Stimulus ‘no’ vote riles constituents

Jim Burch is a proud man from a proud town. “It breaks my heart to say we need help,” he says.

But when the Florida housing market collapsed, this sprawling city on Florida’s southwest coast tumbled with it. Unemployment has risen to over 10%. A nice home near the water goes for just over $100,000 -- 70% less than a few years ago. On Friday, the county government laid off 19 workers because money is no longer flowing in from construction permits.

And so Burch, the mayor of Cape Coral, was not happy when his congressman, Rep. Connie Mack, voted against the $819-billion stimulus package last week, joining every other Republican House member in opposing the bill.

“Politics has no business where the people and the despair I see in my city are concerned,” said Burch, who had traveled to Washington last month to press for passage of the stimulus bill.

Burch’s unhappiness shows the tension over the massive spending and tax-cut bill between Republicans in Congress, who generally oppose the legislation as it is now formulated, and state and local officials, who say their communities need an infusion of federal money.


The mayor, whose office is nonpartisan, said the package could provide millions of dollars for local projects. The city might be able restart the upgrade of its sewer and water systems, a project that ended several months ago for lack of funds, taking more than 1,000 jobs with it.

But Mack believes that government does not hold the answer to the city’s problems.

“History has shown us that no nation has ever spent its way to prosperity,” Mack said in a statement the day of the vote. “Instead of throwing money at government programs that will do little to spur job creation, we should enact pro-growth solutions that allow private businesses -- and not the government -- to become the catalysts for job creation and economic growth.”

Many local Republicans disagree with Mack’s vote. Ray Judah, a Lee County commissioner, said he hoped Mack would “recognize the critical need for infusion of funds for capital projects and job creation.”

Judah said that local boards are the ones “in the trenches . . . who clearly understand the importance” of the package.

Republican state Rep. Gary Aubuchon added that stimulus dollars would “enable commercial development and reduce unemployment.”

The state’s highest-profile Republican, Gov. Charlie Crist, has been an advocate for the package, which could send as much as $10 billion to Florida.

Few believe Mack’s position puts his political fortunes in jeopardy. The stimulus bill is likely to pass, allowing the congressman to maintain his stance as a fiscal hawk with no risk to his constituents. And the bill, which is now before the Senate, may change in ways that win support from Mack and other House Republicans.

However, if Mack chooses to run for Senate next year to replace the retiring Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), Democrats will be waiting to remind him of his vote. “Americans will hold Republicans accountable for being the party of no economic help and status quo policies,” says Jennifer Crider, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Lee County, where Cape Coral is located, holds a distinction not found in tourism brochures: It’s the foreclosure capital of America. Estimates have the foreclosure rate at 1 out of 55 properties. Wide swaths of homes and businesses stand vacant.

The county’s 19 layoffs came two days after the House voted on the stimulus package. The local newspaper splashed Mack’s “no” vote across its front page, next to a story describing how the package would benefit the area.

Mack will have another opportunity to weigh in on the package before it is sent to the White House.

Gary Szolosi, a real estate broker in nearby Fort Myers, said Mack should not surrender. “In the long run,” he said, the package “is going to hurt more than help.”

Szolosi said the housing market is slowly coming back to life as buyers take advantage of the depressed prices. “We have the same sun, the same sands, the same beaches.”

But local officials say the region won’t come back to life without federal help, because private sector growth has stopped.

Saeed Kazemi, interim public works director in Fort Myers, said the stimulus package could deliver as much as $300 million to the area and create 3,400 jobs. The city has a list of “shovel-ready” projects ready to go.

“There are some issues where politics needs to be put aside,” Kazemi said. “This is needed right now.”