Travis Flagg, left, and his son Ambrose Corey greet their friend Rick Bogdanich… (Francine Orr / Los Angeles…)
BARSTOW — Vicky Davis pulled in a hundred grand a year installing high-end corporate phone systems until the recession hit and work dried up. Now she's racing to find a job before she drains her retirement savings.
She doesn't have much time to keep tabs on the upcoming election. She spends 10 hours at day at Barstow Community College, training to be a utility technician for one of the giant solar facilities sprouting in the Mojave Desert.
But Davis has heard enough to be worried. She doesn't trust in ballot initiatives that would raise taxes, even for schools. She favors a local Republican "tea party" candidate for Congress, saying he would keep the government in check. She hasn't warmed up to Mitt Romney.
The Republican presidential nominee has spent months criticizing Democratic President Obama for his healthcare program and for backing federal subsidies for alternative energy. Davis "can't get sick" because she doesn't have health insurance and is pinning her future on the solar industry.
"I like Obama's platform a little better. He just seems to be more for general working people," said Davis, 49, who is registered without a party preference. "I think things could be a whole lot better ... but I think it takes more than four years to fix this problem we're in."
Voters in this desert town of 22,000 remain wary about the future, and the choices offered in Tuesday's election have done little to reassure them.
The unemployment rate here hovers close to 14%, far above the state and national averages, and 1 in 5 residents lives below the poverty line. The two nearby military bases that help sustain the local economy could face severe cuts under federal spending reductions that will kick in if the White House and Congress fail to reach a budget deal by year's end.
"Barstow is struggling out there," said Gregg Imus, one of two Republicans running for the 8th Congressional District, which includes the San Bernardino County mountains and deserts, as well as Inyo and Mono counties. "People are just hanging on. They don't expect it to turn around any time soon."
Imus is an anti-illegal immigrant activist backed by local tea party groups. He has campaigned on giving mining companies access to protected desert lands that are now off-limits because of laws backed by U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat running for reelection. Even a few hundred new mining jobs would be critical to isolated desert communities such as Barstow, Imus said.
He is running against state Assemblyman Paul Cook, a Republican from Yucca Valley and former Marine colonel who has been reaching out to moderates in the mostly conservative High Desert. That includes Barstow, one of the few spots where Democrats outnumber Republicans. Cook even met with the local Mojave Desert Democratic Club, a loose collection of hard-core partisans who gather for breakfast at Quigley's Restaurant once a month.
"There's a tremendous amount of frustration. They've seen their savings dwindle. A lot of people are upside-down with their houses," Cook said. "They're afraid of where we're going as a country, and whether government is doing something for them."
It takes a certain hard-bitten independence to survive in the harsh, vast Mojave, a trait that's typically seen on election day. Barstow voters backed Obama over Republican Arizona Sen. John McCain in the 2008 presidential race, yet voted in favor of Proposition 8 to ban gay marriage. In 2010, they chose Democrat Jerry Brown for governor and voted for the unsuccessful U.S. Senate candidate, Republican Carly Fiorina.
"We get things done. Whether you're a Democrat, a Patriot or Republican, it doesn't make any difference," said Carmen Hernandez, president of the Democratic club and a candidate for City Council. "If I was going to describe Barstow, it'd be that we're always going to survive."
The city hopes its economic fortunes will brighten with proposals for a new Super Walmart and a new casino project by the Los Coyotes Band of Cahuilla and Cupeno Indians, which is undergoing federal review.
Rick Bogdanich, 58, doesn't have much hope for Barstow's recovery or his job prospects. And he doubts Obama or Romney will be able to do much about either.
Bogdanich was a construction worker in Las Vegas and, after Sin City's economy crashed, moved in with his daughter in Barstow. Then she lost her job and her house. Bogdanich now lives and works in a local homeless shelter.
"No one seems to have an idea about how to fix the economy," said Bogdanich, an independent who is still undecided on whom to vote for, "nothing that will, say, improve my life in six months or a year."
Ed Sparks, a science teacher Silver Valley High School in nearby Yermo, said one of the biggest threats to the future of the High Desert would be the failure of Proposition 30, Gov. Jerry Brown's plan to raise billions of dollars in taxes to avoid deep funding cuts for public schools and universities.