Editor's note: This story is part of the American Next, a special project exploring the hopes, fears and changing expectations of Missouri's next generation in challenging times.
CHILLICOTHE — A group of teenagers gathered around a table for smoothies, coffee and one another’s company at the Boji Stone coffee shop in downtown Chillicothe.
This town of 9,500 got its name — which means "big town" in Shawnee — from the Native Americans who settled the area in the 18th century. It's known as the place where the bread-slicing machine was invented, in 1928, and where murals with scenes from the past adorn downtown buildings.
Of the high schoolers huddled at the coffee shop, only two will be old enough to vote in November. Few are interested in politics. All have plans for the future.
Lane Clark, 17, wants to study biochemistry and do research at the University of Chicago; Trey Van Houtan, 18, plans to study political science and law and join the Air Force; Abbey Brinkley, 17, wants to become a high school teacher; Nate McKiedy, 15, doesn’t know yet; Britany Ireland, 16, hopes to be a pharmacist; Derek Hussy, 15, wants to be an architect; and Sarah Hussy, 18, wants to become a nurse.
Van Houtan has decided he will vote for presidential candidate Mitt Romney. One of the issues that influenced his decision is "Obamacare," he says, because "we shouldn't make people do it if we can't afford it."
The other is abortion — "it's wrong and it should be outlawed," he says. Women could have the option to put children up for adoption, even if they were conceived in a rape, he said
The others are silent.
Brinkley says that Todd Akin's controversial comment about "legitimate rape" was "one of the stupid things that politicians say."
"Akin was using the wrong words," she says. "It was the wrong word choice."
If she were of age, Brinkley would vote for President Barack Obama because of his views on rights for same-sex couples. She knows a couple of gay students at her high school and believes people should have equal marriage rights no matter their sexual orientation.
Clark describes his political views as being "in the middle," neither Democrat nor Republican, probably closer to Libertarian. His parents are conservative, and his grandparents are "hard-core Republicans," he says. But he did research on his own, and he supports policies for economic stimulation, which would create jobs and wouldn't outsource labor.
"I tried listening to all asides of the argument," he says, "not taking in personal beliefs."
Tattoos and candidates
At One Time Tattoos, co-owner Susan Horton, 38, hangs out with client Melissa Yount, 19. Yount just got her fourth tattoo — the name of her baby girl, "Kaylynn," drawn in shades of pink and blue on her forearm. Yount’s husband is in the other room getting a more masculine version of the same tattoo. Horton's husband is making the tattoo.
Despite the age difference, Horton and Yount have much in common. They both own small businesses — Yount and her husband just opened a construction firm — and they both plan to go back to school.
Obama's policy on student loans is the first argument Horton brings for why she would vote for him in November.
"If it weren't for student loans, I couldn't afford it," she said. "He wants to make sure that we will still have enough money and will pay fixed rates on student loans."
Horton is working on an associate's degree. After that, she plans to get a bachelor's degree in health care policies and work in hospital administration or nursing.
Yount also wants to get an associate's degree in business, which she says would help her run her business better. But she doesn't follow politics — she wasn't sure whom Obama was running against.
Horton tries to explain to her young client that voting is important.
"No matter what party you're for, you got to be somehow involved," she says. "I voted. That’s all that matters."
Yount concedes: "I may start listening, being a small-business owner."
The women agree that small businesses will be at the core of future economic growth for the country. And Chillicothe, they say, is the perfect place to have one.
"People buy locally and hire locally," Horton says. And it works the other way, too. Businesses in Chillicothe get involved in community events on a regular basis, be it for causes, celebrations or support for community members.
Horton recalls when her mother-in-law was diagnosed with cancer in 2009. People supported her family with everything from blankets to bake sales.
"It's amazing how the community comes together around death and illness," she says. "I lived in St. Joe forever. I never saw something like this."
The ‘commander-in-chief with the guts’
At a nail salon on Washington St., a couple of blocks down from the coffee shop, high school teacher Debra Tanty, 48, is getting her nails done. She lives and works in Marceline, a town of 2,000 east of Chillicothe, but comes to Chillicothe often for all the facilities of a bigger town.
"You want someone with an opinion, right?" she asks, before starting to talk about politics.
She has decided she will vote for Romney because "Obama’s failed miserably." The president's main fault is his stance on national security, she says. She thinks he has been too soft regarding issues in the Middle East, hasn't supported Israel enough, hasn't stood up against nuclear North Korea and, in general, hasn't done a good job fighting terrorism.
"We need a commander-in-chief with the guts," she says. "Romney will keep a strong military, not make it weaker like Obama."
Another reason why Tanty will vote for Romney is his promise to reduce taxes. Taxing the rich worsens the economy, she says, because they make the investments that are necessary for the economy to be strong.
Tanty considers herself to be part of the lower-middle class. Still, "I trust Romney with it more than I do Obama." She thinks for a few seconds. "Romney wants to enable people to make for themselves. Obama wants to bail everyone."
A European perspective on American politics
Amy Marman, 33, and Rune Marman, 45, are having dinner at Wabash BBQ, a restaurant in an old depot by the railroads. Rune is Norwegian; the two met online and have been married for four years, after three years of being pen pals and then dating and flying back and forth between the two continents. Rune now works as a kitchen designer for Lowe's; Amy works at a hospital's front desk.
Rune doesn't have the right to vote in the U.S. but is passionate about politics on both sides of the Atlantic. He's an Obama supporter, especially because of the president's policies on taxes and health care.
"I compare the European health care system to the U.S. health care system," he says. "'Obamacare' would be a great benefit for the U.S. citizen. We pay taxes in Europe. It's the difference between taxes plus insurance or just taxes.”
In Europe, the U.S. is still seen as a conservative "Uncle Sam," he says. Obama might be able to reduce that opinion. "He's been one of the presidents who are able to link the world more together."
Amy will vote, though she never really paid attention to politics.
"It was never brought up in my family," she says. "To this day, I have no idea who my mom votes for."
The couple's main concerns are more intimate: they're dealing with Amy's 12-year-old son being bullied at school and having to change schools to avoid it; they're looking for a balance in the values they are teaching the boy; and, in a few years, they're hoping to move to Norway.
"I'm positive about the future, but there are scary parts, too," Amy says. "People are only looking about themselves."
Supervising editor is Tom Warhover.