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Local 'Wal-Mart Moms' offer glimpse into public's anger and angst

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 16, 2010 - They're not too happy with President Barack Obama, although almost half voted for him in 2008.

They're not too keen on U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and are cautiously receptive to the idea of putting Congress back under Republican control.

But not one of them knew the name of the Republican posed to replace Pelosi -- U.S. Rep. John Boehner -- much less where he's from (Ohio), or what he stands for.

That's because these "Wal-Mart Moms" have more weighty concerns -- such as taking care of their children, balancing a budget while, in several cases, also serving as their family's chief breadwinner.

The group of 10 women assembled Thursday night in a west St. Louis County office building included Gayle Counts, Bess Sapienza and Stacey Fowler. All had been recruited and screened by the Washington group Public Opinion Strategies and Momentum Analysis to discuss politics, the economy and their lives.

Two other similar, politically diverse focus groups were convened in Philadelphia and Denver. The sessions were conducted by professional focus-group moderators like Nicole Yakatan (at left in the photo). The participants each received $75, organizers said.

Wal-Mart footed the bill for the forums, which Yakatan said were assembled primarily to allow the press to get a first-hand look at the views held by a key voter demographic: mothers age 35-54 who shop at Wal-Mart.

Yakatan, who has conducted hundreds of focus groups, said she was particularly impressed by Thursday night's panel.

Although their opinions spanned the spectrum, the 10 were in solid agreement that the economy nationally and at home is in sorry shape. Or, as the women put it, "unsettling," on a "downslide" or just plain "awful."

Several had husbands, friends or relatives who'd lost their jobs or -- at minimum -- seen business plummet.

"Things are so bad, we're starting to cut each other's throats," said one, referring to the national climate.

Nobody bought the message advanced by the White House that things are slowing getting better. "I think the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poor, and the middle-class is disappearing," said Sapienza.

Lara Phillips complained that too much was being spent on retirement programs, while Lori Chura remained furious over federal bailouts to banks who then paid their staffs hefty bonuses.

Obama got low marks -- the word "disappointing" was used a lot -- and only one participant said she absolutely was voting for his re-election in 2012. The rest were split between "definitely not" and unsure.

Opinions were stronger when it came to Missouri's U.S. Senate race between Republican Roy Blunt and Democrat Robin Carnahan.

Most had seen the negative ads, with one saying that Carnahan lost her vote because the candidate had gone too negative too fast. But several Republicans indicated that the message was getting across, and they were concerned about Blunt. The tally: four for Blunt, three for Carnahan and three who were unsure and might not vote for either one.

All offered similar advice for the nation's leaders in Washington. as Chura put it: "Listen to us."

The focus group here skewed slightly Republican, and the reason got at the heart of the so-called "enthusiasm gap" -- and the Democrats' troubles.

Two focus-group participants identified as Democrats failed to show up. Even $75 wasn't a strong enough incentive.

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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