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America's Heartland Awaits Its Candidate

In this election year, an emerging theme coming from voters around the country is frustration with the tone of politics today. NPR's Debbie Elliott set out to revisit Brownstown, Ind., where she first talked with voters during the 1998 congressional elections, another acrimonious time.

Don and Anne Clodfelter of Jackson County, Ind., don't identify with either party. They know they won't vote for President Obama, but none of the GOP candidates particularly excites them.
Debbie Elliott / NPR
Don and Anne Clodfelter of Jackson County, Ind., don't identify with either party. They know they won't vote for President Obama, but none of the GOP candidates particularly excites them.

Fourteen years ago, Anne Clodfelter was directing the Jackson County Homemakers Extension Chorus as they prepared for an upcoming concert.

The Republican-controlled Congress, under then-Speaker Newt Gingrich, was preparing to impeach Democratic President Clinton Bill Clinton. Much of the campaign rhetoric that year focused on the subject, a sore spot at the time for Clodfelter.

"It's probably harder to vote the issues than any year because you don't hear about the issues," she said.

In 1998, Clodfelter and other chorus members said they wanted to hear less about Monica Lewinsky and more about subjects like education and the rising cost of health care.

Seeking A Candidate

Today, Clodfelter still sits at a piano, now directing the choir at Brownstown Presbyterian Church.

Just like 14 years ago, she's finding it hard to engage in this year's election because she doesn't think the candidates are articulating substantive agendas.

"If you can't do a 30-second bite, you're not going to do any good. And that's not what I need to know," she says.

Anne Clodfelter is 73 years old and a retired schoolteacher. Her husband, Don Clodfelter, is 78, also retired after running the local electric co-op for more than a quarter of a century.

This part of southern Indiana is known as a Democratic enclave in a mostly Republican state. But the Clodfelters don't identify with either party.

"I'm a registered Independent. I have never ever voted a straight ticket, and I've never ever missed an election," Don Clodfelter says.

The couple voted for John McCain in 2008 because they say he was more experienced than then-candidate Barack Obama. Another sore spot for Anne Clodfelter is the divisive political climate today. She complains criticism of the president is too often chalked up to racism.

"I get frustrated with the color card — and people who voted for Obama because he was black, people who voted against him because he was black. I did not vote against him, I voted for McCain," she says.

They're not going to vote for Obama, but they haven't galvanized behind any of the Republican candidates either.

Don Clodfelter is looking for someone who can tackle the economy.

"We need a CEO, a really good manager," he says.

'Left Behind'

Brownstown is the Jackson County seat, but only has about 3,000 residents. It's a scenic region, where the flat White River Valley meets rolling hills and knobs near the Kentucky border.

"This is Main Street. This used to be the stoplight, and I guess we've had progress, 'cause we've got another one [now]," Don Clodfelter says.

On a driving tour of town, he points out a new steel company, but says a lot of the older industries are now gone.

"We had a paper mill here for many years, and it is no longer functioning, and we had a cannery here and it's no longer functioning," he says.

There's talk of a new company restarting the paper mill, but he says for the most part, workers in Brownstown have to travel to bigger cities for jobs. It's happening in small towns throughout the region.

"The heartland is left behind," says Jack Montgomery, a friend of the Clodfelters.

He says no one is looking out for rural America anymore.

"Our legislators, once they leave here and are in D.C. for 2 years, they've lost all touch with reality," he says. "They've gotten to be a part of that machine and the lobby group and the income level that you see in D.C."

Hoping For Compromise

Montgomery, 66, retired last year after 33 years at the local bank.

"Something needs to be done. We've got to curtail spending and quit bailing out the big guys," he says. "Had we failed, a $150 million bank, they would have said, 'Oops, your stockholders are going to take a loss.' But when a big bank starts to fail, they say, 'Oh, we've got to bail them out, they're too big to fail.' Why? Their stockholders should take the loss too."

His wife, Mary Ann Montgomery, says it seems as though big corporations and political leaders don't play by the same rules that apply to the rest of the country. She says in real life, people have to work together and find compromise for the greater good.

"I think it's a crime that the two parties have to constantly fight one another, that there is no compromise going on," she says. "Therefore, nothing gets accomplished, everything is stymied."

The Montgomery's say they've yet to see a presidential candidate — from either party — who appears ready to put partisan differences aside for the good of the heartland.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.