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Distance From Budget Crisis No Comfort to Illinois Town

January 07, 1996|RICHARD T. COOPER and JOHN BECKHAM | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SYCAMORE, Ill. — Wrapped in the silence of winter, with their houses and storefronts anchored like tree trunks to the snow-covered prairie that stretches from the edge of town to the gray edge of the sky, the 9,800 citizens of this rural community seem almost unimaginably distant from the budget crisis in Washington.

At the 19th-century baroque courthouse, where golden light from the chandeliers is reflected off dark wood paneling, lawyers drone through matters of minor crime and civil dispute. Down the street at Tommy O's Ice Cream and Coffee shop, local business people banter about local issues.

From one end of State Street to the other, and out past the fanciful Victorian homes that line Somonauk Street, the latest developments in the struggle between President Clinton and congressional Republicans are on no one's lips.

"Day whatever of the government shutdown and, like, who cares?" laughs Dina Snyder, a part-time secretary and mother of two young children, as she mimics the tones of recent installments of the nightly television news.

Beneath the surface, however, people have watched the recent partial shutdown of the federal government with a surprisingly keen eye. And their opinions about the stoppage--and their broader views about what kind of government they want--offer cold comfort to any of the parties involved in the matter.

Deeply conservative in their politics and their personal values, intensely preoccupied with their personal lives and their community, people here have serious quarrels with government--with its red tape, its wastefulness, and its inefficient and sometimes mindless bureaucracy.

But they also want almost all the services now provided by the federal government, and they are dismayed--even embarrassed--by the spectacle of elected officials behaving in ways they themselves never could or would.

In terms of political tactics, the feelings expressed by people here at the end of last week go a long way toward explaining why House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and the hard-line GOP House freshmen failed in their effort to use the government shutdown as leverage against Clinton.

This is uncompromisingly Republican territory. Admirers of the president are hard to find. "Clinton's a snake in the grass," Richard Lundquist, a 63-year-old Korean War veteran, said as he waited for a haircut in Bernie's Barbershop.

"He cannot be trusted," said Gerry McLain, owner of the Ben Franklin store and several shops along a main street that is remarkable among small towns for having no vacant buildings.

And there is widespread agreement that the federal budget must be dealt with. "Balancing the budget is important," said Greg Millburg, government affairs director for the De Kalb County Farm Bureau and president of the Sycamore Chamber of Commerce.

Yet as seriously as they take the budget deficit, few in Sycamore seem to be cheering on the Republicans in Congress, especially Gingrich. Instead, most regard everyone involved in the budget debate with almost equal disappointment and disdain.

*

"It is not seen as taking a stand for principle. They are diminishing what little respect remained for politicians," said Diane Florschuetz in the carefully chosen words of an officer of the National Bank & Trust Co. of Sycamore.

"The shutdown [was] a kind of farce," agreed Bernard McMillan, who has been mayor of Sycamore for the past five years. "Democrats blame Republicans, Republicans blame Democrats."

"It's theatrical. They're all bad card players," McLain said.

To Snyder, whose daughter is 7 years old, it all seems distressingly familiar: "If my daughter acted like that, I'd spank her."

Beneath these feelings is something deeper.

"Embarrassed is a good word," said Ellen Rogers, who supervises the Meals on Wheels program for De Kalb County. Last year, her organization, the Voluntary Action Center, which depends heavily on federal grants and matching funds as well as contributions from local governments and private charities, served 200,000 meals to needy older people. The center also provided 140,000 rides in its fleet of 20 buses to elderly residents for visits to the doctor, the grocery store and other destinations.

"It is extremely frustrating that they can't get their job done," Rogers said. "This county wouldn't tolerate it if we were unable to resolve a problem in our organization. It would not be tolerated in most businesses."

As for the recent suggestion by Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, a GOP presidential hopeful, that no one would miss the federal government, support here for most federal programs is wide and deep.

*

National parks. Medicare. Medicaid. The air-traffic control and safety systems. The federal role in cleaning up and protecting waterways such as the nearby Kishwaukee River. Food and transportation programs for the elderly. All these and more have defenders here.

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