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A plea for help from Main Street

Comptroller Peter Franchot headed out on a listening tour recently, pretty much knowing what he’d hear.

The stock market shows signs of recovery but things are still rough. He’d gotten handwritten notes from taxpayers who couldn’t pay this year.

But he wanted to hear it all in person.

At the same time, he knew government was out of answers. The usual responses weren’t going over well. Enormous deficits were making his party, the Democrats, vulnerable in this year’s anti-government upheaval.

He stopped at the Terra Café in Charles Village. On a back wall was a red-white-and-blue “Yes We Did” sticker. It was a fading artifact of the euphoric days following President Barack Obama’s election.

On top of a nearby cabinet stood a small model elephant — a random balancing of party symbols.

But wasn’t it dated? Where was the corresponding tea party totem? It was that third force that perked up Franchot’s ears. He knew it could render both Republicans and Democrats impotent.

As the tour began, the sickening spread of toxic oil in the Gulf of Mexico seemed to validate the charge that government is grasping of taxpayer money, lavish in its care of fat cats and incapable of solving problems.

Voting with their emotions

Franchot sees the way the wind is blowing as clearly as any. On this day in Baltimore, he met with several black ministers.

What were these influential men hearing?

The Rev. Alvin Guinn, chairman of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, said his congregants feel unseen and uncounted in the eager rush to find the “green shoots” of recovery. Many of them are still employed, he said, but they are finding it difficult to keep up with their mortgages.

So, the political drift is obvious, right? Black city voters have been loyal Democrats, but their historic tendencies could be erased by anger and fear.

Adopting the tone of Gov. Martin O’Malley, Democrats have made their campaign appeal clear: This state has weathered the storm of a battered and plundered economy better than most. Democratic incumbents have done the best they could with a bad situation.

It wouldn’t be enough for his congregants, Rev. Guinn told the comptroller.

“Right now, they’re going to throw the baby out with the bath water,” he said. “That’s what’s going to happen.”

He didn’t think comparisons with other states would ease the pain.

“It’s one thing to vote with your intellect and another to vote with your emotions,” he said. “Right now, people are going to vote with their emotions. They’re not going to talk the problem over. All they know is how [they] feel right now regardless of what facts are being laid on the table.”

People need help, he said, and they’re looking to government.

Another round of stimulus?

Without predicting how his customers will vote, the café’s proprietor, Terrance Dixon, agreed with the minister. Small businesses like his want to see some “money in the street” — some sort of additional government stimulus.

His customers, he said, aren’t shy about assigning responsibility for their pain.

“They blame everybody. They talk about Wall Street and Main Street,” he said. “You know, ‘Something’s happening on Wall Street and nothing is happening on Main Street.’”

Few, he said, are willing to consider the complete picture.

“You have to look in the mirror, too,” he said. People got overextended, bought more house than they could afford — things like that.

Franchot said this sort of sounding was what he had in mind. But it didn’t mean he would respond in the way the ministers suggested

Later, at Charlestown, the retirement village in Catonsville, he was asked if there was any hope for aid to seniors whose income has been reduced in the downturn. There was not, he said. Nor did he expect a second stimulus package from Washington.

That response, delivered without hesitation, seemed a bravely impolitic one.

In this environment, though, it should have been no surprise. Concerns are rising among tea party adherents about the cost of earlier bailouts. Franchot said his party’s tax-and-spend reputation could mean a lot of unhappiness for Democratic office seekers come November.

He had listened. And he had delivered the hard truth: He was from the government but he wasn’t there to help.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His e-mail address is fsmith@wypr.org