LINCOLN — Jessica Sutton wants to be a role model, maybe as a day care director or children’s church director, for kids who don’t know the gift of a strong family structure.

She’s a senior at Lincoln Christian University and, at 21, is looking forward to voting in her first presidential election. Her family has lived in Lincoln since 2009, moving through North Carolina, Indiana and Joliet as her father, a college professor, changed jobs.

Her friends talk less about politics and more about the inability to find a full-time job after graduation.

What people care about this election season is the focus of a month-long series from reporters who spent recent weeks talking to Central Illinois residents about what they want to see addressed by the presidential candidates. Lingering worries about the economy, for instance, are tied by a common thread to concern about the country’s future.

“It is scary,” she says, sitting in the chapel lobby between classes. “There are all these things you want to do … but what happens if I don’t find a job? What do I have to do? Do I have to have two or three jobs? It’s really scary. There’s no time to think about what you want. It’s about what you need.”

That contradiction has focused her attention on the presidential candidates. She listens to both sides, to what has and hasn’t been done, and to what is said — or not.

“It should be about what they will do to help others,” Sutton said. “I’d like them to just listen and pay attention to the future.

“They need to invest more in the people and how to help more of us,” she adds, worrying about student loans, personal loans and children who take two or three helpings of a school lunch because it’s the only meal they’ll get all day.

“I’m hoping whatever they decide to do, I’m hoping they think about the people who put them there,” she says. “This isn’t my parents’ problem anymore, it’s mine.

“People don’t have that sense of hope they used to have.”

Tough to understand

John Ohler was 9 when his parents arrived at Ellis Island with six kids and $50 from the Lutheran church. They moved to Danvers, learned English and, five years later, officially became Americans.

Everyone had some sort of job. John had learned to work in a bakery while in Austria, where his weekly salary of bread loaves and 75 cents went straight to the family purse.

“It’s tough to get the grandkids to understand that you can’t get an allowance for doing nothing,” says Ohler, now 71 and living in Bloomington. They “don’t have that privilege to know how to earn your way.”

Politicians need to fix problems in Social Security and Medicare, but instead add layers of laws to the pile that already exists. “What needs to be done is (so) their future can be protected,” he says. “That’s what our government needs to look forward to. … If they don’t, there will be nothing there.”

“Again, it’s tough love, but that’s just the way it goes.”

Ohler spent six years in the Army, then 42 years at Maytag while also working in remodeling and construction. He and Jeanne, married 50 years, have two daughters and three granddaughters.

They still have the envelopes where they’d save money from John’s paycheck, making sure they had enough each month to pay for rent, a car, fuel and insurance. They’re on fixed incomes now and worry about health care costs and their grandchildren’s futures.

“The government is playing around with health care all the time,” he says. “Leave it alone. … We have to get to the bottom of the fraud and the misuse of all the funds.”

Unnecessary regulations and agencies just add more work. Politicians need to get to the root of the problems, maintain a balanced budget and live within the same rules they impose on the rest of us.

“We expect no different (from our country) than what we have to do ourselves.”

‘Can’t replace the drain’

A year ago, Becky VanDeventer opened the Clothes Horse, a consignment shop in downtown LeRoy.

Sometimes, during a hot and sticky summer that affected almost every business, four customers constituted a good day.

VanDeventer, 56, moved to rural LeRoy in 1991, selling phone-book ads for eight years before opening the now-defunct Silly Goose gift shop.

“I was as guilty as anyone” of going out of town to work and shopping in LeRoy only for groceries, she says. “I understand fully. I don’t understand what the answers are yet; yet I feel so strongly we can’t have empty buildings downtown.”

VanDeventer rents the first floor of a 1901-era building that came with a concrete and metal vault for insurance papers written by the building’s first owners. Three large rooms are full of quality, name-brand clothes and accessories that sell well below their original retail price.

“I see it every week, vacationers who stop for gas and drive up to see what’s in town. They always say, ‘I wish I could open (something).’ … Everybody has a dream. What I want to say is, ‘Here are the names and numbers’ of people with available buildings. This is the right place.”

She’s seen other businesses come and go, sometimes moving to a larger town. “When these (shops) opened, there was a lot more money to be spent,” she says. “Politicians probably underestimate, all the way up to the federal level, just how important local shoppers are. It’s not all big box stores.”

Government needs to do “whatever it takes” to get or keep income in the hands of consumers to shore up the eroding middle class. It’s not a party-related problem, she says, because it has spanned terms of both.

“Whatever can be done to bring the income back and keep it in their hands will help everything — schools, property tax levels, everything supported by it. Whatever is left, they still have available to spend. That’s all we’re trying to do, is add one more layer (of spending) to this town.”

Profit and loss

When you drive for a living, explains George Rehker, you have a lot of time to think.

He’s owned Bloomington-based Drivers 4 Dealers for 10 years, and has about 20 part-time drivers available to move vehicles back and forth for dealerships and auction houses, and to pick up repossessed cars and trucks.

The Cash for Clunkers program from a few years back is an example of a government idea gone wrong, he says: Perfectly usable cars were junked, dealers were left without saleable used cars, and “incentive” money sometimes went toward a new car the buyer couldn’t afford.

“Look at the post office, Amtrak and, more locally, the secretary of state’s office,” Rehker, 58, said. “The government is not capable of building a business. They have no idea about profit and loss. … There are more government employees than ever before, and they’re not doing their job.”

Too many regulations drag down the economy, not only affecting an industry, but prices, production, manufacturing and retail activity. “We need smaller government and more responsible government,” he says.

He’s not convinced the economy has begun a recovery, either. “There are long lines at the blood bank,” he notes. “It’s still an effort around here to go out and get work.”

His suggestion: “Open up the Keystone pipeline. It’d be a shot in the arm to the economy.” He supports an increase in offshore drilling for the same reason.

“I want a leader who’s been there, who went through what I went through,” Rehker says. “Lying to your family when you’re not sure you can meet bills and making excuses why you can’t make a ballgame or a wedding.

“I want someone with a sharp pencil.”

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