Swing state: Missouri city's residents are ready to vote now

Kansas City StarOctober 18, 2008 

ST. CHARLES, Mo. — Outside this oldest and quaintest of Missouri River cities, the markets of Wall Street ricochet wildly and the world moves way too fast.

But for many who gather after hours on St. Charles' red-brick Main Street — some just to escape the news — the presidential race moves way too slow.

They've heard enough. They want to vote.

Few of the 50 gathered at R.T. Weiler's Food & Spirits, on the night of the final presidential debate, watch the Philadelphia Phillies take the National League pennant. Few focus on the TVs tuned to John McCain, glaring, and Barack Obama, smiling under attack.

Jeff Horvath, 50, reaches into his pocket and slaps his rosary onto the marble top of the bar: "Look, I'm a conservative, card-carrying member of the Catholic Church."

Anti-abortion. Huge Reagan Republican. Now the general manager of an aerospace-parts plant is an unabashed turncoat — Obama all the way.

Horvath says he's had it with handouts to mismanaged financial houses, a war in Iraq where "there is no win," partisan polarization and Sarah Palin. "I don’t know what happened to George W."

He just wants this election, and these times, to be done with.

Six p.m. approaches. Horvath orders one last Jack and Coke before heading home to scour the Internet. Anything rotten and he'll write his congressman.

"I disagree with my priest on this point: Does a vote for McCain-Palin help reverse Roe versus Wade? No, I think it would not."

Disagreement has defined America for so long, visitors to R.T. Weiler's may find comfort toasting one point of utter agreement here and in national polls: About 90 percent of Americans say their country is headed "in the wrong direction." Only the solutions divide.

"You've got to think positive. Ha, ha, ha, ha!" chuckles Jack Daily, a McCain supporter who has just finished a brisket dinner with wife Maxie. "It's hard to be positive sometimes. But it's what gets you through."

The stock ticker on the TV above their booth chronicles another triple-digit drop in the Dow this day.

The Dailys are passing through St. Charles' tourist district as part of their five-week RV trip. It's a half-hour from downtown St. Louis and the point of entry for both the Katy Trail for bicyclists and the journey of Lewis and Clark.

Jack, 72, estimates his retirement fund was at least $300,000 healthier when they left their Texas home late last month.

"It’s going to take 10 years to make that up," he says. "But I trust McCain's track record, his background, to do what's right."

Then Jack and Maxie are out the door. "Need to get back home in time to vote," she says.

•••

The 200 block of North Main features 19th-century buildings with square nails still in the rafters: bars and boutiques, art shops and dance studios.

Across from R.T. Weiler's, independent voter Janet Bell locks up her new store, Lovely Lullabies. In her first bid to run her own business, she and a partner launched the retailer of cribs and nursery supplies on Aug. 1.

"It wasn’t scary at the time. Now it's a little scary," says Bell, 48. "I'm just waiting for the election — the election and the inauguration — to maybe put consumers at ease. Studies show that an election can stabilize the economy and bring about an uptick in the market.

"If that doesn't happen, we might have to close up within a year."

Bell has a friend who's been playing recordings of Franklin D. Roosevelt's fireside chats to better understand how that president helped Americans weather the Great Depression.

"Nobody's stepping up to be our Roosevelt," she says, voicing disappointment that in this year's campaign, vague promises and spin trump hard truths.

At Walters Jewelry down the block, Tom Wapelhorst packs away the display cases for the night.

"We saw a drop in business a year ago from the subcontractors — you know, the homebuilders and plumbers who come in for items under $100," he says.

"The more expensive stuff is still holding up — or it was until about two weeks ago. A few years back, I could show a $5,000 ring to a customer and he'd say right there, 'I'll take it.' Now it’s '…Well, I've got to think about that.' "

If Wapelhorst doesn't speak to a crisis crying out for fireside chats (lest we mourn buyers of $5,000 glitter), for the GOP gemologist, hope springs forth in the person of Palin of Alaska:

"I think she gets up in the morning and things in that governor's mansion start moving pretty quickly."

•••

Back at the bar at R.T. Weiler's, Horvath — remember, he's Republican, too — counters:

"Sarah Palin? Sarah Palin? Such a political gaffe. She's a significant contributor to any discussion about whether I made the right decision going to another party."

The bartender, Jimmy Maisel, wears a Mizzou cap backward. Above that cap, a TV tuned to CNBC flashes ominous logos all night: "Wall Street Crisis" spins to read "Main Street Crisis."

And in bold, rubber-stamp letters: "Is Your Money Safe?"

Maisel and the owner, Marc Rousseau, are of the mind that the current credit squeeze and federal plans to fix it mainly affect dopes who habitually run their businesses on credit purchases.

"If you're leveraged, you're in trouble," says Rousseau. "But I'm a cash-based business. A supplier comes in that back door, he leaves with a check."

His restaurant, acquired from an uncle, pushes a dog theme — R.T. Weiler being the uncle's take on a beloved family rottweiler. Photos of the customers' dogs grace the walls, and appetizers are served in plastic dog bowls.

The dog bowls draw in local families such as the Renkeys, Deb and Greg. Their two preschool-age children sprint down the brick sidewalk to get here.

"We're voting on our present and our future," says Deb Renkey. "It's Obama.

"We think the country's ready for change. I want our kids to see a country that's diverse in its leadership, because we are a diverse country. Let's not deny it."

Further, she and Greg don't want their children's future teachers "teaching to the test," satisfying achievement standards as defined by the No Child Left Behind Act. They think a Democratic president would do better for education.

The acoustic band arrives.

Guitarist Guy Kingsbury of the Ohms Brothers duo says the 1970s-era music they perform helps him "let loose of some of the frustration of our times. … And I hope I might pass that along to others."

After 23 years in research and development for a concert-equipment outfit, "mine was one of the jobs sent overseas," Kingsbury says. Now he's at a firm making microsurgery equipment, and he's happy.

It would seem, indeed, that the entire joint is … happy? The crowd is loud and laughing past 10 p.m., at least.

Brett and Sherri Beeman enjoy their weekly date night, when the grandparents baby-sit their daughter. The Lake St. Louis couple looks up to the TV replaying the presidential debate, volume off, and they try to imagine what the candidates are saying this time.

Sherri, mocking McCain: "My friends, my friends, my friends."

Brett, mocking Obama: "Change, change, change."

The pizza pie at their table testifies to their politics.

All vegetable on Sherri's side, all meat on Brett's — and sliced down the middle.

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