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Upping the ante on the values debate: Life’s struggles leave little time for voting for some

Richard Morrison wiled away the hours last Thursday in front of Pop’s Mini Mart in Clyde in hopes of hitching a lift to Waynesville for a mid-day meal at the Open Door soup kitchen.


It’s a typical day for Morrison. After years of jobs at fast-food joints in Waynesville, Morrison quit working and went on government assistance.

“I’m bored out of my mind,” said Morrison, 37. “I would like to work.”

But the pay on “hamburger row” as he called it was too low to live on, and he isn’t qualified for much else. While he counts on free meals to stretch his budget each week, he’s still better off on government assistance than he was on minimum wage.

“I think it should be raised myself,” Morrison said of minimum wage.

Democratic leaders are touting their party’s stance on raising the minimum wage as a campaign issue in the battle for Congress this November. But unfortunately for them, elections are the furthest thing from Morrison’s mind.

“I don’t vote. I haven’t voted in years,” said Morrison. “I just gave up.”

This election season Democrats want to redefine the values arena that has recently been dominated by Republicans. While Republicans rack up voters with their opposition to gay marriage and abortion, Democrats claim raising the minimum wage deserves equal play.

“Look someone in the eye and tell them to live on $5.15 an hour,” said Schorr Johnson, communications director for the North Carolina Democratic Party. “I think the issue is a value’s issue.”

But like Morrison’s story shows, it’s unclear how well the strategy is working. Here in Western North Carolina, the minimum wage has cropped up as an issue in the neck-and-neck race between U.S. Rep. Charles Taylor, R-Brevard and Democratic challenger Heath Shuler of Waynesville. In a nutshell, Shuler is for raising the minimum wage, while Taylor has a mixed record on the issue.

While many people agree with Shuler on raising the minimum wage, motivating them to vote is an entirely different matter.

At low-income apartments next door to Pop’s Mini-Mart, Michael Sams, 35, shared his view on his way out the door for a day of pouring concrete last week.

“I know people who make minimum wage, and I don’t see how they do it myself,” Sams said. “I think it should be raised.”

At an appliance store two doors down, J. Wayne Smith shared similar sentiment.

“I think it should be raised drastically. I don’t see how people make it,” Smith said. “I think there should be a law that the politicians have to live on $5.15 an hour and we’ll see how quick they raise it.”

But neither men pledged to vote for Shuler. Sams is undecided.

“I haven’t heard what he’s had to say yet except what I’ve seen on commercials,” Sams said of Shuler.

Smith, on the other hand, doesn’t vote.

“I’ve always said if I found an honest politician I’d vote, so I’m not voting,” said Smith, a self-employed photographer and trailer park manager.

In an effort to mobilize low-income voters, a campaign called Working Families Win set up shop in Western North Carolina this year.

“Our goal is to help people make the connection between their own economic well-being with the policies that are made, or not made, at the federal level,” said Melissa Fridlin, the WNC coordinator for Working Families Win.

But it’s a hard sell, Fridlin said.

“We are not under the illusion we are going to shift everything in the next six weeks,” Fridlin said. “The first challenge is getting on people’s radar screen.”

The message is resonating with some voters, however. Patrick McKee was popping into the Dollar General Store in Canton on his lunch break last week.

“I think it is way over due,” McKee said of a minimum wage hike. “It is about time people can have a decent supper and pay their bills without working like slaves.”

McKee said the economy will “definitely” be an issue in the election. Unfortunately, many voters at the bottom of the economic ladder are so absorbed in their own struggles — like Morrison bumming rides to the soup kitchen — they don’t make time for politics.

“It’s a bad struggle,” Morrison said. “Not very good, not very good at all.”

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