COLUMN ONE : Tax Hike’s Blue-Collar Acid Test : People in San Bernardino union halls and unemployment lines chew over the call to sacrifice. Many voters are open-minded but want fairness and a payoff.
Harold Holladay, a lifelong working man in a lifeless job market, can tell you right off what he thinks of President Clinton’s plan to hike taxes.
But the answer might seem surprising. After all, he only scratched out six months of work last year as a pipefitter. And most tax money, he feels, goes “down the tube” for things like studying how ketchup oozes its way out of a bottle.
“I’ll bite the bullet,” said Holladay, 57, wearing a white-corduroy union cap. “I voted for the man. I’d like to see some results.”
At Rotary Club luncheons and union gatherings, in barbers’ chairs and on the unemployment line, Holladay and other Americans are talking about their new President’s plan to repair the economy, with many expressing their support.
The initial rush of approval for Clinton dramatizes a fact often lost in all the agonizing about America’s political problems: People are a lot more complicated than the stereotypes often portrayed in the media.
In contrast to the knee-jerk reactions of Washington pundits, voters often appear surprisingly patient, willing to weigh today’s costs against tomorrow’s benefits. And higher taxes, while a taboo among many politicians, aren’t ruled out of hand by the public, although they clearly expect something in return.
Indeed, a recent visit to this inland city of 164,000--a largely blue-collar place hammered by recession and threatened by defense cuts--found that many residents approach Clinton’s call to sacrifice with an open mind.
At the same time, people typically demand that Clinton’s program meet the acid test proclaimed by the President himself: Burdens should be fairly distributed, and the reward must be a better future.
“I’ll back him--I’m not bad-mouthing it--if he does what he says he’s going to do,” vows Holladay, who views himself as conservative “except when they start messing with the working man.”
Certainly, Clinton’s proposals have sparked spirited opposition, especially from those who will feel the pinch the most.
In a large flower shop on busy East Highland Avenue, Robert Hilton worries that higher energy taxes could hit his business hard. The florist keeps more than 1,000 square feet of refrigeration and figures that his costs could go up $120 a month--12 times the burden of an average household.
“It seems like the economy is just starting to pick up,” said Hilton, 39, wearing a green smock and surrounded by displays of pink and red roses. “If Clinton ramrods all this through, it’s going to go downhill again.”
Across town at Alice’s Restaurant, an unpretentious eatery that caters to a local lunch crowd, waitress Lori Pike believes Clinton should try to cut government waste instead of hiking taxes for working people. “Locally, I know people who work for the government that don’t even know what they do,” said Pike, 30, a soft-spoken mother of two.
She adds one disclaimer, though: “If they could prove they’d be willing to cut out waste, then I’d be willing to pay more.”
Public opinion surveys, including a new Los Angeles Times Poll, show that for all their questions, most Americans are giving Clinton the benefit of the doubt. Their support isn’t just a matter of party affiliation, ideology or any other narrow label that political professionals might use to categorize the public, said John J. Pitney Jr., a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College.
Rather, people believe Clinton is making a good-faith effort to get things done.
“Elites tend to think in terms of liberal and conservative,” Pitney said, referring to political leaders, the media and other insiders. “Ordinary voters tend to think in terms of real and fake.”
Sharon Strickland is hoping Clinton delivers something real. She is a secretary with the electrical workers’ local, whose members are suffering unemployment in the range of 30%. Her husband drives a truck, sometimes hauling computers up to Northern California in round trips of more than 1,000 miles.
They both lost previous jobs during the recession. And while their household finances are much better now--with a combined income last year of more than $65,000--Strickland, 34, worries about the future that awaits her teen-age son and 2-year-old girl.
“You can’t go in the President’s head and know what he’s going to do, but I believe he’s trying to be honest and fair,” said Strickland, a Democrat who confesses she once voted for Ronald Reagan. She added, of Clinton’s plan: “If it’s going to reduce the deficit, then I’m in favor of it--or there won’t be anything left for our children and our children’s children.”
Worries about the future are common in San Bernardino, a hodgepodge of factories, service industries and suburbia that has sprawled through once-pristine farmland and rustic hillsides.
In recent years, the region has suffered the loss of major employers, such as Kaiser Steel and Santa Fe Railway, which had operated a major rail center. Currently, it is braced for the closure of Norton Air Force Base and a potential sacrifice of 11,000 jobs.
Otherwise, the problems are typical of Southern California: unemployment in the 10% range, an excess of commercial real estate and troubling questions about the future of an economy that once seemed to have no limits.
Holladay’s father, for example, helped build the big Kaiser Steel factory in nearby Fontana that provided thousands of high-paying blue-collar jobs to local residents before it shut down in the early 1980s. The son found plenty of pipefitting work as San Bernardino boomed in past decades.
Today, he owns a 1,600-square-foot home and devotes time to his hobby of car racing. He even bought and maintains the off-road race car now used by his 18-year-old grandson.
“Over the years we were able to accumulate,” said Holladay. “Today, the young people who do the same thing I did are barely able to get by.”
From a somewhat wealthier perch, George H. Schnarre also has seen the peaks and valleys in San Bernardino. He is an energetic, friendly man of 61 whose business once included an escrow company, commercial realty and mortgage firm, employing 350 people.
More recently, the Missouri native has chosen to cut back and sticks to selling houses with just 13 employees. He has doubts, however, whether Clinton is coming up with the right medicine for the ailing economy.
Higher energy taxes, he fears, could raise the cost of driving--and lower the appeal of living in San Bernardino, where many workers endure grueling commutes of 90 minutes or even longer in return for cheap housing.
“They might say, ‘I’d be better off living closer to work,’ ” he said. As a businessman, Schnarre also questions the wisdom of Clinton’s plans to hike taxes for corporations and the well-to-do.
Yet for all the criticisms, Schnarre said he shared the view of other business people at a recent Rotary Club luncheon: They might be able to support the President’s plan if Clinton proves that his new taxes will help cut the deficit and not just be gobbled up by government-as-usual.
“I don’t think anyone will deny Clinton his program if he lays it out in cement,” said Schnarre, a Republican. “But don’t do it without telling me where the money is going to go.”
How people view where the money goes may well prove the key to whether they ultimately stand by Clinton’s proposals, maintains Pitney, the political scientist. For now, many Americans accept the President’s contention that his overall plan is a genuine strategy to fighting the budget deficit and setting the stage for a more prosperous future.
“But if they start to believe his numbers are funny, if they perceive that he’s faked them out, he’s going to be in deep trouble,” Pitney said.
At Local 477 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, where the parking lot offers spaces “for American-made vehicles only,” a group of tradesmen sounded receptive.
For them, a group battered by the economy, there was little doubt that something should be done. The key test for Clinton was whether his plan would parcel out the pain evenhandedly.
Wylie Watson, 36, has been laid off since early October when he finished a job hooking up security systems at a new jail in Inyo County, near the Nevada line. A skilled electrician and Navy veteran, he once enjoyed income “in the high forties.” But these days “I’m existing by the hair on my teeth,” said the San Bernardino native who lives in a trailer just outside the city with his wife and 13-year-old daughter.
Watson, a Democrat, once voted for Reagan because the Republican seemed to stand for a stronger America. More recently, he was drawn to Perot but switched to Clinton after the Texas billionaire seemed to quit the race in the middle of last year.
Sitting in a room that sports a photograph of actress Sally Field portraying labor organizer Norma Ray, Watson--clad in a blue-denim shirt and blue jeans--had questions about Clinton’s plan, such as who in the end would be stuck with higher taxes.
“It’s like it’s rolling down the hill, and where’s it going to stop?” he asked in a deep, sonorous voice. Yet he also believes that America needs to strengthen its economy and he will support a tax plan if it seems fair.
“Personally, if mine go up a little, and I know the guy who lives in the mansion up the hill is paying his fair share, that’s fine.”
A similar view was voiced by Michael Lopez, an unemployed electrician and father of three.
A fourth generation Mexican-American, whose father once picked watermelons in Simi Valley, Lopez, 31, has attained a middle-class life. His wife works as a production manager in an apparel factory, and they share a four-bedroom home in Riverside.
Unlike many of his fellow unionists, he is a registered Republican, although he voted for Clinton, and dreams of launching a contractor’s business one day. For now, however, he has various concerns: Relatives have been hit by aerospace cutbacks, lots of jobs seem to be headed for Mexico and living expenses--like Catholic school for his oldest daughter--are costly.
“If they take it (Clinton’s plan) as a complete package, it will work out for everybody, and it won’t just burden the middle class,” he said.