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For Obama, Jefferson County represents the heart of the heartland

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 27, 2009 - Jefferson County Executive Chuck Banks and other top local leaders are thrilled -- but not surprised -- that President Barack Obama has chosen their county for a town hall Wednesday that will mark the president's first 100 days in office. 

Obama recognizes that Jefferson County is an important "bellwether county in a bellwether state,'' says state Sen. Ryan McKenna, D-Crystal City.

Just like Missouri, Jefferson County, which, according to Banks has a population of 229,000 people, has long been seen as key swing political territory that often reflects the national mood, especially among middle-class voters.

"My district best represents middle-class America,'' adds state Rep. Tim Meadows, D-Imperial. His turf includes Fox High School in Arnold, where Obama will host the Wednesday morning event.

(An undisclosed number of free tickets is being distributed to area residents who registered online or by phone by Monday's deadline for a chance to attend. A handful of tickets was given to local politicians, including Banks, McKenna and Meadows. The latter is still seeking ones for his wife or his Marine corporal son who's about to be sent out to Iraq.)

Among other things, Jefferson County is the home county for new governor, Jay Nixon, a Democrat who featured the county prominently in his TV campaign ads.

Flurry of excitement

Serious themes aside, the 1,800-plus students at Fox High School are "very upbeat'' about the presidential visit, said principal Kevin Rossiter.

About 30 students will get a chance to attend, because they hold posts in student government, student publications or will work as volunteers.

The school found out on Friday that it had been chosen for Wednesday's event. Over the weekend, McKenna said, helicopters were spotted making practice landings on Fox's football field.

Many students see Wednesday's event, Rossiter said, as "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see a sitting president."

But Fox High School has had a few earlier brushes with presidents and politics.

In 1988, Vice President Dan Quayle stopped by. The school also was a popular destination for its region's longtime powerful congressman, Democrat Richard A. Gephardt, D-St. Louis.

Until this Wednesday, Fox's most notable White House role came in 1993, when the school was chosen by then-President Bill Clinton for his historic "flood summit'' to craft a national response to the record-setting floods that year along the Mississippi River and its tributaries.

Rossiter noted that then-Vice President Al Gore and most of the Clinton cabinet attended that event.

So, for all the hoopla surrounding Wednesday's town-hall, Fox High School -- if not its students -- has seen it before.

Such facts about Jefferson County offer up prime reasons Obama's presidential campaign last year stationed three full-time staffers in Jefferson County, even after its Democratic voters had sided with Hillary Rodham Clinton in the state's February primary.

Obama's running mate Joe Biden also made a campaign stop at Fox High School just days before the November election.

County Executive Banks credits that extra attention with helping Obama eke out a narrow victory in the county over Republican John McCain. Four years earlier, Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry narrowly lost the county to then-President George W. Bush.

Although McCain edged out Obama statewide, Jefferson County's political leaders see Wednesday's presidential visit as evidence that Obama hasn't discounted or forgotten what Jefferson County and its voters represent.

Jefferson County is overwhelming white, with the bulk of its population made up of blue-collar -- largely union -- workers who commute to the Anheuser-Busch brewery in St. Louis and the Chrysler auto plant in Fenton. Many others have held largely blue-collar jobs in home construction, concrete production and auto-related industries.

As of the latest census, the median household income in Jefferson County was just over $46,000.

But that income, and the jobs that fueled it, have taken a hit in the last year.

A sizable chunk of the brewery and auto workers who live in Meadows' district are laid off, said the legislator, who notes that he's also a Teamsters representative.

Countywide, the economic news isn't much better. "Our biggest industry here is home-building,'' said Banks. "Now, it's almost dead."

Some new jobs based in Jefferson County -- notably in the making of concrete and solar-powered products -- could help turn the economic tide, local officials say.

Still, Banks, McKenna and Meadows predict that the decline in good-paying work will be on the minds of many of those seeking to question Obama during Wednesday's town hall.

The president should be prepared to offer up some honest replies, the officials add.

Although Obama may be in Jefferson County on Wednesday, locals say that his comments -- and the audience's reaction -- will no doubt affect middle-class voters nationwide.

Mike Kelley, a local Democratic consultant, believes that Obama has more than policy on his mind with his selection of Jefferson County. He has political aims as well. "He's setting the table" for 2010 and 2012, Kelley said.

In 2010, Jefferson County -- and the entire St. Louis area -- will likely play pivotal roles in the statewide battle to elect a new U.S. senator to replace retiring Republican Christopher "Kit" Bond. Obama wants to help the only announced Democrat, Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, Kelley said.

Jefferson County is in the congressional district of Carnahan's brother, U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis.

And in 2012, Obama is expected to seek re-election. Jefferson County will no doubt be important once again, as Missouri once again finds itself in the president's sights. In November 2008, Kelley noted, "Missouri was the only battleground state that he didn't win." 

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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