Another in a weekly series on what Mainers across the state say about the race for the White House — and what they want from the next president.
POWNAL – It might do Barack Obama and Mitt Romney some good to show up at the North Pownal Think Tank.
If they do, they’ll find a welcoming chair inside the 8-by-8-foot building and a group of local gentlemen willing to share their ideas for fixing what’s wrong with the country.
They’d also get a few bad jokes and maybe a day-old doughnut, if they’re lucky.
For much of the last decade, Alan Bradstreet and a handful of his Pownal buddies have gathered weekday mornings at 7:30 to chew the fat.
They built this shack after their favorite local coffee spot closed. They needed a place to meet, so they salvaged discarded materials from landfills and constructed a building just big enough to accommodate the six or seven friends who show up regularly.
The first one to arrive hangs the flag.
There is no lock on the door. Anyone is welcome anytime.
They named their cozy meeting hall a think tank in jest. Although they are capable of big ideas, these guys do not take themselves seriously. They’re gadflies, mostly.
They talk about the weather, the light left on overnight at the fire department and the latest police news.
“We used to have a crime watch thingy going, until someone stole the sign,” Bradstreet deadpans.
Earlier this month, four of them talked politics.
A woodworker who supports himself making cherry bookmarks, Bradstreet was joined by David Norman, a retired lawyer; Wedgie Wheeler, a retired union man from Bath Iron Works; and Chris Lutes, a retired surgeon.
These are four white guys on either side of retirement from diverse working backgrounds. Two plan to vote for Obama. Two plan to vote for Romney.
Despite their differences, they have much more in common than not. They are united in their love of country and their concern about the way things are. They worry about the future of Social Security and Medicare.
They worry about the deficit, and they worry how we’re going to pay for the wars we’ve wrought in Iraq and Afghanistan. They suspect the wars would not cost as much or last as long if the politicians who support them sent their own kids to the front lines to fight.
And they agree that the outcome of the presidential election won’t change their lives all that much — although they all absolutely plan to vote.
“I don’t think it matters much which one is elected,” offers Norman, who describes himself as a Republican “but not a right-wing nut.”
“I think the American public is way ahead of the politicians, and they’re waiting for something to happen.”
When asked how he plans to vote, Norman pauses. “I’ll hold my nose and I’ll vote. And I’ll probably vote for Romney.”
In the chair across from him, Lutes hisses.
“I said I’ll hold my nose,” Norman laughs.
Lutes emphatically supports Obama. “I’d vote for any Democrat who runs. Republicans don’t have any empathy for the underdog,” he says.
Bradstreet sounds a similar theme. He is not enrolled in either party. He voted for Obama last time around and plans to do so again.
He is less interested in specific issues, and more concerned about the quality of the man. He describes Obama as a much more “honest, straightforward guy” than Romney.
“I do feel like Romney wouldn’t know a common man if he stepped on one — and I bet that he has stepped on a few,” Bradstreet says.
His buddies laugh.
“It’s about the level of trust. No matter where you stand on issues, it really boils down to how you feel that person in office will deal with these issues,” he says, adding that he trusts Obama’s instincts more than Romney’s.
Like a lot of Mainers, Bradstreet describes himself as a no-nonsense fiscal conservative. He comes from what he calls poor roots, but he’s always had money because he has saved it and managed it wisely. He and his wife paid off their mortgage a long time ago. Their lives are anything but extravagant. His stinginess is a source of pride, as is the fact that he has made a good life as a small-business entrepreneur.
Of these four friends, Wheeler may have the most to lose or gain in the presidential election. Certainly, he’s got the most to fret over.
He’s probably voting for Romney, although he admits that he’s not “made up my mind 100 percent.”
He retired early last September from BIW to take care of his wife, Evelyn, who is on kidney dialysis and drives three days a week to Bath for treatment. Evelyn’s medications cost $2,100 a month. Not counting his monthly insurance premiums, Wheeler has spent $4,700 this year on out-of-pocket health care costs.
Wheeler and his wife grow many of their own vegetables, and recently put up 35 pints of green beans and cucumbers. They enjoy gardening, but they especially like saving money at the grocery store. Even a slight increase in food and gas prices is devastating, he says.
“It’s going to get worse. My income is going to stay the same. I’m retired and on a fixed income,” he says.
The talk of universal health care has left him more confused than encouraged. The law makes no sense to him, and he suspects most of the lawmakers who voted on the legislation don’t understand it either. He is certain they haven’t read it.
Wheeler worries about coming across as a complainer. He understands things are complicated for everybody, and there are no easy answers to his problems or the country’s problems.
One day at a time, he says.
“I’m just … I’m a Mainer … I’m just going to plug along, do the best I can every day, get up happy that I can put my feet on the edge of the bed and stand up.”
If Obama or Romney shows up to talk to these guys, that’s what they will hear, too: Do your best — and good luck.
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or: