PEORIA, Il. — The seed store here that Nick Vespa inherited from his grandfather is prospering in tight times, benefitting from a renewed interest in home gardening and do-it-yourself yard work.
But Vespa worries about the future of family businesses like his, an anxiety that only grew over the summer as he watched Congress and President Barack Obama feud with each other over raising the nation's debt ceiling.
"Everyone's either to the left or to the right," Vespa said from behind the bulk seed desk in back of the store — the orange tin and wood bins dating from the 1930s, when Vespa's grandfather went to work at Kelly's Seed and Hardware. "There's no one in the middle anymore, and it's not good for the country."
His words echo sentiments heard across this town that has served marketers and politicians for decades as a barometer for Middle America: How's it playing in Peoria?
Peoria's mood in summer 2011: lots of worry about the U.S. economy — and disgust with its politics.
Peoria escaped much of the worst fallout from the recession. Its unemployment rate is below the national average, and after a round of layoffs in 2009, business is booming at Caterpillar, the construction-equipment manufacturer whose corporate headquarters dominate downtown.
At lunchtime, Caterpillar workers spill into Courtyard Square at Main Street, lining up at food stands. Tucking into his lunch and chatting with co-workers, Greg Heuer, 38, a Caterpillar engineer, says the worry is persistent, fueled by the turbulent global economy and the churning of the stock market.
"Bush didn't do us any favors and Obama isn't really helping," Heuer said. "I've kind of stopped watching the news just because I don't want to see any of it."
"It doesn't seem like we work as a country anymore," said co-worker Roschelle McCoy, 31.
Ennui has turned many off politics in the Republican-leaning city, especially the emerging presidential campaign. That's true even among Republicans who aren't satisfied with Obama, a former Illinois senator who visited the Caterpillar plant in East Peoria in 2009 to press for passage of his stimulus plan and flew Air Force One out of Peoria International Airport this week at the end of his three-day Midwest bus trip.
"If you're asking if any of the Republicans energize me, the answer is absolutely not," says Vespa, a registered Republican and father of two. "I can't really say that any of them interest me."
His mom, Nancee, who also runs the store along with Nick Vespa's uncle and a cousin, said she's not found a candidate, either.
"That is yet to be determined," she said. "I just want a good honest person with common sense."
Across town, Tucker Szold, 59, mourns the loss of compromise. He notes that the district was long served in Congress by two moderate Republicans: former Republican House Minority Leader Bob Michel and Ray LaHood, now Obama's transportation secretary. Its current representative, Aaron Schock, has courted the tea party and told a Chicago radio station this week that Obama "has spent more time flying around on Air Force One than any other president in 100 years."
Washington's bickering isn't sitting well with a frustrated public.
"This is the Midwest, we're loyal and civil and courteous," Szold said as he washed down a chili dog with a root beer float at Lou's Drive In, where customers have been ordering through the open windows and perching on the stools since 1953.
Tucker voted for Obama in 2008 but is disappointed he hasn't brought change to the nation's capital. He may go back to the GOP next year, but he said he's disappointed in the debt-ceiling debate, and said that none of the Republican presidential contenders have said anything to distinguish themselves.
William Hall, a political science professor emeritus at Peoria's Bradley University, said he believes most of the debate in the Republican contest has been to the right of Republicans in Illinois.
"Unless the Republican Party nominates someone more toward the middle, I don't see Illinois going Republican," he said.
Still, Ruby Thompson, 34, a student at Robert Morris University, says she admires Michele Bachmann's "spunk" and hopes she survives the GOP primary. Thompson, who said she'd register "tea party" if it were an option, is alarmed at the size of the nation's debt and fears passing it along to the next generation.
"I just do not understand how we're going to get out of this without cutting spending," she said.
However, Obama's call along the bus trip for shared sacrifice struck a nerve with some Peorians, who say Midwest values include helping neighbors. Travis Hill, 32, a registered Republican, said he believes some taxes should be raised — along with cuts in spending.
"If I were broke, I wouldn't just cut back spending, I'd try to earn some more money," said Hill, sitting on a bench reading a book as he waited to donate blood. "It seems ridiculous not to do a little of both."
Hill, who owns several pizza franchises in Peoria, said he's not made up his mind about who he'll vote for, and he's disappointed in nearly every political figure — especially those in Congress.
"It was a like a gang fight, shooting up the neighborhood, not caring if you were hurting the community, only caring about if your gang won," he said. "They should know that their job is to put the country first, party second, and I don't think any of them do."
Obama's come in for sharp criticism among African-Americans for not doing enough to create jobs in black America. But Ben Mitchell, 47, said the president was saddled with an uncooperative Congress.
"He's getting a raw deal," said Mitchell, who left his job as a state corrections officer to open his own martial arts studio. It's flourishing, he says, and he's expanding.
Reginald Stone, 39, knows what it is to struggle. He opened a ribs joint in Peoria in December 2008, just as the economy cratered. But he's held on — relying on some ingenuity. He couldn't afford a high-tech cooker, so he had a friend fashion one using a hospital gurney as a platform. The wheels make it easier for him to transport "the best smoked ribs in town" to events like the recent Taste of Peoria.
He said he keeps fear about the economy in check: "It's like my momma says," said Stone, whose mother, Rosie, raised 12 children, mostly on her own. "There is no crying over spilled milk. You just got to roll."
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