Stimulus bill plays a larger role in campaigns than in some voters’ lives

The upcoming election was far from cabinetmaker Kevin Rodriguez’ mind as he and his 5-year-old son watched a Halloween parade last week in a downtown plaza of this East Bay community.

Over the last two years as the nation slid into recession, the 46-year-old independent voter lost his business and was forced to sell his house. He has scraped together a living from side jobs, savings and unemployment benefits, which are about to run out. He even contemplated the once-unthinkable: applying for food stamps.

President Obama had been in the state a few days earlier, campaigning for Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer and making the case that the administration’s economic stimulus program, its tax cuts for the middle class and small-business initiatives were turning the tide and putting people back to work.


But so far, Rodriguez hasn’t seen much progress. The stimulus program didn’t put enough money in people’s pockets to revive demand for the remodeled kitchens and home improvements that fueled his business for 19 years. And he didn’t think much of the tax breaks: “When you’re talking about $8 to $10 a week, what is that going to buy you — a couple of gallons of gas maybe?”

The stimulus has been the major dividing line between the U.S. Senate candidates. But nothing offered by either side in this election — not Boxer’s cheery optimism about “jobs, jobs, jobs” nor her challenger Carly Fiorina’s dark pronouncements that the stimulus program has failed and change is needed — has left him with any desire to vote on Tuesday.

“Yeah, my vote counts and it’s important to me, but it’s just so frustrating. Everything is so frustrating when everything was so good just back in ’06,” Rodriguez said as he and his son watched the procession of princesses and superheroes from the front cab of their truck. “I went from doing real well to nothing — lost my home, lost my cars, just everything.”

“I don’t see too many things changing,” he said.

Boxer has maintained a slender lead in the polls heading into Tuesday’s election. But interviews with more than two dozen voters here in Contra Costa County suggest that if she pulls out a win, it will not have been propelled by satisfaction with the Democratic economic initiatives that are the centerpiece of her campaign.

Even here, in a county where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2 to 1, where unemployment is lower and median income higher than the state average, many voters share Rodriguez’s frustration that the economy seems stuck in neutral and the fear that things may not improve for a long time, no matter who is in office.

Questions about the effect of the $814-billion economic stimulus program often drew shrugs, sometimes blank stares. Though green and orange signs marking Recovery Act projects dot the nearby roads and highways — and Boxer was here as recently as last week highlighting a stimulus-backed job training program — voters often struggled to name a project that had touched their lives or someone who had seen a direct benefit.

There was even confusion about one of the state’s marquee projects — the expansion of the nearby Caldecott Tunnel to relieve congestion for tens of thousands of commuters driving between Oakland and the suburbs of Contra Costa County.

Independent voter Michael Torchia, who works in mechanical equipment sales and said he was a proponent of the stimulus plan, was among those who said he was ready to give the Republican candidates a chance.

“There are more foreclosures than I’ve ever seen. The people who are losing their homes are middle class, blue collar, some construction workers — they’re hard-working folks, they want to work,” but the programs to reinvigorate the economy are “not working,” he said on a recent evening after grocery shopping.

Although Torchia drives between Alameda County and Contra Costa County almost daily, he had not realized that $197.5 million in stimulus funding was what finally launched the long-stalled Caldecott Tunnel project that would ease his commute.

“Maybe they don’t advertise,” he said.

In fact, Boxer and Fiorina have jousted almost daily for months about the effect of the stimulus.

Boxer has been a virtual one-woman road show jetting from one stimulus-funded highway project or company to the next, insisting that her opponent simply hasn’t met, as she has, the hundreds of workers whose jobs have been saved or created through federal money.

Campaigning last week at a rapidly expanding solar company in San Jose that will receive more than $42 million in tax breaks and loans from the stimulus program, Boxer said it was “very important to understand our votes make a difference.”

The stimulus program “hardly had a vote to spare,” she said. “If my opponent had held my seat, we wouldn’t have had it.”

With theatrical flair, Fiorina has campaigned in front of empty lots like one in Glendale where a stimulus-backed plan for a child-care center fell through. At every site, she has pounded the Republicans’ core message this year: “Where are the jobs?”

Often she campaigns with props — mockups of Recovery Act signs with the word “failed” slashed across them, or charts detailing the number of jobs lost in whatever county she’s in since the legislation was approved in February 2009.

After $814 billion “of taxpayer-funded money — not only do we learn every day about some other egregious waste of that money, but the reality is it hasn’t created jobs,” Fiorina said as she stood last week in an empty office at a struggling business park outside Sacramento.

The former Hewlett-Packard chief executive waves off studies that tout the stimulus program’s successes, including an August Congressional Budget Office report showing that the aid package lowered the unemployment rate by as much as 1.8% in the second quarter of 2010 and boosted the number of people employed by as many as 3.3 million. But she won’t say whether she would have pressed California leaders to refuse the state’s share of funding — dismissing the question as hypothetical.

Even among those who haven’t seen evidence of the jobs created, skepticism doesn’t necessarily translate into votes for Republicans.

Although Rhonda Coello, a 46-year-old Republican from Lafayette, hasn’t seen much improvement in the economy over the last two years, she’s leaning toward Boxer and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown. “It’s status quo,” she said of the economy. But “maybe we’re better off with the status quo until things start to turn around.”

And then there are voters like Laila Berrios, one of the lucky ones whose fortunes changed because of the stimulus legislation. For two years after graduating from nursing school, the 31-year-old single mother from Concord hunted for a job, leaning on her church to help pay the rent and buy Christmas presents for her children.

This summer she found her “dream job” through a stimulus-funded job placement program that initially subsidized her salary, providing a bridge until the company could afford to hire her full time.

Berrios, an independent who is leaning toward Democrats this year, has heard all the stimulus bashing. But as she stood with her two young daughters at Concord’s Halloween parade — one of them dressed as a zombie, the other a glitter-dusted fairy — she said that from her standpoint, the economy is “definitely improving” and voters’ expectations of what the Democrats could do were unrealistic.

“Everyone expected a miracle cure and it’s only been two years,” Berrios said. “It takes time.”