In the Arena

Election Road Trip, Day 10: How to Get a Job…and Some Songs

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Robert Dold, the Republican candidate vying for Mark Kirk’s seat in the 10th district, in Arlington Heights, Illinois. Photograph by Peter van Agtmael - Magnum for TIME

St. Louis, Missouri

I spent the morning writing my print column and the afternoon driving to St. Louis, through the cornfields of Illinois. Saw one pretty big wind farm just north of Bloomington–the first I’ve seen on this trip, which is not very encouraging. Stopped for gas just outside of Springfield and the proprietor of the mini-mart was yet another South Asian (almost every gas station I’ve stopped in has been owned by members of this extraordinary ethnic group). I asked the guy at the cash register where he was from. He said “Gujurat” and I told him I’d been there–and that it didn’t surprise me that he was from there, since the Gujurati are reputed to be the best businesspeople in India. I asked him how he’d made his way to the middle of the cornfields and he simply said, “Patel.” Ahh, yes: the famed family network that has been so active in buying and renovating motels throughout the country and newstands in New York.

It reminded me of a famous sociological study about how people find work. Can’t remember the author-[Self fact check: What an old aphasic idiot I am. The study was by my friend Jan Rosenberg!] but it was centered in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn before it was cool enough for trip photographer Peter Van Agtmael to live there. The long and short of it was: people got hired through friends and connections; small businesses don’t hire strangers. This was a topic that came up yesterday when I visited the Keats Manufacturing Company, a electronic components stamping factory in Wheeling, Illinois, with Bob Dold, the Republican candidate in the 10th congressional district (another tossup race). I found Matt Eggemeyer, the company CEO, far more interesting than Dold, who seemed a nice enough guy–but Eggemeyer was in seventh heaven: business was coming back in a big way, after a scary time. He had laid people off, which he found extremely painful, since he personally selects every employee and oversees their training (some of the skilled jobs, like running a die press, pay as much as $27 per hour, plus health and other benefits. “When I laid them off, I took them to lunch,” he told me. “It feels a lot better to be hiring them back now.” (Matt has 90 employees in Wheeling, down from 120, plus 60 in El Paso and 30 in Florida; none of them are union shops.)

As he took us around the factory, Matt introduced his workers by name–many of them were second-generation at Keats. Matt is third generation at Keats, too. “My grandfather, who founded the company in 1958, is 93 and still comes to work every day for a few hours.” I asked Matt how he found his employees. He said most of his hires were word of mouth, friends of his other employees. He introduced me to one worker who started off sweeping the floors, then went to night school for training and wound up a skilled die press operator. “I want to see how they work and then, if they show brains and initiative, I’ll get them trained,” Matt said. “I want to be hands on every step of the way.” I asked him if he’d ever advertised for employees. “I did that once or twice, but never again. What a clown show.”

Dan Seals at Max and Benny's Diner in Northbrook, Illinois. Photograph by Peter van Agtmael - Magnum for TIME

The 10th district race in Illinois is interesting: Dold is a local businessman–he runs a pest control company–and his opponent Dan Seals is also a business consultant, with a more international background, but is best known for having run twice against the incumbent Mark Kirk, now running for the Senate, and lost both times. This race is a tossup: the district has gone Democratic in presidential campaigns since Clinton, and huge for Obama in 2008, but there’s a stiff Republican wind blowing this year.

Hilariously, both candidates wanted me to know that they were very much alike: moderates. Dold said he was moderate on social issues like choice, but had an advantage as a local businessman who knew how to create jobs. Seals told me he and Dold were pretty much the same on economic issues, but that there were a clear difference on social issues: Planned Parenthood and Naral had endorsed him.

Finally, on the road to St. Louis I heard some wonderful covers–and I’m ususally pretty skeptical about covers: they need to come sideways and unexpected at the artist’s original intent to transcend. But I was thrilled when my pal Rodney Crowell and his good friend Emmylou Harris came up on the Chicago toll road:

1. Shelter From the Storm–Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris

2. You’re gonna make me lonesome when I go–Madeleine Peyroux, also covering Bob (and boy, does she have a clear, cool voice and a jazzy style that recalls Billie Holiday, just a little, not too much).

3. Mystery Train–Jeff Beck and Chryssie Hynde (one of best female singers in the history of rock)

4. Deep Red Bells–Neko Case, yet another great voice…mournful, effortless.

5. Two Line Highway–Pure Prairie League. I’d forgotten this, but it’s a great road song. It was playing when I pulled up to the hotel in St. Louis.

And now to dinner with my new traveling companions: Katy Steinmetz, sprung from her scheduling and fact checking cage in DC; and Harper Barnes, my old editor at the Cambridge Phoenix in 1972.

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.