Kansans Grill Lawmaker on Economy, Foreclosures, Gas Prices
By Michael Janofsky
John Gilbert, a retired food company executive, was one of the first voters to show up at Representative Dennis Moore's ``community office hour'' near the deli section of the Price Chopper supermarket in Overland Park, Kansas.
``Why are we borrowing from China just so people can buy Chinese goods?'' said Gilbert, 71, pointing to a portion of the $9.4 trillion in U.S. government debt held by the world's most populous country.
Rita Osterkamp, 73, a widow living on a fixed income, told Moore that rising food and gas prices threaten to make her ``the first bag lady of Overland Park.'' Dave Kellogg, 46, a marketing manager for Sprint Nextel Corp., had prepared a six-page Power Point presentation. His message: ``Don't let tax cuts expire.''
The encounters last week in Moore's northeast Kansas district underscored how an economy on the brink of recession and voter anxiety are shaping the campaigns of lawmakers seeking re-election this year.
``In state after state, the economy is becoming the single most important voting issue,'' said Scott Rasmussen, president of Asbury Park, New Jersey-based Rasmussen Reports, which publishes daily public opinion polls.
Moore, 62, a five-term incumbent, is one of two Democratic members of Congress from a state the Republicans have carried in 16 of the past 17 presidential elections. The district includes Johnson County, the wealthiest in Kansas, and poor areas of Kansas City. President George W. Bush won it twice, with 53 percent of the vote over Al Gore in 2000 and 55 percent over John Kerry in 2004.
Moore's probable Republican challenger is Nick Jordan, a state senator making his first run for federal office who is facing a perennial candidate, Paul Showen, in an Aug. 5 primary, said Christian Morgan, executive director of the Kansas Republican Party.
Jordan favors making the Bush tax cuts permanent. Moore said he wanted to do more for middle-class families without adding to the debt. Moore voted for Bush's $168 billion stimulus package, while Jordan thinks it inadequate, according to his campaign manager, Dustin Olson.
In two days of community meetings, Moore answered more questions about the economy than any other issue, including what he might do about it as a member of the House Financial Services Committee.
``There are limits to what Congress can do,'' he said at a lunch in Lawrence with faculty from the University of Kansas who raised concerns about home foreclosures. ``People think Congress has more power than it really does have.''
Later, during a driving tour of Kansas City with Mayor Joe Reardon, Moore asked Reardon, a Democrat, whether there had been a rise in foreclosures there.
``A slight increase,'' the mayor said.
Moore told Reardon that he favors encouraging lenders to negotiate with mortgage holders who have fallen behind.
Reardon's car approached the downtown section called Strawberry Hill, where two community development companies, CHWC Inc. and City Vision Ministries, are building 100 three-bedroom townhouses they plan to price between $215,000 and $220,000.
Reardon told Moore the project would help revitalize his city's core -- if it can attract buyers.
John Harvey, president of City Vision, said in a separate interview that while developers have lined up financing for the first 30 units, they haven't sold any homes yet. Banks are refusing to lend any more until three of the first five houses completed are sold.
``Lenders aren't in the mood to take any risk right now,'' Harvey said.
Reardon then showed Moore Village West, a 400-acre site where retailers, restaurants and a planned theme park are turning open fields into an entertainment center.
The economy's instability is affecting progress there, too. Reardon said he needs a $3 million federal grant to help create a rapid bus line to shuttle unemployed city workers to jobs the Village West contractors are having trouble filling because of its rural location.
Moore made no promises in light of the Bush administration's proposed budget for fiscal 2009, starting Oct. 1, which calls for cuts of nearly $55 million in federal grants for Kansas.
Another stop on Moore's district visit was a procurement conference his office helped arrange at Johnson County Community College, a day-long event to teach local business owners how to secure government contracts.
Governor Kathleen Sebelius, a two-term Democrat, told the group that Kansas remained ``pretty robust.'' After her keynote address, she said in an interview she was unhappy with the Bush administration's strategy of helping investment banks, such as Bear Stearns Cos., before homeowners facing foreclosure.
``We need huge reinvestment to help average Americans,'' she said. ``We have to save their homes and save their jobs.''
Everywhere he went, Moore faced reminders of economic challenges -- even at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art.
By coincidence, he encountered William Muntean, a trade policy officer from the State Department who was in the area to meet with the International Relations Council of Kansas City, Missouri, and promote a bilateral trade agreement with Colombia.
Congressional passage would ``help further our goals around the world,'' he told Moore, as they stood beside a sculpture of a giraffe with its head in a noose.
``I'm still thinking about it,'' Moore said, referring to the agreement, not the giraffe.