St. Louis Voters Discuss Struggles, Election Hopes

Byron Hatchett i i

Byron Hatchett, who was recently released from prison after serving two years for burglary, says he joined the Manufacturing Training Alliance because if he does the right thing, then "more people are willing to help me." Andrea Hsu/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Andrea Hsu/NPR
Byron Hatchett

Byron Hatchett, who was recently released from prison after serving two years for burglary, says he joined the Manufacturing Training Alliance because if he does the right thing, then "more people are willing to help me."

Andrea Hsu/NPR
Nadine Newberry i i

Nadine Newberry, 55, is retired from General Motors. She said she had to go back to work to help a family member who is raising two grandchildren. Andrea Hsu/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Andrea Hsu/NPR
Nadine Newberry

Nadine Newberry, 55, is retired from General Motors. She said she had to go back to work to help a family member who is raising two grandchildren.

Andrea Hsu/NPR

On The First Time Voting

Polls show the presidential race to be neck and neck in Missouri. To win the state, Barack Obama would need to siphon votes from John McCain in rural and suburban areas, which are traditional Republican strongholds.

But Obama can count on overwhelming support in Missouri's urban centers, including St. Louis — a majority black city that's expected to give him a big boost on Election Day.

In the week before the election, NPR traveled through Missouri as part of a series of stops along the Mississippi River to take the depth of voters.

The Mississippi, which snakes along the edge of St. Louis, made this city an industrial powerhouse. At a cavernous abandoned electrical factory, the nonprofit Manufacturing Training Alliance trains workers for today's skilled manufacturing jobs.

The nonprofit teaches computer numerically controlled machining.

Meet The Trainees

A group of trainees talked with NPR about the economy, politics and what brought them to this training program in the first place. All African-American, they range in age from 22 to 55.

Eric Harrington, 32, has been out of work for two years. He says he has been "basically doing nothing, just sitting around, hanging out," in what he calls a "road to nowhere."

Roosevelt Roberts, 25, also says he was "going nowhere" with a part-time job with U-Haul.

The oldest trainee in the group, 55-year-old Nadine Newberry, is retired from General Motors. She said she needs to re-enter the workforce to help out a family member raising two grandchildren.

"He fell on hard times," Newberry says, "so I knew I had to sharpen up my skills to go back to work."

Another trainee, Byron Hatchett, says he was recently released from prison after serving two years for burglary.

"You know, I know that with my record I have to be more than twice as good as the next person in order for them to even take a look at me," says Hatchett, who is 40.

Rita Wright, 24, was a salad bar manager at a supermarket before she was laid off.

And then there's Regina Battle, who was a bartender until she got pregnant.

"My boss had this thing about, 'You got to be a sexy bartender. You know there are no pregnant bartenders,' " Battle says. "So I tried to hide the pregnancy as long as I could. And then when I couldn't hide it no more, I just stopped going."

Battle, 29, has four children. She ended up on welfare and was steered to this manufacturing class.

When asked about the U.S. economy, Battle sighs and shakes her head.

"I've never seen so many people have their utilities cut off ever in my life," she says. "I've never seen so many people without lights, without gas, without water. People struggling — they losing their jobs, they losing their houses. That's serious to me, because if I don't have to do nothing else, I have to put food on the table, put a roof over a few heads and clothes on a few backs."

Hatchett says that because he was incarcerated, he had "little or no opportunity" to advance himself financially.

"Being out here, it's like a difference between day and night," Hatchett says. "I know if I do the right thing and I continue to do what I need to do, then people are more willing to help me. I think that Barack Obama will get into office, and I think that he will be good for the economy. I think that he will bring a fresh look for things that are going on."

Going To The Polls

When the conversation turned to politics, the trainees talked about why they all are supporting the Democratic senator.

"Basically, Obama is talking about what is really the necessity: education, the economy and also for the teachers to be paid enough so they will have enough indulgence to teach the children," Harrington says. "And as I look at McCain, basically if he gets into office, I see it's just going to be wars and wars."

Newberry, the retired GM worker, called the presidential election "the most important that I probably or anyone else would witness in a lifetime."

A few of the workers said they would cry if Obama wins.

"I'm going to cry, scream, holler, just thank God that my kids get to see the real dream, because they say we can be what we want to be, but it only has gone so far in a black community," Battle says. "You know, we've never seen our people go all the way to the top."

Newberry says she'll cry, too, but that she's worried about Obama's safety.

"And then I always say prayers for him, because you got so many people who just are so wicked," she says. "No matter what, and how qualified a person is, they have a negative feeling about a black person, and I pray for his safety."

Several of the trainees say they plan to vote for the first time ever. Roberts says he refused to vote in the past because he didn't think his vote would count — but now that Obama is running, he'll go to the polls. Wright says she feels the same way.

"I, before today, didn't feel like my vote really did count," she says. "But this will be my first year. You know, my mama, we're going together. I'm going to get up, wake her up, let's go. I'm taking my brother. He's never voted — he's 32. It doesn't make a difference, we're going to make it a family affair. We're all going together to the polls."

The trainees' instructor, Ed Welch, was listening to the conversation; he mentions a text message he got from a friend urging him to vote.

The message read: "Rosa sat so Martin could walk. Martin walked, so Obama could run. Obama is running so our children can fly."

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