Campaigns hunt for "real families"

By Leigh Strope
September 22, 2000 10:46PM (UTC)
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To qualify as one of George W. Bush's "tax families," Ray Nelson had to answer the kind of detailed questions only the IRS normally asks.

Do he and his wife make between $35,000 and $75,000 a year? Do they itemize their federal tax deductions? How much in savings?

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"They called five or six times," said Nelson, 40, of Texarkana, Ark., who finally was told he "fit the profile" Bush's campaign wanted: a middle-class family that would get a bigger tax break under Bush's plan than Al Gore's.

Bush's campaign has been spotlighting "real families" to help illustrate the benefits of his $1.3 trillion, 10-year tax cut and to counter Gore's criticism that the plan only benefits the wealthy.

Not just any family will do. For example, they can't have child care, tuition and other expenses that would get breaks under Gore's proposal.

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Both campaigns go to great lengths to find these model examples of everyday people.

In the winter primaries, Gore aides were tasked with identifying families on Medicaid in areas where comparable private insurance was not available at a price that Democratic rival Bill Bradley's proposed subsidy could cover.

The criteria got so specific that, around campaign headquarters, the search became known as the "genome project."

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The Bush campaign relies on state and local Republicans to help identify tax families that meet the candidate's criteria, said spokesman Tucker Eskew. The executive director of Bush's Missouri campaign, Catherine Hanaway, said she finds families through word of mouth.

"We call people we know," she said. She's a state representative, so she said, "I call my state rep. friends and say, 'Hey, do you have a family that this would work with?"'

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Paul and Denise Terrazas and their three children came to the campaign's attention because of their involvement in the Albuquerque, N.M., Republican Party. Denise Terrazas and two of the children volunteer once a week at party headquarters as part of their home-school study on the electoral process.

"They did ask for some private information," Paul Terrazas said. "They said it was needed to determine if you're a family that fits the criteria or not, and at any point in time you can withdraw."

Terrazas, 48, said he was asked detailed questions about his income as computer labs and services manager at the University of New Mexico's college of education, and was called about three times by the campaign. He even offered to fax his tax forms at one point, but was told it wasn't needed.

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"To me it's not a great big secret," he said. "I kind of felt it was for a very, very valuable cause. Now, if the average Joe Blow calls me on the phone and says, 'Hey, how much did you make?' I'd say none of your doggone business."

A lot of the tax talk tends to make voters' eyes glaze, especially in these good economic times. Bush has a lot riding on his tax cut plan and needed to do a better job of selling it, said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato.

"This is a mind-numbing subject," he said. "Bush needs to explain how and why his is better. The tax families help him do it."

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On the Democratic side, after getting direction from the Gore-Lieberman campaign about an upcoming coffee house chat in Peoria, Ill., Democratic County Chairman Billy Halsted put out word that real people with certain tax concerns were needed. The tax families were to talk with Sen. Joseph Lieberman about Gore's $500 billion plan for targeted tax relief.

"If you're going to talk about tax credits, you want somebody in that situation," Halsted said. "It'd be like prescription drugs for seniors. You wouldn't want to go get a 20-year-old and ask him what he thought about it."

He was able to assemble participants with concerns that Gore's plan addresses, such as how to pay for long-term care for an elderly parent, how to afford college expenses and what to do about child care costs.

Bob Cafferty, 52, a plumber from Elmwood, Ill., was one of those. He was asked by another plumber with ties to local Democrats to participate in Lieberman's event because he has children and has concerns about putting his son, 18, through college. Under Gore's plan, Cafferty, who said he tends to vote Democratic, would get a tax credit to help.

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Cafferty said he was asked questions before the event by the Gore campaign, but "most of it was security stuff" for the Secret Service.


Leigh Strope

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