Let’s take a picture of America in the latter months of an election year. We want to sense what’s on this country’s mind. So Morning Edition begins a series of reports from First and Main. Several times in the next few months, we’ll travel to a battleground state, then to a vital county in each state. In that county we find a starting point for our visit — an iconic American corner — First and Main streets.
We begin in the swing state of Florida, in hotly contested Hillsborough County, which includes Tampa. The county voted for Republican George W. Bush in 2004, then for Democrat Barack Obama in 2008.
Here, First and Main are two gravel roads that meet in a trailer park in a suburban area called Lutz. The trailers have grown over the years, residents say, into full-sized homes — some have permanent rooms or carports attached.
Just down the street from First and Main, we encounter kids standing on a waist-high pile of gravel, along with their mother, Katrina Bordwell — and a story about change in Florida.
“Our yard flooded so we have to raise it,” Bordwell says. She’s spreading the gravel across the yard, hoping to raise it above the water level.
“This whole street floods,” she says. “Pretty much all of Lutz floods.”
A flood of development has meant change to the landscape. Of course, in recent years, Florida real estate development took a dark turn.
Bordwell works for a foreclosure company, where, she says, business is “skyrocketing.”
That’s good for her, though not so good for Ray Lucas, who’s standing nearby. He manages this trailer park, after he shut down his business doing pest-control inspections on newly sold homes.
“I relied on real estate transactions, and when the housing market took a dump, so did my business,” he says.
‘I Haven’t Seen Any Change’
Florida’s economy is recovering from the financial crisis that started five years ago — recovering, but not recovered.
Susan MacManus — a political scientist whose family was among the first to develop land around here a century ago — stood with us at the corner of First and Main.
“One of the explanations for the 2010 election in Florida, which went heavily Republican after voting for Obama in 2008 — all you have to do is look at the pockets of foreclosures and the related unemployment, and you get a good picture for how things have changed and how much of a pressure it made on people,” she says.
“Tampa’s still, unfortunately, just had an upswing in foreclosures again. So it’s a constant reminder to people: Everybody knows someone who’s lost their home or is going to, or someone who has lost their job.”
We came to this struggling area seeking richer information than we’d get from public opinion polls, by visiting voters where they live.
The neighborhood around First and Main isn’t rich, though it’s comfortable. Right at the corner of First and Main, we find the carport where Ed Faucher is relaxing in the evening with his Pomeranian dog. He waves us in, through the chain-link fence.
He’s a semi-retired truck driver, sitting on a lawn chair with his shirt off. He’s got the silver hair and squinty eyes of the late actor Robert Mitchum.
“I’ve always been a Democrat, but I ended up changing my affiliation to independent,” he says. “My wife … she’s a die-hard Republican. And her and I had a few differences on it. So I said, ‘You know what? I’m just going to go independent [and] vote the way I want.’”
He voted for John McCain in 2008 and opposes Obama in 2012.
“I don’t hate him,” Faucher says. “I don’t think he’s done enough for the country. You know, all this talking about change — I haven’t seen any change. Four billion dollars a day in debt every day. It goes up every time you wake up in the morning.”
Asked for his opinion about GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, he says: “Being I was from Massachusetts originally, I know people up there. When he put in his health care program, people were squawking about it, but I also know people [who] love it. You know, they say it’s the best thing that ever happened. It got them off their fannies and they finally got health insurance.”
But while Faucher approves of what Romney did in Massachusetts, he’s not on board with the similar federal health care law passed under Obama.
“I’m happy with what I got, really,” he says. Faucher worries the new health care law could affect his choices under the federal Medicare program, which he likes.
Health care remains the trickiest of political issues.
‘That Gap Is Growing’
When we tell Faucher of our plans to talk to a few of his neighbors, he says, “I don’t think anybody will give you any problem.”
And nobody did. Not even the guy just outside the trailer park, down the street from First and Main. He built a black steel fence with an electric-powered gate around his house.
“The truth is I’m not much of a good neighbor,” he says. “You can tell by my gargoyles. I’m not welcoming.”
Roland Lamb is a white-bearded man, who looks a little gruff, like the gargoyles that flank his gate. But he courteously stands to chat for a while.
He and his wife built a ranch house on several acres beside a lake. The driveway curves across the perfect lawn like the yellow brick road. The gate faces the trailer park at First and Main.
“I’ve always voted Democratic,” Lamb says. “And I have a — it’s kind of hard to get me to vote any other way. I’m not stupid but I, in general, I agree with their philosophy. I think there are a lot of people in this world that need help and there are a lot of people that are fabulously wealthy and that gap is growing and that’s stupid. That’s wrong, that’s morally wrong in my opinion.”
Lamb says he and his wife are lucky. They chose a profession that’s doing well, even in this economy. They are medical malpractice lawyers.
And though Lamb is painfully aware that many of the neighbors are suffering, he does not blame the president.
“He’s been in office fighting a bunch of right-wing nuts for most of that four years. I was disappointed in him early on; he could have accomplished a lot more,” Lamb says.
“I hate the health care plan, but I don’t hate it for the reasons most people do. I hate it because we’ve included the insurance companies as middlemen. And if people had a little bit of a brain, they’d realize that as long as we let insurance companies run this, we’re just paying a big middleman, that’s all we’re doing. And things aren’t going to change.”
Lamb voted for Obama in 2008, and whatever his disappointments, he plans to do it again in 2012. That is the most common pattern we found in Hillsborough County, Fla.
The way people voted in 2008 — for or against the president — signals their perception of everything that’s happened since and, usually, the way they intend to vote this fall.
The rarest voter is a person who’s changed his mind.