High prices have voters despairing

Washington CorrespondentMay 3, 2008 

  • HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: Wants to lift the 18.4-cent federal gas tax, which goes to the highway fund, for the summer. She would make up the lost money by taxing oil company profits.

    JOHN McCAIN: Also wants to lift the tax for the summer. Says he would replenish the highway fund through other tax revenue.

    BARACK OBAMA: Said the tax holiday was a bad idea and a gimmick that would save voters only a negligible amount of money.

— Seeds for pumpkins, beans and beets line the walls of the feed store in this tiny marshlands town, luring residents who don't know where else to turn and who don't believe any presidential candidate can fix things immediately.

Employee Tonya Adams, 35, of Hubert, sees young couples wandering into the S&H Feed and Garden Supply store to plant their first gardens, and she gives advice on seeds and soil.

She thinks the country is headed toward another recession. Joanne Lane, weighing seeds for a customer, agrees.

"You get gas and it's three-fifty, and you go to get a dozen eggs and you're paying $2. Milk is $4," says Lane, 47, of Swansboro. "You're almost getting to the breaking point."

As people in this corner of Eastern North Carolina have learned, rising gas prices ignite rising food prices, to the point that folks feel as though they can't decide whether to buy supper or fill their tanks. Some candidates for president and state offices have ideas, but many voters around here carry little but skepticism.

"I think the government has the opportunity to do something and they're not," Lane says. "I'm not sure any of the three candidates would do anything."

Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton have pitched the idea of suspending the 18-cent federal gas tax for the summer. Democratic Sen. Barack Obama thinks that's a lousy idea that would save only about $25 for the average person. He proposes renewable energy instead.

In the gubernatorial race, Republican Bill Graham wants to suspend the state's 30-cent gas tax. He fought two years ago for a suspension of the state gas tax increase, finally claiming victory.

And though Republicans such as U.S. Sen. Richard Burr say a gas-tax holiday would help working-class families, AAA Carolinas spokesman Tom Crosby says the suspension would do little good.

What would happen, Crosby says, is that people would drive more and increase demand, pushing the price of gas up even more. He doesn't know the future.

"Dreary," he predicts.

'Back to the old ways'

Meanwhile, a couple of tomatoes costs $2 or $3 or even $4 at the grocery, says Nancy Bryson, 47, of Salter Path. At S&H Feed and Garden, she can buy a foot-tall tomato plant for a buck-fifty and get a few fresh ones every week all summer long.

She'll buy some peanuts, too, for the garden she expanded this year because the cost of food has become outrageous. With corn, beets, turnips, snap beans and cucumbers, she'll save $200 this summer. She'll can for the winter and save hundreds more.

Everyone's thinking about canning again, Adams says. "They're going back to the old ways."

Chris Sewell and his wife will start their first garden this spring to feed their three young children. He has grown so fed up that he doesn't much trust the government anymore.

"It's just kind of scary to me," said Sewell, a Swansboro Republican. "We're going to rely on ourselves."

Fuel prices already were hurting his fishing charter business. Rising fuel costs for other working fishermen mean higher prices for restaurants such as the T&W Oyster Bar.

There, Randy Swanson pays more for fresh fish nowadays and figures oysters too will be pricier by summer.

Already, he's paying $38 for a 15-pound sack of flour that three months ago cost just $14. He pays fuel surcharges to the Coca-Cola truck, the linens truck and the food service truck.

He refuses to raise menu prices, he says, because he knows families are scrambling as it is to treat themselves to a night out.

So the increases eat into his profits, right?

"Oh my God, yes," says Swanson, who owns a second restaurant, as well. "To say the least."

Only the necessities

Just about anything that isn't necessary isn't getting bought.

In Jacksonville, barber David Melvin, 31, says folks are letting their hair grow longer.

"It's a choice between getting their hair cut or getting gas," Melvin says. He plans to vote for Obama. "It's about survival. Everyone's in survival mode."

His wife, Misty, 30, a Clinton fan, used to drive all over as a home nursing aide. But she gets paid a flat rate of $9 an hour -- and nothing for gas -- so now she won't leave Jacksonville because it costs too much. She wonders about those ailing residents alone in their middle-of-nowhere homes.

"What's going to happen to those people?" she asks.

Fewer cars cruise into Dewayne Silance's garage in Jacksonville for routine maintenance these days. Folks only bring the cars in when something is broken. Silance, 41, is a Democrat but thinks McCain is the best of the three candidates; he might wait until November to vote.

"I feel like the government's wronging us," Silance says. "I don't see how the average working man is even going to make a living."

The issue crosses party lines, says Al Klemm, chairman of the Down East Republican Club in Beaufort County. "As far as issues go, it's the economy. It's the oil prices."

Bartering pays a bill

Back at the garden shop in Swansboro, fertilizer has doubled from a year ago. Folks don't buy the extra flowers the way they used to, Lane said. Living with her daughter and granddaughter, with her mortgage payment increased four times in the past year, Lane can't afford to buy extras herself.

She listens as Adams describes how she has agreed to paint ceilings for a relative in exchange for getting her phone bill paid for five months.

"People are going to start bartering again," Adams says. "I cry anytime I have to fill up my car. I cringe."

Lane predicts a spike in crime. People will go back to locking their gas caps, she says.

"It's stressful," she says. Lane can't decide whom to vote for. An unaffiliated voter, she can't even decide whether to vote in the Democratic or Republican primary.

And Adams isn't sure she wants to.

"I think this is one year," she says, "that I'm not voting."

Washington correspondent Barbara Barrett can be reached at (202) 383-0012 or bbarrett@mcclatchydc.com.

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