- In hardscrabble Rochester, economic anger seeks an outlet
- `Not as many people went to jail as probably should have'
Five-dollar bills in the cash register at Tri-City Bicycles in Rochester, New Hampshire, send customers a message stamped in red ink: “Not 2 B used 2 bribe politicians.”
Owner Mark Traeger’s frustration with what he calls a rigged economy has become a central theme in the Democratic presidential primary. Tri-City can’t park profits overseas to dodge taxes. It can’t pony up the big campaign contributions or the rich speaking fees over which insurgent candidate Bernie Sanders has been attacking Hillary Clinton.
“If I call the Cayman Islands or Ireland and say, ‘You know what? I want to have all my checks and cash direct-deposited over there,’ the IRS comes and pays me a visit Monday morning,” said Traeger, 51, a registered independent. “There’s two games going on.”
Traeger, who plans to vote for Sanders on Tuesday, embodies a populist rage that has vaulted the Vermont senator past Clinton in polls here. Sanders has stressed what he says is the outsize influence of Wall Street and corporations, and his own reliance on individual donors instead of super-PACs. Clinton has countered that she has a record of rigor on banks and a realistic plan for regulating them, all the while struggling to explain her rationale for taking $675,000 for speeches to employees of Goldman Sachs Group Inc.
Weekend interviews with more than a dozen voters in Rochester, a working-class city of 30,000 near New Hampshire’s border with Maine, showed that the impact of big money in politics is a prime concern for voters such as Traeger and some supporters of Republican Donald Trump, who has boasted that his wealth makes him independent. Clinton supporters say Sanders’s unrelenting offensive has become a distraction from larger issues that separate Democrats from Republicans.
To Traeger, however, Sanders’s critique is, if anything, too tepid.
Clinton “is part of the machine,” he said. “She’s taking money from Wall Street hand over fist.”
At first glance, New Hampshire is an unlikely hotbed for economic populism. Its 3.1 percent unemployment is the fourth-lowest in the country. The increase in the costs of goods and services has been lower than in most states.
Rochester, though, a former shoe-making center about 35 miles (56 kilometers) east of Concord, the state capital, has had a rougher time than the prosperous Seacoast region to the southeast.
The city has lower median home values and a higher poverty rate than the statewide average, and its residents earn less and are less likely to hold a college degree or have health insurance, according to Brian Gottlob, who runs an economic research firm in nearby Dover. With shoe factories now history, Rochester’s biggest employer is its school system. The city and its surrounding county also got hit disproportionately hard by foreclosures in the housing crisis, according to the New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority.
“It has a reputation as hardscrabble,” said Mayor Caroline McCarley. Rochester residents, she said, are hardworking and the city has seen success in luring businesses such as a Safran SA airplane-parts factory. Still, “if you get a bad story in the paper about a bar fight, it’s almost inevitably in Rochester.”
Politically, Rochester has dual personalities. Its legislative delegation is mostly Republican, but it has voted Democratic in presidential elections, choosing President Barack Obama in 2008 and, by a slimmer margin, in 2012. With just days before Tuesday’s primary, presidential politics dominates conversations in Rochester’s quaint brick-and-clapboard downtown.
“Politics is being discussed in my store now more than superheroes, which is weird,” said Ralph DiBernardo, 52, owner of Jetpack Comics and Games.
The city’s divisions played out at a Saturday morning pancake breakfast at First Congregational Church. Republican Ken Ortmann, his Clinton-supporting wife, Martha, and retired teacher Bill Mauza, a Sanders fan, argued about Wall Street money over blueberry flapjacks and ham.
Mauza, 71, said his condominium’s value is still down a third from before the financial crisis, that his property taxes have nevertheless gone up, and that “people are mad at Wall Street because of what happened to their retirement savings.”
“All those banks got bailed out, after they all went overboard,” he said. “Not as many people went to jail as probably should have.”
Ken Ortmann argued that it was too easy to blame Wall Street and that the financial crisis was “more complicated than that.” And his wife said Clinton is getting tarred over the type of campaign financing used by both parties.
“It’s not just Hillary,” Martha Ortmann said. “What about the Koch brothers,” she said, referring to the billionaires Charles and David Koch who are marshaling funds for Republicans.
Audrey Stevens, 57, a Democrat who manages a dental office and is serving her second term as a state representative, said in a telephone interview that she’s strongly leaning toward Sanders. She sees him as the most likely to fight corporate power she faces on a personal level; Stevens is struggling to find affordable health insurance for her mother-in-law after General Electric Co. eliminated her supplemental retirement benefits.
“Powerful people are buying our elections,” she said.
Although she doesn’t begrudge Clinton a dime of her speaking fees, “It’s hard to believe that when people make big campaign donations that you won’t be influenced,” she said. “I’m not saying that Hillary has been bought and paid for by anybody, but Bernie has been influenced by that less.”
DiBernardo, the comic-book store owner, is deciding between Sanders, who decries money in politics, and Trump, who doesn’t need it.
The same is true for Kevin Kelly, a 36-year-old former Navy diver who works with an oil-delivery company and was visiting the DC Nails and Hair salon as part of a side business sharpening scissors. “Big business pulls all the strings and it really chips me off,” he said. “Trump can’t be bought by anybody. That’s what I like.”
Scott Huff, a Rochester native, works during the week as a financial manager at Everlasting Capital Corp, which loans money to businesses regarded by banks as too risky, and as a chef on weekends. Huff, 35, said he’ll vote for a Democrat but hadn’t decided which.
Clinton isn’t unique in accepting money from big donors, and it doesn’t disqualify her, he said. “You have to sometimes dance with the devil in order to get good done,” Huff said. “It’s a fine line.”
Committed Clinton supporters, meanwhile, were worried and angry about the accusations that Clinton had been bought. Walter Hoerman, 56, a pediatrician and former mayor, said division endangers the Democratic party. “The Bernie campaign is getting pretty vicious in general,” he said.
Mayor McCarley, who’s also backing Clinton, said that while she doesn’t believe the attacks by Sanders will sway many voters, she’s concerned enough by the tight race to work the phones for the campaign, her least favorite job.
She said that for many Rochester residents, the question of who’s to blame for their slow climb back from recession is academic.
“They’d just say poor people got screwed again,” she said.