Politics & Government

Money issues drive Wichita-area voters

Student debt is a critical issue for Jorge Rodriguez, who plans to vote in the upcoming presidential election.
Student debt is a critical issue for Jorge Rodriguez, who plans to vote in the upcoming presidential election. The Wichita Eagle

Illegal immigrants. College debt. Trade deals. Income inequality. Lost jobs. A shrinking safety net.

People worry about economic issues a lot, even with low unemployment and rising wages. Time and again people name the economy as their top issue.

But their beliefs don’t always line up neatly into Democrat or Republican. Often, they say, they have to accept something they dislike to get something they like.

Over the past week, some south-central Kansans talked about those tradeoffs.

Kelli Lamar, who works at Kohl’s in Wichita, said she’s got strong feelings about the election, but not strictly partisan ones. She calls both candidates “pathetic.”

“Trump is a misogynist, womanizer type,” she said last weekend while attending the Haysville Fall Festival with her two daughters. “He is intelligent concerning business, but at the same time he’s gone into bankruptcy so many times I just don’t think he’s qualified. He’s arrogant and narcissistic. But she’s a criminal. She’s also narcissistic. And she has had plenty of opportunity and I don’t like her whatsoever.”

Although Lamar said she feels poorer now than she ever has, she’s conservative and objects to the government giving money to the poor or mandating a minimum wage increase because it will undermine their desire to rise. Torn as she is, she said she’ll probably write in Ben Carson’s name.

Others are less conflicted about Trump.

Lindsey Hostetler of Wichita was a stay-at-home mom for a decade before deciding to return to school to become a teacher. She will start student teaching in January. Hostetler said she likes Donald Trump, both his policies and his persona.

“I like that he’s a fighter,” Hostetler said. “I like that he tells it how it is. I like that he’s not a politician. I like that he’s going to lower my taxes. I like that he’s going to hold the government accountable, so I like his recent proposals of term limits and the lobbying ban.”

“I want to build the wall,” she said, “and lowering the taxes and closing the corporate loopholes — although even he’s admitted that he’s taken advantage of them. And, if he could bring our jobs back.”

Kelly Kennedy, a technology teacher and swimming coach in the Haysville Schools, is a registered Republican and will likely vote for Trump. He’s not very political, he said, but he does agree with Trump that the U.S. doesn’t always get a fair shake from other countries on trade deals.

“People say Trump is gruff and brash, but I don’t think anybody will walk away from talking to Trump and say ‘I wonder what he meant by that.’ Kennedy said. “He pretty much tells it flat out like it is. Maybe that is what we need to turn our country back around. Somebody that’s not going to be afraid, who won’t back down to other powers.”

2016 really is different

For most of the last 25 years, Democrats and Republicans argued over a handful of economic questions: Taxes and who has to pay how much? Is the budget too big? Is the deficit too big?

Today, though, the range of economic issues being talked about seem much broader.

Clinton calls for raising taxes on the wealthy and closing corporate tax loopholes in order to pay for paid family leave, a higher minimum wage, spending on infrastructure, college education, child care, alternative energy and more. She says that the tax increases will equal the increased spending, so they will not accelerate the growth of the federal debt.

Trump seeks to cut taxes deeply for every income level, which he said would accelerate growth from 1-2 percent now to 3.5-4 percent. He also plans to cut regulation; scrap or renegotiate trade deals; encourage domestic oil, gas and coal production; and cut non-defense/non-safety net programs by 1 percent a year for 10 years. Independent analysts say Trump’s plan will add about $5 trillion to the debt over the next decade, although Trump has said the increased economic growth will mitigate that.

Trump also, famously, wants to build a wall to keep out illegal immigrants.

Russell Fox, a professor of political science at Friends University, said that until this election there was some fairly tight agreement between the two parties’ elites.

“After the Cold War there was a huge amount of consensus for around the last 25 years,” Fox said. “Democrats were in favor of free trade, globalization and fiscal stability and the Republicans were in favor of free trade, globalization and fiscal stability.”

Bill Clinton was one of the foremost practitioners of this consensus, fostering a strong economy because it provided money for social programs.

Today, as the parties have seen splits along class lines, the issues seem different, but are no less about the people’s economic situation, Fox said.

Immigration is a social issue about national identity, he said, but it’s also about economic fairness and competition for jobs. Trade is also about economic fairness and competition for jobs. Criticism of Trump’s attitudes toward women is a social and cultural issue, but it also reflects anger at the difficulties women have had in achieving equality in the workplace.

“The economy has been very much discussed in this election,” Fox said, “just not so much in the sort of agreed-upon fiscal priorities that Democrats and Republicans have argued about for 25 years.”

Three Millennials

At another event a few days later, the key issues are starkly different than they were for people at the Haysville festival.

A group of 30 or 40 people gathered on the lawn of the Old Sedgwick County Courthouse for Vote Mob, an event for people to hang out, listen to music and raise awareness for voting.

For three millennials attending the event, student debt is a critical issue.

Jorge Rodriguez, who recently graduated with a degree in biomedical engineering, said he was already pretty liberal and will vote for Clinton. But he added that his situation does inform his thinking.

He’s applying for jobs but expects he probably will have to leave town to find work in his field. He has $30,000 in student debt.

He would love to see Clinton make some headway in relieving student debt, as well as generally building a better tomorrow.

“I’m looking at what I’m potentially earning in the future,” he said. “What are my needs in the near future? What are my needs right now?”

His two friends said they will probably vote for Clinton.

Alex Clayton, 29, who works in IT for Sedgwick County, said he is optimistic for the most part but that his student loans are cramping his future.

“They’re kind of kicking my butt right now,” he said. “It’s a major frustration for me.”

He’s making the payments, so he feels OK about it. But he expects to have to wait until his mid-30s at least to consider buying a house. He can’t have a dog where he rents.

“There are plenty of students who take out student loans, and they can’t find employment right out of college and ‘Oh, what do you know, they have, at best, $40,000 in debt and they’re screwed,’” Clayton said. “That’s a problem.”

Then he looked at his friend, Abram Howell, who sounded a little despairing when he talked about his situation.

He’s got $60,000 in debt for a fine arts degree in painting. He’s a part-time instructor at Pinot’s Palette, where customers can paint and drink wine.

“So, I’m one of those doomed ones you were talking about,” he said.

He’s living paycheck to paycheck from his art career, he said, and expects to have to switch to some other job. He doesn’t know what that would be.

Howell said he takes full responsibility for his situation based on the choices he’s made. But still, it’s difficult looking into the future.

How would Howell describe his life?

“Anxious,” he said. “It’s an anxiety that I’ve almost taken for granted, like I can’t imagine it not being there.”

Torn

And then there’s Connie Zienkewicz, who wasn’t at either gathering.

She’s torn between economic concerns and her social beliefs. She is strongly pro-life, a belief made stronger by the birth and raising of her daughter, who has multiple disabilities and is now an adult.

She is also executive director of Families Together, a nonprofit group that helps parents with disabled children navigate the complex federal and state safety net. She feels deeply the distress caused when government retreats on its commitment to programs that help these families.

“I’ve really seen the economic crisis in Kansas impact the families that we serve,” Zienkewicz said.

Clinton has said she understands the difficulties faced by families of children with disabilities. She talks about her record in helping them and promises to pursue tax relief for them and expand support for the Americans with Disabilities Act and for their children to live independently as adults.

Trump talks more generally about tax-free dependent care savings accounts for children and the elderly, and a marketplace for family and community-based solutions.

There’s a lot more detail and knowledge on the Clinton side, she said. But, she said, she feels she must go with her conscience and vote for Trump because of his pro-life position.

But the choice leaves her unhappy.

“I’d say I’m anxious, and probably leaning toward pessimistic,” she said. “I’m not sure about either candidate. There are questions about both of them.”

Dan Voorhis: 316-268-6577, @danvoorhis

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