in more than 40 years.
The public housing and creationism controversies are examples of how issues that don't show up on the radar of national pollsters can profoundly affect politics.
At the meeting here, angry murmurs filled the gym when Raytown City Councilwoman Beckey Nace said that federal regulations and court orders prohibited placing the "scattered site" public housing downtown in majority black areas. The anger increased when Nace said that not only was the housing authority prohibited from building in the poor, minority areas, but that the upscale parts of town were also off limits because of cost. "Are we going to purchase a $250,000 home for a public housing site?" Nace asked.
In this section of Raytown, the scattered-site public housing project--part of a much larger effort to put 276 public housing units in white, working-class communities within city boundaries--is testing the frayed Democratic loyalties of these union households.
"Tree huggers, liberals. All they want to do is make everything a social program, make the government bigger and bigger," said Glen Kay, 29, a J.C. Penney warehouse worker whose wife is pregnant with their first child. "They [Democrats] figure they can take the money from us hard-working people and lay it in front of these people who don't have as much as we do and say, 'See what I can give you and vote for us and we'll take more money from them and we'll get you where they are.' "
While the scattered-site program and the loss of accreditation for the Kansas City, Mo., schools for failing to meet state standards are pushing voters to the right, the creationism debate next door in Kansas has the potential to move voters toward the Democratic Party.
Brian Luke, 31, a manager at Sprint headquarters, sees himself as a Republican, but he said he "could vote for [Al] Gore or [Bill] Bradley." Luke, the father of two children, "studied a lot of biology" and "evolution is very basic to science. I don't see any reason we would want to keep that information out."
Vince McCullough, a 39-year-old air traffic controller, father of three sons and a religious man, said he is unlikely to abandon his GOP loyalties. But the creationism controversy is disturbing to him, especially with one of his sons indicating an interest in a career in science. "I wouldn't want the kids' chances damaged just because of what the state decides."
For Democrats seeking the votes of well-educated suburbanites in areas of high-tech growth, the creationism controversy is an ideal wedge issue: It unites Democrats and independents while pitting the moderate, centrist wing of the GOP against the religious right activists. In Kansas, that Republican split has been severe in recent years, allowing Moore to win in 1998.
As the 2000 election nears, a key test of the two parties will be whether each can push the wedge issues that work to their benefit to the center of the debate and marginalize those that are damaging.