In the Arena

Election Road Trip Day 1: The Opacity of the Process

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Republican candidate for Congress Pat Meehan goes door to door to hand out fliers explaining his intentions if he is elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Photograph by Peter van Agtmael- Magnum for TIME

Philadelphia, Pa.

miles traveled: 290

traveling companions: Peter Cove and Lee Bowes of America Works

events: Door-to-door campaigning with Republican Pat Meehan in Drexel Hill; Polish picnic with Republican Mike Fitzpatrick in Doylestown; Allentown Fair with Democrat John Callahan in, uh, Allentown.

Joe Klein talks to a potential voter in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania. Photograph by Peter van Agtmael- Magnum for TIME

A day of hand-shaking, no great shakes, but an insight: I realize that, like most reporters, I’m always waiting for the moment when a constituent gets up in a politician’s face and gives him or her what-for. That’s a story! It happens fairly frequently in town hall meetings, where citizens have the strength of numbers. But when a politician is out at the fair shaking hands, it’s usually a steady flow of supporters, interrupted occasionally by an awkward silence. That’s because people are polite. And so, 90% of the transactions I saw today involved constituents telling politicians: you go guy. This tends to reinforce the delusion among all politicians that they are God’s gift to democracy and, no matter what the polls say, they’re gonna win–because, didya see all those folks who said they were going to support me? (Did you see all those other folks who didn’t open their door or changed directions abruptly, heading away from the politician and toward the kielbasa stand? I didn’t think so.)

I did see one interesting confrontation today between candidate John Callahan–a young, energetic Democrat with a great record as mayor Bethlehem, running against the Republican incumbent Charlie Dent–and a muscular, shaved-head guy named Kenneth, just out of the Army after serving two tours in Iraq.

Kenneth was mega-skeptical from the jump. What are you going to do in Washington? He asked. Callahan said, “The same sort of things I’ve been doing here” and went into the litany of 5,000 jobs created and $2 billion in private development projects in Bethlehem over the past few years. It turned out that Kenneth was one of Callahan’s constituents. “I haven’t raised your taxes in the past four years,” Callahan said. “Oh yes, you did,” Kenneth shot back, “My school taxes went up this year.” Callahan tried to patiently explain that the school board was independent; he didn’t have any control over school taxes. “I wish I did,” the mayor added mournfully.

“I can’t believe that with all the power you have, you don’t have any influence,” Kenneth said. Callahan assured him that it was true and moved on. “I can’t believe teachers are getting raises and raising our taxes, while people are losing jobs and struggling, ” Kenneth told me later. “That’s not right. It’s not fair.” In fact, Callahan had quickly become an afterthought: Kenneth was down on government–and his views leached from local school taxes to the Congressional race to the situation in Washington, which–you’ll not be surprised to learn–he thinks is a mess. So this is complicated: it’s not just Obama who’s on the hotseat this year. It’s all of government…and, just below the radar, the notion that public employees aren’t taking any of the hits that private sector employees are and, indeed, holding out for raises in some cases, is rankling. It’s not for nothing that Pat Meehan, the Republican running for Joe Sestak’s Congressional seat, tells voters that 8 million private sector jobs had been lost and 650,000 public sector jobs have been created. And that the only thing his neighbors have seen of the stimulus package is the replacement of traffic lights on Town Line Road. This is something Democrats don’t seem to understand: people aren’t thrilled about 650,000 new public sector jobs. They realize they’re paying for them and assume that all the government is doing is busy work, replacing one red-yellow-green with a newer red-yellow-green.

Joe Klein talks to an Iraq war veteran at the Allentown Fair. Photograph by Peter van Agtmael- Magnum for TIME

Even more distressing was latest news from my friends Peter Cove and Lee Bowes, who created America Works, which–according to several academic studies–is among the most successful welfare-to-work programs in the country. In recent years, they’ve expanded to prison-to-work and veterans-to-work (especially homeless veterans). They will place 20,000 people, more or less, in jobs this year–almost all of them in the private sector. “We’re having trouble with the Obama Administration,” said Lee. Why? You might ask. Well, America Works is a for-profit company and the Obama Administration has limited job placement programs to not-for-profit groups. That is ridiculous, the sort of below the radar decision that Administrations of both parties make to please their interest groups. (In this case, the labor unions who’ve been getting and wasting job training funds for decades–and the public employees who fear that if private companies can get people to work, they’ll be fewer jobs for public employees who deal with the poor.)

Briefly, here’s how America Works…works: Peter and Lee have built several decades worth of credibility with major companies, who trust them to provide reliable workers. They train the prospective workers, not so much in skills, but in how to work–get up on time, dress respectably, don’t go crazy if the boss criticizes you, smile, offer a firm handshake. They don’t get paid (mostly local and state governments) until the worker has stayed on the job for six months–and then they collect a fee of $5000. Most of the jobs they offer pay $12-14 per hour. “Our clients have changed over the past decade,” Lee said, “from women on welfare to men–prisoners and vets–and the jobs have changed from secretarial and file clerks to private security, warehouse operations, hospitals. There are plenty of jobs out there, but our employers are bit more picky than they used to be.”

And then Lee, who is a deep Democrat, whose father and grandfather were labor organizers, ¬†shocked me: “I’m beginning to wonder about extending unemployment benefits for so long. You have a fair number of people who were construction workers and middle managers making $75,000 per year who are waiting it out, hoping their jobs will come back. But if there are $12-14 per hour jobs available as security guards, why shouldn’t they be working them instead of having their neighbors pay for their unemployment insurance?”

Peter added that there was a recent European study that showed that people who worked were healthier than people who were unemployed. “It just isn’t good for you, lying around the house. I’d be in favor of taking the money we’re paying for unemployment and redirecting it into a big, Roosevelt-style public works program…Of course, you can’t do that these days. The construction unions would block it.”

The unions have a point: if you did that sort of jobs program, not very many people would be making $75,000 a year in construction anymore. The gap between the middle class and the upper middle class would grow even more. But, if jobs are actually available in the $12-14 per hour range, those who oppose further extending unemployment benefits have a point, too.

Politicians talk and talk about jobs. They do not talk about these sorts of details, these sorts of nuances, these difficult choices. They talk bumper stickers. I will give notoriety and a dozen donuts to the first politician who says something interesting to me about the country’s employment dilemma.

This post is part of my Election Road Trip 2010 project. To track my location across the country, and read all my road trip posts, click here.