There was Meggie Smith, a Rock Bridge High School student who plans to be president of the United States in 2028.
“You’ll laugh at me … (but) I’m not kidding,” she said.
There was Vikki Salerno, a public housing representative and avid motorcyclist from Hallsville.
There was Evelyn Tschetter, a retired nurse and midwife concerned about politicians’ views on issues of life and death.
And there was Rachel Jones, vice-president of the Young Democrats at Rock Bridge. “Does anyone here need to register to vote?” she asked. “That’s my job.”
Those are just a few of the community members who gathered at the Missourian for a series of three community conversations last week. Their purpose: To help journalists get a handle on the issues important to local residents as the general election approaches and to develop questions to challenge candidates for U.S. Senate during a debate tonight in MU’s Jesse Auditorium.
High-schoolers who gathered for the first conversation on Oct. 5 listed as their primary worries the future of Social Security and health care, not jobs or a potential draft. Education was a close third.
The second group, on Wednesday night, spent a great deal of time trying to define the perfect senator. They want someone with integrity, accountability and transparency.
“These things lend themselves to making good decisions publicly,” Karl Skala, a city planning commissioner and MU professor, said.
Betty Cramer, a registered nurse at Boone Hospital Center, summed it all up. “The ideal senator would be a mix of all of us,” she said.
The war in Iraq didn’t emerge as a major concern until the third group met on Thursday.
Participation at the gatherings was for the most part stellar. Only a handful of those enlisted for the first two nights failed to attend.
Laura Meyer, a Hickman High School senior, said agreeing to come to the table was a no-brainer.
“Someone wanted to know what we have to say, so I felt like it was my duty to show up,” she said.
Altogether, the groups identified several issues ofconcern.
Health care was a topic that cut across boundaries of age, race and economic status.
“It hits home,” said Jones, the 17-year-old from Rock Bridge. “My mom just came home from the dentist today and had gotten some teeth pulled. It cost her $250, but other people can get it for free through their insurance at their jobs.”
Jones’ mother has no such assistance. Jones herself needs her wisdom teeth removed, but says her family can’t afford the procedure.
Sam Hargadine, a fellow Rock Bridge student, thinks the problem with health care lies with the insurance companies.
“The problem with the health-care system is that it’s not about helping people, it’s about insurance companies making money,” he said.
Russ Duker has a different perspective. There’s a manwhom Duker wants to hire, but he can’t find a way to provide the applicant’s health insurance because a member of his family has a pre-existing condition. That’s wrong, he said.
“As a small-business owner, I want employees to have health care. What we need is associated health plans,” Duker said. AHPs would allow small businesses to form pools to buy insurance for their employees.
All the groups had education on their minds, but students were most concerned. Adultsquestioned whether the federal government has any valid role in education, save for funneling money to states to lend a helping hand.
Rock Bridge student Kurt Heine said she knows the state is pressed for funding.
“I’ve watched teachers write grants for dictionaries,” he said.
Matt Szewczyk of Rock Bridge blames the No Child Left Behind Act for many of today’s education woes.
“There are no standards between states. For Arkansas’ tests, you have to tie your shoe,” he said with a laugh.
There was only brief discussion of the merits of past proposals for issuing vouchers to allow parents to send children to private schools. Ray Massey, a member of the second group, has sidestepped the entire issue by deciding to teach his children at home.
“I feel it’s my responsibility to teach them,” Massey said, adding that “it develops a tremendous rapport between me and my kids. My kids do walk down the street hand in hand. They’re best friends. They’re sisters.”
Iraq and the war on terrorism
Conversation on Iraq, in the context of questions for Senate candidates, quickly turned to issues of homeland security and the Patriot Act.
“The decision (about the war) has been made,” Massey said. “The role of the Senate is to look to the future. How do they keep (U.S. citizens) safe for the next 10 to 20 years?”
The consensus among participants was that it’s best to fight the war overseas than to allow terrorists to bring it here.
“It’s offense vs. defense. It’s better to fight terrorists over there than over here,” Skala said.
Real estate broker David Gaffney, a member of the third group, agreed.
“Our actions have reduced the likelihood of more attacks here,” Gaffney said. “I want to be safe right here.”
Some, however, expressed concern about the Patriot Act.
“I don’t feel like any of my rights have been eroded,” said Connie McClellan, whose son is a Marine. “It’s where this can go that’s scary.”
Michael Gill, a businessman who flies frequently, said the Patriot Act interferes with his life. He described the hassle of airport terminals, where he’s often told to unload computers and other equipment before boarding.
“To give up rights for more security is a lose-lose situation,” Gill said. “It’s a slippery slope.”
Cramer, however, said Iraq is a faraway concern compared to domestic issues. She cited Missouri’s highways as an example.
“I’m more worried about I-70 and 63, because my daughter’s turning 16, more than I am about Iraq,” she said.