'Families' issue irks the electorate A POLITICAL FOOTBALL IN CATONSVILLE


When people think about family values in Catonsville, the think about elementary schools bursting with kids, about the day-care deficit, about keeping demonstrators out of the Fourth of July parade and about making the house payment.

But in this presidential election campaign, they have watched as first Republicans and then Democrats reduced families to the status of political football.

At times, says Kathy Brettschneider, a 42-year-old mother of three, the candidates have insulted the voters and diminished themselves by "talking out of both sides of their mouths."

"We have Dan Quayle out there with his family values and then President Bush vetoes the family-leave bill," she says.

Even when Mr. Bush has acted on behalf of families and children, as when he visited Catonsville last winter to announce a $600 million grant for Head Start, his actions seemed to some to be politically motivated.

The positive impact of the presidential visit, says Bill Holley, an officer of the Emily Harris Head Start Program, was wider recognition for the program among parents of children who are eligible but not enrolled.

The down side: There's still no room for them.

"Sixty more kids in Catonsville are eligible, but we just can't take them. We don't have the money," says Mr. Holley, 72, community representative to Head Start from the Winters Lane neighborhood. He says Mr. Bush's speech in the tiny auditorium at the Banneker Community Center will never be forgotten by his hosts in Catonsville.

"Euphoria aside," he says, the visit was just as political as the president's recent announcement of fighter plane contracts that saved jobs for voters in the Middle West.

"He's a strong man," says Valencia Wilkerson, 31, director of the Morningstar Baptist Church Day Care Center.

"But he's getting away from the political issues. I think he could do more for cities if he provided more jobs for young people. I think that's more important than worrying about who's a single parent."

Bill Holley, Valencia Wilkerson and Kathy Brettschneider live in Catonsville, one of the nation's many suburban battlegrounds in this election.

With almost half the population now living in suburbs -- where people vote almost as regularly as they wash their cars -- the Catonsvilles of America will produce most of the votes.

In this suburb of 35,233, the voters are registered Democrats by a ratio of nearly 2-to-1. But they have voted Republican in presidential elections for the past 12 years.

Searching for stature

Catonsville is a place where family has always mattered, a place where the home truths are straightforward: church on Sunday, work on Monday, safe streets and help for your neighbor.

It is a place where gay and lesbian organizations and various protest groups have not been welcome in the Fourth of July parade, but where members of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, headquartered in Catonsville, can march as they did last summer, exchanging "Hare Krishnas" with friendly onlookers.

It is a place where the severity of the recession can be measured for the first time in memory by empty food pantries and by an inability to help in housing emergencies.

Like many Catonsville residents, Mrs. Brettschneider is a Democrat who voted for George Bush in 1992. She is one of the Reagan or Bush Democrats who are regarded as the swing voters of this election.

Whether Mr. Bush wins her vote again this year is very much in doubt.

"I think George Bush has gotten small all of a sudden. I've lost a lot of respect for him," says this insurance underwriter for Lloyd's of London.

Yet, she has not seen the stature she wants in his opponents.

She resents Democrat Bill Clinton's suggestion that insurance companies bear most of the responsibility for the nation's health care problems.

"He doesn't know what he's talking about," she says.

She is even less happy about Independent businessman Ross Perot.

"I wouldn't vote for him," she says. "He's so wishy-washy. He's got an ego that's unreal. This campaign is all about ego. We're talking major egos here."

Bill Holley will vote for Bill Clinton -- "for a change." Ms. Wilkerson is undecided.

In the real world

The discussions of TV heroine Murphy Brown's travails, however harmless they are on one level, have seemed to many to minimize the importance of health insurance, education, jobs, affordable care for the elderly and other issues that help families stay intact.

"I sometimes think they're in their own little world. Bush seems to sympathize, but at the same time I don't see him proposing anything," Mrs. Brettschneider says.

The Bush campaign has moderated its focus on family values as defined during the GOP convention -- in response to the negative reaction it drew.

But the theme has not disappeared. What Mr. Bush means by family values, according to his campaign in Maryland, is best described in this paragraph from a speech he made last spring:

"It is in families that children learn the keys to personal economic success, self-discipline and personal responsibility. It is in families that children learn that moral restraint gives us the true freedom. And it is from their families that they learn honesty and self-respect and compassion and self-confidence."

Mr. Clinton also finds a crisis of values in American life. He says: "We have to face the hard truth that too many Americans are cut off from these values, and the life that we want them to live that reinforces these values. And too many Americans who live by their values are denied the progress they were promised."

Despite the emphasis on family values, people in Catonsville wonder occasionally if the candidates who want to lead the country really understand how Americans live in the 1990s.

Do they know that, increasingly, both father and mother work -- not for career or ego but to help pay the mortgage? In Catonsville, 70 percent of women with children under age 6 are working today.

Though many more Catonsville mothers are in the labor force now as compared with 1980,family income rose only 12 percent in the 1980s. From the gain, the significant cost of day care must be subtracted.

Daily miracles

The struggle to safeguard day care increases the pressure. The Catonsville Presbyterian Child Care Center, founded in the year Ronald Reagan was elected president, now has 250 children, no vacancies and a waiting list extending into 1995. In Catonsville and throughout Baltimore County, licensed day care is available for only about 20 percent of the 90,000 children whose mothers are employed.

"Women come down here and sign up as soon as they get pregnant," says Cheryl Moss, the center director.

And later if one of the parents should be laid off, the family does not try to save money by keeping the children at home. They expect to find another job. What would they do then, having surrendered their precious day-care space?

Do the candidates know that even in suburbs including Catonsville, families without a father present are growing faster than traditional families? And that women raising families alone are far more likely to be poor?

"Single mother! That was me," Mrs. Brettschneider says. "I was a single parent with two children. I've remarried and had a third. Years ago, I worked and I only made $10,000. But we had the core family together."

And what of families where aging parents need care and attention? Seventeen percent of Catonsville residents are 65 or older. And the best alternatives for care are not always affordable.

Sasha Shapiro found just what she needed in Catonsville, a private home where three elderly women are living as a family.

"I had a small miracle," says Mrs. Shapiro. Her friend Jim Opasik, whose mother had come to Catonsville under similar circumstances, told her of an opening. So, 92-year old Celia Brodax, Mrs. Shapiro's mother, moved up from Florida and is doing famously.

"She's a bit active," her daughter says with studied understatement.

Celia Brodax goes to the nearby senior citizens center -- where the staff has been reduced as the state cuts its budget -- three times a week.

Her care is excellent, the cost is reasonable and she is happy. So is her daughter.

In a sense, "miracles" such as this suggest that people in Catonsville are not waiting for government to find solutions to all the problems of family life.

But they would welcome solutions to problems that are beyond their individual abilities to solve.

Endangered assets

Mr. Bush's proposal to provide cash vouchers permitting a parent to shop around for better educational value might well be popular in Catonsville where, according to Joe Chilcoat, owner of four 7-Eleven stores, parochial school is a cherished tradition.

"You give up the car. You give up other things. You don't give up parochial school," Mr. Chilcoat says.

Mr. Chilcoat sends his own kids to St. Mark's School, which is less than a block from his house. He went to parochial schools and wants his children to do the same. Some St. Mark's families have sent their children there for two or three generations.

Catonsville public schools, he says, are very good.

They are also seriously overcrowded. Nearby Hillcrest Elementary has nearly twice as many students as its original capacity. More space is to be added soon.

Mr. Chilcoat sees signs that the parochial school tradition could be lost. In 1980, 28 percent of Catonsville children went to parochial schools. In 1990, that had dropped to 23 percent.

The costs, he says, are continually rising.

Still, he does not approve of Mr. Bush's voucher plan and he is suspicious of its motivation. He fears that the public schools would be undermined by vouchers usable in private schools.

"It would be a great thing for my family, but for society in general it wouldn't be good," he says. He is annoyed at what he calls a blatantly political bid for his vote.

Wendy Enelow is equally resentful of the suggestion that she has neglected family values -- simply because she is a single mother.

"It's not fair," she says. A businesswoman, she leans toward Mr. Bush in spite of her irritation over this issue.

She and her 8-year-old son, Pierre, write monthly letters for Amnesty International on behalf of political prisoners held in various places around the world.

"We've adopted a whale," she says. "We try to save everything and everybody. Values are important to me. I want to pass them on to my son. I want him to care about our neighbors."

She is not, however, a supporter of the gay veterans group that wanted to march in Catonsville last summer.

"I'm real liberal, but I don't think a Fourth of July parade in family-oriented Catonsville is the place to make a political statement. The rest of us are not marching and saying, 'Hi, I'm heterosexual.' It's a parade, after all. Children are exposed to enough."

They are not sufficiently exposed to Head Start, observes Bill Holley. And he thinks that fact makes an important point about the politics of 1992.

"Head Start is one of the things the two parties agree on. If we say children are our most important asset, we ought to jump together and make it available for everyone who's eligible.

"It's hypocritical not to. No wonder the political establishment is held in such low esteem."

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