Jan 29 2007

Shelby listens to concerns in 5 counties

Birmingham News

By Mary Orndorff

Residents in five east Alabama counties spent part of their weekend with U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, and not one of them asked about new college football coaches or the dawning "American Idol" season.

War, immigration, taxes and health care were repeated themes as Shelby, in his 21st year in the Senate, gave personal access to voters in his annual 67-county trek around the state. Streaking from Wedowee to Lineville to Dadeville to Rockford to Sylacauga on Saturday, Shelby inhaled the litany of concerns, from international threats to American security to the lack of cell phone access in rural Alabama.

"I can't solve all your needs, but I like to hear from you," Shelby said at Miss Anita's Restaurant in Clay County, his 17th meeting this year and his 1,357th since he was elected in 1986.

New twist:

Part of his stock speech was a dire assessment of world politics and the menace a nuclear Iran could become, backed by Russia, in a shaky Middle East. He drops the ominous tone for a patriotic note and declares that American troops in the region will always have his support and that he'll vote against pending resolutions in the Senate declaring disagreement with the president's strategy in Iraq.

In all five counties, citizens nodded in agreement.

But Shelby's new twist, in light of Bush's depressed approval ratings and growing concerns even among Alabamians, is to openly identify the failures, especially disbanding the Iraqi army and leaving the unemployed men to be lured into the insurgency.

"We made a lot of mistakes. The administration made a lot of mistakes," the Republican said over breakfast in Wedowee.

It's the questions afterward that provide the most insight into what his constituents are concerned about. In Coosa County, Frank Higginbotham of Weogufka told Shelby that Congress should consider a draft, in part to augment the size of the military.

"And if you want your freedom ... then you need to get out and do your share of the fighting," said Higginbotham, a veteran. Shelby doubted it would happen, but he agreed that the burdens of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan fall on relatively few families.

Stark context:

Wayne Freeman, a retiree who lives on Lake Martin, argued that drug companies should not enjoy such generous government subsidies and protection for their research because it keeps costs too high for too long. Shelby agreed that some subsidies are too large, but mostly defended the system.

"I wouldn't want to take the patent away from them because they might not invent the medicine I might need, or you," Shelby said.

Patricia Harp of Dadeville put the issues of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security in stark political context. If he and his colleagues fail to shore up those entitlement programs, "you're going to lose a vote because I'll be dead," Harp said.

Deficit:

The federal deficit was a hot topic. Shelby often referred to the burdens being left for his grandchildren unless the federal government's books are brought back into balance, and while the comment is well-received at nearly every stop, frustration bubbled to the surface.

"If our illustrious congressmen and senators know all this, then why aren't they getting something done about it?" a man asked in Rockford.

Shelby was pessimistic. "I don't believe Congress, and I've been up there a while, can do this without a hammer to their head."

Henry Looney, a city council member in Sylacauga whose wife is a nurse, asked whether a national health care system would hinder competition. Shelby said he advocates better health care coverage for all income levels, but is skeptical that a government-run system would maintain quality.

On his way out the door during an unscheduled stop at the McDonald's in Ashland, he was lured behind the counter by employees who corralled him about the minimum wage while they posed for a picture.

Shelby said he'll support an increase, as long as it coincides with tax breaks for small businesses. He did not mention that he had voted just days earlier to block the increase because it didn't include the tax breaks, part of an extended Senate showdown on the issue.

Immigration:

By far, immigration was the dominating topic of the day. Sometimes Shelby would initiate it, sometimes a resident, but the overwhelming message from east central Alabama was that illegal immigration is expensive, unfair and threatening. Illegal immigrants don't pay their share of taxes for government services, they take American jobs, they broke the law to enter the country without repercussion, and they don't learn to speak English fast enough, many residents complained.

"We need to get the crooks and get them out of here. The dope. We lose money trying to police all those immigrants that we could be spending somewhere else," a Randolph County man told Shelby. Shelby sympathetically complained about the 12 million illegal immigrants already in the United States.

"A lot of 'em are hard workers but a lot of 'em are up to no good," he said over lunch in Dadeville.

But he warned voters that "common sense" is that 12 million people will not be sent home. He also announced he will not vote to allow them to legally stay in the country, even if employment is a condition of their stay. He predicted such a program - with the support of the Democratic majority, a few Republicans, the business community and the president - will be passed by Congress.

But despite the strong anti-immigrant tone by many of the questioners, Shelby interjected another perspective.

"They're looking for a better way of life, and they bring energy to our economy, and that's a positive thing," he said. "Because any new wave of immigrants coming with nothing to America historically has brought energy and opportunity. They push the economy up. I'm sure our ancestors did the same thing."

Kristy Abrams of Rockford said employers should be held accountable for hiring illegal workers, a similar point made Saturday by people who argued that immigrant labor fills tough but necessary jobs.

$1 billion goal:

Shelby also announced his goal to eventually steer $1 billion in federal money to Alabama's universities to promote engineering, science and math programs and research.

And standing inside the old grammar school in Rockford restored, in part, with $100,000 Shelby inserted into a 2004 federal law, Shelby encouraged people to ask for aid.

"A lot of times, government is about creating conditions where you can help yourself."