More than a minute
Butler, Ind., more than Romney ad
By Claire Wiseman
BUTLER, Ind. — This small town has never been a campaign stop. But its story has been reframed by Mitt Romney.
In 1994, his private-equity firm Bain Capital invested in Steel Dynamics Inc., a new steel company.
Bain invested in other Indiana companies, too. Some of them failed, and as Romney’s star rose, his opponents used them as fodder for their campaigns.
So, Romney’s videographers turned Butler into an allegory, a sort of shorthand for the American Dream.
The video lasts exactly one minute. It describes Romney’s “private-sector leadership team” and the way he afforded workers a chance to move up the socioeconomic ladder.
“American workers in a small town,” the narrator says, “proving that anything is possible in America.”
Butler isn’t mentioned by name.
But the town’s story has come up throughout the campaign. The people of Butler, by association, have been represented by a small aspect of their community.
This mythical version of Indiana has barely been a stop on the trail.
Beneath the surface, there is more. Butler has it all. Here, people worry about every issue that makes Americans reluctant and passionate and confused.
Beer and faith, red and blue, and everything in between.
It is more than Steel Dynamics, more than Mitt Romney and more than a sound bite.
The town’s main drag is a few blocks of shop fronts, some shuttered, between its main intersection on U.S. Highway 6 and the Norfolk-Southern Railway tracks.
At the Eat ‘N Haus, a wide green awning between the City Court and the China Buffet, Judy Capp tries to make a part-time job work within the plan she imagined for her life.
The 66-year-old waitress wants badly to work, take four weeks of vacation and then, at a moment of her choosing, have a retirement party if she darn well chooses.
That is not the way the cards fell, so she works part-time here, four days per week.
Steel Dynamics has improved the tax base and brought in jobs, Capp said. But it doesn’t solve all their problems.
The town, Capp said, is dead.
“We have a grocery store, CVS,” she said between ferrying rounds of cheeseburgers and coffee to Saturday afternoon diners. “We have this restaurant, a pizza place — you know, we don’t have anything to offer. And people aren’t going to want to bring something in here if we don’t have something to offer, if you don’t have the people.”
Still, on a Saturday afternoon, they come to the Eat ‘N Haus, where Capp asks them to decide.
White meat or dark? Diet or regular? Chili, or ham and bean?
A pair of customers ask her what the day’s options are.
“We have peanut butter, chocolate peanut butter, banana, coconut, dutch apple, pumpkin, sugar cream, custard, chocolate, Oreo, sour cream lemon…”
There are 17 in all, written on the whiteboard across the room, brought in from an Amish-Mennonite bakery down the road.
The couple Capp is serving considers.
For them, it’s simple. The sugar cream.
Pick a pie from the list and move on.
For Capp, recommending a pie is hard enough. Picking one is even tougher.
She’s indecisive. She couldn’t even tell you which party she’s chosen more often.
“I’m not a Democrat, I’m not a Republican, alright?” Capp says. ”I vote for who I think can do the best.”
Right now, Capp can’t figure out who that person is. It takes a while for her to articulate her positions.
She pauses, pursing her lips in consideration and false-starting several times before she gets the right words out.
“If Romney is president,” Capp says, “there’s a great possibility that he’ll have as much trouble as what Obama did, if he ends up with congressmen majority Democrat.”
The government’s broken, she says. On television, she sees candidates attack each other for compromising. But without it, how are they supposed to get anything done?
She doesn’t care as much about the party labels as she does about the issues.
“Republican or Democrat, I want them to fight for me,” Capp says.
This afternoon, she crumples paper placemats and stuffs them into cups, waiting out her 4 p.m. shift-end with a smile and an apology every time she doesn’t refill a drink fast enough.
It’s tough here. She makes $2.25 per hour, and there are regulars who don’t tip. She lost her manufacturing position in early 2009 and jumped around from there.
She helped customers at the Auburn Wal-Mart, sold insurance from her car. One morning at the Eat ‘N Haus, the owner said she’d hire her in a second, and Capp challenged her sincerity.
Now she waits tables, scoops croutons off the salad bar and thinks about how she can’t decide who should run the country.
Taxes, health care, foreign aid, gas prices, the Farm Bill — she hears and reads and wonders about it all. Who’s supposed to fix it?
She’ll decide in the voting booth, she says.
Or maybe a bit before, so she doesn’t have to consider their talking points while she’s standing before the ballot.
“That’s not fair to the people that are behind me,” she says.
Outside, the sign reads “GET RICH QUICK. COUNT YOUR BLESSINGS.”
The parking lot of Mount Pleasant United Methodist Church is nearly full Sunday, and the last stragglers file in before the 10:05 a.m. service.
The church’s sanctuary is small. Members of the congregation sit on the polished wooden pews in jeans and sweaters. Recovering alcoholics and high school students gather to lay their prayer requests before one another and God.
For the unemployed.
For elderly parents.
Afterward, Jim Rosenbury descends into the basement to teach junior church.
He knows all the children’s names. Usually five or six come down, aged 6 through sixth grade.
“They made a cow, like a statue,” he tells them.
The lesson is about the Ten Commandments, the tale of Moses coming down from the Mount Sinai with God’s directives inscribed on stone tablets only to find that his people are worshipping a golden calf in his absence.
“Well, why would they want to worship that?” asks Erin, 6.
Upstairs, out of earshot, the adults listen to Matthew 19:24.
“My children, how hard it is for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. It is much harder for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.”
The pastor tells the adults money can become a false idol, a distraction from God.
Rosenbury is 56 and grew up in Butler. He’s never attended church anywhere else.
He commutes 200 miles every week to a marketing job for a global manufacturing company north of Detroit.
“I drive through some of the God-awfulest places you’ve seen,” Rosenbury says, “and you’re thinking, ‘how will these people — if the government doesn’t help them, how are they ever gonna even have a hope of doing anything?”
He described the desolation he reads about in the pages of the Detroit Free Press. Abandoned, rat-infested houses and families that spent five generations on welfare.
“You just don’t think that in the United States, in the year 2012, you should have starving people and so-forth,” he says. “Or people that need medical care. Things like that. I don’t know.”
He can’t shake it out. It seems like both parties want to help.
When he goes into his office, he thinks about the way Obama’s social engineering will hurt their business.
Maybe finding the answer to social problems isn’t the president’s job. The government has a tendency to bog down intended good deeds, Rosenbury says.
Ultimately, it comes down to economics. He is most concerned with electing a leader who will be friendly toward business.
“Jesus said, there are always gonna be poor, and there are always gonna be hungry and all that sort of stuff, so we’re always gonna have to take care of them,” he says.
Visitors show up to the Eagles on Sunday night before the 5:30 p.m. drawing.
It’s a private club where people come to play bingo or euchre and eat smothered burritos served out of a window.
It’s also a charitable organization with benefits, scholarships and Christmas parties for needy kids.
Later, a winner will be chosen for tonight’s prize of $3,535.
Players, drinkers, sitters and viewers are scattered around the room.
At the bar, they discuss layoffs and health care over domestic beer and Diet Coke.
At the long tables, they watch NASCAR or talk family with friends they’ve known for 30 years.
On Sunday nights, Trudy and Jerry Webb come here to socialize with their “clique.”
Jerry Webb sits at the end of a table, hunched over a copy of the Auburn Evening Star. Webb is 63, greying, with tinted glasses and a conservative viewpoint.
His wife Trudy, 64, has a life-long left-leaning opinion.
“She goes one way, I go the other,” Jerry says with a laugh. “So we usually cancel each other out.”
Occasionally, the politics lead them into arguments. Sometimes, they just watch separate televisions.
But after more than four decades of marriage, they know how to survive an election.
And how to survive bigger challenges, as well.
The births of their children, the death of their son and being pushed into retirement before it was expected. Things that make a family. Things that matter more.
In the Eagles, Trudy says Romney isn’t as explicit in his policy statements as she wants him to be.
“They’ve both done that this year — ” Jerry begins.
“Well, Obama’s got a little bit more to it — ” Trudy cuts him off.
“Obama’s done good, and there’s things that I don’t agree with — ” Jerry continues.
They talk over each other, at the same time, as if in lieu of speaking in unison they can block the conflict by creating separate conversations.
In politics, compromise is sometimes seen as weakness. For the Webbs, it seems to be the answer.
Friends ask how they make the marriage work. They laugh it off and say that it doesn’t come up much in their house.
Political choices don’t make them who they are, and they don’t make or break their marriage.
Trudy and Jerry talk it out for a while.
She says the primary comes too late in the spring to make a difference. Indiana residents don’t have the power to choose the party’s nominees.
“Well, we don’t on the main vote, either,” he says. “Because all your mid-states with electoral votes like Indiana, Kentucky and Iowa and all them, we’re just wasting our vote to even go vote, really.”
They descend into talking at the same time again, Jerry discussing electoral votes and Trudy pointing out candidates don’t visit Indiana because of its late primary.
Eventually, Trudy starts to leave. She comes back in, offers one last comment about how she can’t support Paul Ryan, and walks purposefully out the door.
“She’s real opinionated,” Jerry says, a small apology.
The bartender has already determined a winning number for the drawing — a blank space in the book that hasn’t been signed.
For now, the pot rolls over.
Next week, as Election Day approaches, the stakes continue to climb.