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The mood on Main St. as midterm elections loom

EAGLE, COLO. — A lot of adjectives come to mind to describe this small town, set in the Rockies just west of Vail.

EAGLE, COLO. — A lot of adjectives come to mind to describe this small town, set in the Rockies just west of Vail. Drive through its inviting streets and you’ll find neat rows of houses and open park spaces, children riding by cheerfully on bikes without parental supervision, and small local shops where the cashier knows customers by name. It all speaks of a certain image of America – quaint, idyllic, even Rockwell-esque. And all set against a stunning mountain backdrop.

That’s why the conversations with locals here can seem so jarring. Poke your head in the local drugstore or the corner cafe and the words you’ll hear more often are “frustration,” “anger,” or “uncertainty.”

At an outdoor table at the Dusty Boot steakhouse, Susan Balcomb spears what’s left of her appetizer as she looks across the street. “We still haven’t hit bottom yet here,” she says. “There is a lot of frustration. We’ll be back, but it won’t be like before.”

At the city’s BMX bicycle track, Tracy Whicker watches her son roll up and down the dirt hills. “We haven’t hit rock bottom yet,” she says. “I think we are going to crash and crash hard.”

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Not only crash, but crash hard. And if you spend a few days walking and talking in Eagle you’ll quickly learn those voices are not unusual. Theirs is the prevailing view, even the dominant one. Times are hard. Times have changed. Times will not be the way they were for a long time – if ever.

But what may be most remarkable about these sentiments in the fall of 2010 is how unremarkable they are in the United States.

Choose your poll and you will find the number of Americans who believe the country is “on the wrong track” or “dissatisfied with the way things are going” generally hovers around 60 percent, and it has been in that range for most of this year. The latest Zogby poll put the number at 60 percent, so did Ipsos/Reuters. YouGov/Polimetrix had the number at 56 percent. Rasmussen pegged it at 67 percent.

To probe what’s behind the discontent, we came to Eagle, which, in many ways, offers a good window into the American mood. It is a former boom town set in a key swing state. Politics in Colorado runs the gamut from liberal to conservative. It is a green state but also one where people embrace hunting and “using” the land. It mixes the Western traits of can-do capitalism and self-sufficiency with $3 lattes and five-star restaurants. While parts of the state have avoided the depths of the recession, few places have escaped entirely unscathed, economically or psychologically. Who has?

2010 has not been a banner year for the US. The job numbers look gloomy with unemployment hovering around 9.5 percent. Housing prices in many places, including Eagle, are falling. Foreclosures in the last few months are again climbing. For much of this spring and summer, headlines were dominated by the story of a broken oil well that simply could not be capped. The war in Afghanistan grinds on, even if the one in Iraq winds down.

And, of course, 2010 comes after a tough 2008 and a tougher 2009. Add it all together and you have a national slump that has left many Americans in an unsettled state – and many voters in a surly mood.

As November approaches, incumbents of all stripes – but particularly Democrats – look to be in danger. A June Washington Post-ABC News poll found support for sitting congressional members at an all-time low – 31 percent. And the anger is not just reserved for Washington. Most anyone in office is seen as part of the problem, whatever that problem is – losing a job for some, losing a home for others – and new faces, well, they have the benefit of being new. The mood is national, but you can feel it in high relief in Eagle, where even the county sheriff finds himself the target of multiple challengers.

How did we get here? And, more important, where are we going?

As director of Patchwork Nation, a journalism project funded by the Knight Foundation, I have been dropping into different cities and towns across the country to probe the current state of the American experience. My colleague, Professor James Gimpel of the University of Maryland, and I have identified 12 types of places across the US that represent distinct voter communities. They include “Military Bastions” and “Monied ‘Burbs,” “Service Worker Centers” and “Emptying Nests,” “Immigration Nation” and “Minority Central.”

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In the 2-1/2 years I’ve been visiting Eagle, one of Patchwork Nation’s “Boom Towns,” the story has gone from being one of a land-grabbing gold rush to one of many people just trying to hang on. And that transformation, while magnified here in a state with a long history of boom-bust cycles, mirrors what we have found in much of the nation at large. It’s a common theme in the national conversation and one that Mr. Gimpel and I examine at length in “Our Patchwork Nation,” a book from Gotham Press being released this October.

The simple truth is, despite any thoughts you might have about American “exceptionalism” or the nation’s resilience, many reasons exist for the uncertainty in Eagle and nationally. The American psyche seems to have undergone a make-over in the last few years. People sense something fundamental has changed, and while it may be too early to define the precise nature of it, we can explore what underlies the new ennui and what it means for a nation struggling to regain a sense of itself.

Jimmy Carter redux?
It’s easy to talk to people about the national mood in 2010 and hear eerie echoes of 30 years ago. In 1979, inflation was eating into people’s pocketbooks and fuel prices were skyrocketing. In response, President Jimmy Carter took to the airwaves in July to address what he called a national “crisis of confidence.” Though he never used the word, the address became known as the “malaise” speech.

“I want to talk to you right now about a fundamental threat to American democracy,” Mr. Carter said, adding: “It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.”

Critics panned the speech for being pessimistic, even defeatist. But talking to people in Eagle and other Patchwork Nation communities today, you hear a lot of the same doubt.

In the brilliant midday sunlight, Kurt Harvey is sitting in the cab of a mobile crane, slowly moving a basket full of painters suspended some 50 feet off the ground. Mr. Harvey has the look of a powerfully built construction worker, but he is the owner of HI Cranes. He has been in the business for 14 years and now finds himself back where he started – wondering about the future of his once-thriving company.

The last few years in Eagle have not been easy. The housing boom that fueled much of the nation’s growth in the early 2000s was turbocharged here – the town’s population doubled to 6,000. The housing bust that followed has taken a huge toll psychologically, and financially, on people like Harvey.

Recent contraction
At the height of the building craze, Harvey owned five cranes and employed 10 people. Now he has one worker. The other guys have left the construction business altogether. One is delivering pizzas; another has moved to Denver to work in the train yards. HI Cranes doesn’t offer benefits anymore, which means Harvey and his co-worker have no health insurance, even though construction can be dangerous work. Harvey is also down to only two cranes.

“The bank repossessed one of them. The other two I had to sell just to pay them off,” he says as he eases the bucket of men closer to the building. “I used to rush from job to job, working seven days a week. Sometimes 100 hours in one week. Now there are weeks when we have only 20 hours of work.”

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“A lot of people are scared,” he adds. “We just don’t know if there are enough jobs here to keep people working without construction.”

That’s a real concern in Eagle, where much of the economy the past 10 years has been built around people who wear hard hats. In 2006, local authorities issued building permits for 619 units in Eagle County. In 2009 it fell to 78 units. The drop has hit people like a ton of patio bricks.

Chris Spiegel, who owns a construction company in nearby Gypsum, once had about 20 men on his payroll. Now he employs six – all of whom have had to take 20 percent pay cuts.

“For the first time in 10 years, I laid off my crew for the winter last year,” Mr. Spiegel says. “There are lots of jobs to bid on, but you make a decent bid, and they come back and tell you to take 20 percent off the price.”

Ms. Whicker, the mom who was watching her son on the bike course, has witnessed it all. She worked for a title company in Eagle during the boom and watched across the table at closings as friends and neighbors bought bigger houses with less money down, certain they would make a tidy profit when they sold.

“The same people came back through my closing office on short sales a year or two later,” she says. “They were upside down in their homes and walking away with nothing. It was hard to sit there. I quit my job because of it.”

Fewer Range Rovers
You listen to these stories and maybe you think, “Well, that’s life.” The people who bought those homes that made Eagle boom took a chance and got burned. That’s the inherent gamble of real estate. But the boom did more than line the pockets of a few people; it fed and sustained an entire economy. Masons and carpenters, HVAC installers and real estate agents – all made good money and invested in more expensive homes. They went out to eat more. They purchased all the items that filled those homes – furniture and flat-screen TVs. They hired landscapers. They went on expensive vacations.

As their income dried up, so did the money going into Range Rovers and Viking stoves. Angelino, the expensive Italian restaurant in town, has become Luigi’s Pastahouse, a moderately priced family restaurant where kids eat free of charge. The Starbucks closed. The streets look tidy, but “for lease” signs hang from many cinnamon-brick storefronts. More than 300 homes in Eagle County languish in some state of foreclosure.

It’s a narrative that has been repeated in hundreds of communities around the country. Other places we call “Boom Towns” in Patchwork Nation that felt the full rush of the housing boom are now reeling. Look at ones in Clark County in Nevada or Riverside County in California. Even beyond “Boom Towns,” there is reason for some angst. On average, US home prices are still 31 percent lower than they were at the peak of the housing boom in 2006. And while Patchwork Nation likes to point out the subtle difference between communities, few places have escaped the housing slide.

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Less to spend; debts to pay
In very tangible ways, people have less money than they used to. They have less to spend and debt to pay off. And there are long-term economic effects to all of this. In towns like Eagle, without good-paying construction jobs as an economic driver, what will move the US economy? It won’t be manufacturing, which once made up more than 28 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) and now represents 13 percent.

Even triumphs of American ingenuity are not wholly American victories anymore – flip over your iPhone and you will see the words “Assembled in China.”

The real growth area in the economy is not technology or alternative energy; it is services. The service sector makes up about three-quarters of the US GDP today – it was less than 50 percent in 1959. And while there are certainly good-paying jobs in many parts of the service economy – wouldn’t we all like a Goldman Sachs salary – plenty of low-paying, low-benefit ones exist as well, in areas like retail and food service.

Do most Americans fully grasp these changes? No. At least not everyone does. But people sense something big is happening to the American way of life. Talk to people not just in Eagle but around the country in places as different as Lincoln City, Ore., where tourism rules, and Los Alamos, N.M., where scientists split atoms. The point you will hear over and over is “the world is different now.” And that’s never meant in a positive way.

Backlash at the ballot box
Is it any wonder then that 2010 is the year of the endangered incumbent? After all, if something is broken, if something has changed, someone must be to blame. Those in power offer a good place to start. And in Eagle the line of culpability for some voters starts far beneath Washington.

Sitting behind his desk in the Eagle County Sheriff’s office, Joe Hoy shakes his head. Mr. Hoy is running for a third term as Eagle County’s top cop, and for the first time he is facing opposition and he is surprised. The last four years have been quiet. Since the 2003 sexual assault trial of Kobe Bryant, which happened in Hoy’s jurisdiction, the county has experienced relative calm.

“They are just frustrated from the federal government on down, and they vent by focusing on local officials,” he says. Hoy had a primary opponent that came from his staff, Deputy Charles Wolf, and narrowly held him off by 256 votes. Now he faces another challenger in November, another former deputy, James van Beek.

“I’ve talked to the voters around town and one of them, I don’t want to say names, but someone I know, came up to me and said, ‘I think you’ve done a great job, but I’m voting for Wolf.’ I didn’t bother responding to that. I mean, what do you say? You can’t argue with thinking like that.”

Voters, of course, are expressing their anger beyond the sheriff’s office. In the recent Colorado primary for US Senate, Ken Buck, a candidate backed by the “tea party” movement, defeated Jane Norton, a former lieutenant governor supported by the Republican establishment. On the Democratic side, Sen. Michael Bennet held off a spirited challenge from Andrew Romanoff, a former state lawmaker, whose main pitch was that he was an outsider. Even Mr. Bennet, the incumbent, frequently tried to play up his nonpolitical pedigree: Since he was appointed to his US Senate seat, he liked to remind voters that his name had never appeared on a ballot before.

“People are so mad at Congress they just want to throw out all the incumbents,” says Kathy Heicher, the former editor of the local paper, who has lived in Eagle for decades. Her husband, Bill, nods. He might, in fact, be counted as one of those voters. He supported Mr. Romanoff because “he may be a professional politician, but at least he’s never been to Washington before. They change when they get there.”

Bill Heicher is no crank. A former Colorado Division of Wildlife biologist, he has worked in the government and understands how hard it is to effect change. But he says what’s happening now is different. “The politicians are not [in Washington] for the good of the people,” he says. “They are there for themselves. And there is a helpless [feeling] out here that there is nothing we can do.”

That last point is not insignificant. The discontent in the electorate doesn’t seem as singularly focused as it was in 1994 – the year the Republicans swept into power with their Contract with America and the election many Republicans like to draw allusions to today. Even the tea party movement, the motivated and loosely affiliated grass-roots groups calling for change, is far from a cohesive force with a common agenda and common political aims.

In Maricopa County, Ariz., an “Immigration Nation” community in Patchwork Nation, the movement is primarily about people pouring illegally across the border. In Ronan, Mont., a “Tractor Country” community, gun rights draws much of the attention. In Nixa, Mo., an “Evangelical Epicenter,” conservative Christian values are the focus.

Tea partyers in all those locations would probably cite government spending and taxes as major concerns, which are Republican issues. But they are not issues exclusive to 2010. To those I talk to in Patchwork Nation communities, neither party has easy answers to the bigger problems that vex America.

The end result: The Democrats, as the party in power, may well take a big hit this fall. But no matter which party occupies the most seats in Congress next year, it is not likely to mollify a restive electorate.

Time to reset the dial
Certainly not all is despair in the land, or in Eagle. As the larger world changes, many people here are changing along with it. Call it the enduring American trait of reinvention.

In Gypsum, 20 minutes down the road, there is a new public golf course, Gypsum Creek, that only became a public course when the old facility, the semiprivate Cotton Ranch Golf Club, went into foreclosure. Cotton Ranch was not the most expensive place to play in the area, but with initiation fees of $15,000 to $30,000 and annual dues of $3,000, it wasn’t cheap, either.

Now anyone from the tricounty area can play the championship course, designed by famed architect Pete Dye, for $49 a round. That’s 18 holes with a cart. You still have to supply your own swing, though.

“Some of the former members were upset when the city first bought the course,” says Matt Hanson, the general manager. “They wanted their fees back. But eventually it became accepted. What else was there?

“We are meeting our goals now, in terms of golfers. The costs now make more sense. People are reevaluating their lifestyle. The recession has taught everyone a little bit about how to manage their money, I think.”

It’s also led to some new career paths. A few years ago Chris Harvey, the son of HI Cranes owner Kurt Harvey, was working for his dad and preparing to join the family business. Now, at 23, he’s a manager at the Big Valley Steakhouse in Gypsum Creek’s clubhouse. “I’ve kind of veered away from construction,” he says. “I never would have thought of doing this before, but I like managerial work. I like working here.”

Many people in Eagle are likely going to be veering in the next few years, trying different jobs and careers, looking for a new way. Chris Romer, executive of the Vail Valley Partnership, a local business group, says the future for the area and a lot of people is clear – more tourism. He recently wrote an op-ed in the Vail Daily, the local newspaper, headlined “Let’s place travel and tourism at the forefront of Eagle County’s economic recovery.” Mr. Romer is an organizer and a booster who clearly loves Eagle and the Vail Valley and he wants to be optimistic. Tourism can fill the hotels and if the appeal is done wisely the area can become a major year-round tourist stop, he wrote.

But as he prepared for a Partnership event, Romer said he, too, felt that changes in Eagle were about more than just a “recovery.” Something larger is going on, and it will be hard to replace those good-paying construction jobs.

“Will it ever be what it was – at the pre-2008 level? Not in the next five to seven years,” he says, and then smiles. “Maybe more. The truth is who really knows? There are larger things going on here. Global things I cannot pretend to understand.”

And that, in a microcosm, is what’s behind much of the national mood heading into the fall of 2010. It’s not just the uncertainty of what’s next; it’s the difficulty of even understanding what went wrong and how to correct it. Americans who take such pride in controlling their fates and deciding their destinies are feeling that they are being buffeted by forces beyond their control and comprehension.

Does that mean another “malaise” moment? Maybe. But in Eagle and in other communities around the country that I regularly visit, it feels more like a period of adjustment. And for some here, the boom-bust of the recent past holds valuable lessons.

True, the pre-2008 world did have its benefits. People had bigger homes. They had bigger jobs. They had bigger lives. But viewed from 2010, it all looks a bit excessive to some.

Susan Balcomb, sitting outside the Dusty Boot, shakes her head. She is a financial “coach” now, a growth area in hard times. Long term, she sees positive things coming out of the nation’s period of uncertainty – better attitudes about debt and money and the future. “We will never have what we had before,” she says. “But we shouldn’t get what we had. That was just greed.”

Around her, the mountains loom on all sides. The dun-colored foothills rise gently out of the valley floor, giving way to a more abrupt geology at higher elevations, capped in conifer green.

It is a vista made for inspiration. For Eagle, it is a constant in hard times – a reminder that there are some things that can’t be taken away, a symbol of hope, perhaps, for better days.