Mr. Smith Forgoes Washington

The human cost of Bunning’s unemployment snafu

The story of Republican Sen. Jim Bunning’s one-man hijacking of the U.S. Senate is, for the fortunate among us, old news.

In a nutshell: Four filibuster-filled days wherein legislation to extend unemployment and COBRA-health insurance benefits to hundreds of thousands of jobless Americans was held hostage by a junior senator from Kentucky, thankfully ending with Bunning’s ultimate capitulation, extracted by GOP Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, before any significant damage could be done.

Throughout this brief episode of federal gridlock, national print and television pundits weighed in on our beloved incumbent, mainly generating a tired routine of old man jokes that too often distracted from the real pain inflicted by his actions. Worse, the media was joined by a chorus of Kentucky’s “New Wave” politicians hoping to capitalize on the incident for their own gain. So far, they’ve come in two breeds: The first species demonizes Bunning for his indifference (Daniel Mongiardo, Jack Conway, and most sane people), whereas the second praises him for adherence to an amorphous “principle” (Rand Paul, Trey Grayson, Tom “Quite Possibly A Failed Antichrist” DeLay).

Although the benefits extension has since passed, and the resulting political fallout now largely relegated to the UFC octagon of aspiring senatorial hopefuls, the untold story of Bunning’s 96-hour Alamo is a fact of life for some 4,300 Kentuckians whose regularly scheduled benefits have vanished for a week or more, creating a gap in their weekly incomes that in today’s paycheck-to-paycheck economy, may be impossible to bridge.

For Robert “Keith” Smith, Bunning’s filibuster has forced him to eat tuna. Lots of tuna.

“This morning I had to go to the blood bank, you know, to try to get every penny I can because things are so tight,” Smith says. “So I’ve been eating plenty of tuna fish to keep my protein levels up.”

An airborne infantryman-turned-commercial painter, Smith, 43, lives with his teenage nephew Danny in a two-bedroom home in the foreclosure-friendly Park Duvalle neighborhood. Smith has been unemployed for nearly two years, and his modest home reflects that: the tiny backyard, the ’97 Oldsmobile parked on the street, even the sparse interior decorations, which largely consist of original works by Smith, who is also a self-taught artist.

“Being unemployed, it’s killin me,” he says. “I’ve been in construction for almost 22 years. I’ve painted nearly every major building in town, every mall, every hospital, some of them twice. I’ve painted the children’s hospital three times. I even painted the food stamp office at the L&N building, and actually tried to go in there six months ago to try to get food stamps because, you know, money’s tight. I’ve got child support, a car payment to make, rent on this place, LG&E and the water bill. Turns out I draw $50 a month too much to qualify.

“I’ve learned to feed us on $10 a week,” he continues. “It’s not super healthy food by any means. Plus, I found out I’m losing protein at an alarming rate, so I might have something seriously wrong with me, but I can’t afford to get it checked out.” Smith suspects it might be diabetes or cancer, both of which run in his family, but he recently missed an appointment at a free clinic because he was too busy scrambling to cover the nonexistence of an expected unemployment check.

“I gotta make sure we’re living and taken care of before I can actually take care of myself.”

In the two years since Smith has been out of work, his life has undergone one cataclysmic shift after another. Shortly after losing his job — and every possession he owned save a garbage bag of clothes, a Bible and his portfolio of artwork — Smith moved to Indiana to live with his mother, whom he describes as a “mean and abusive” woman. This, coupled with Smith’s newfound depression, caused him to sever all contact with his daughter, his ex-wife and the world-at-large.

“Growing up, I seen how she acted with all the nieces and nephews,” Smith says of his mother. “My daughter, Sabrina, has a great future ahead of her and I didn’t want to put that at risk. I wouldn’t call (my daughter) because after losing everything and being laid off and being stuck over there, I was below the barrel — I didn’t hit bottom, I went below the barrel. I actually thought about suicide a few times, but I’m not the kind to put a bullet in my mouth or anything like that.”

Seven months ago, Smith rededicated his life to God. As a volunteer shuttle driver for Victory Baptist Church (“We’re not fanatics or anything like that,” he says. “It’s a great ministry.”), Smith spends much of his free time working with children. Consequently, this allows him access to the church’s food pantry, which he just utilized this week, as well as to an unlimited supply of Cool Whip.

“At the end of this month, I’m doing a contest with (the kids), and the gyst is they get to throw a pie in my face,” he says. “If they have good attendance or are well-behaved, then they get a point toward throwing a pie. We’ve got some short attention spans in there, but we’ll probably just let the littlest ones do it anyway. I wouldn’t mind because I love whipped cream.”

As the Great Recession has slowly ebbed, Smith has managed to piece his life back together. He and Sabrina are talking again, and his foreman says there will finally be work for him in about a month’s time. But as for that missing check?

“I don’t know what’s up yet,” he says. “I know things have been approved. I don’t know if it’s gonna automatically carry over or if I have to refile the claim. Since they cut it off, I don’t know how it’s gonna pick back up. I gotta make $255 last for two weeks. I had to pay LG&E $165 yesterday, so I gotta make that stretch. And it forces me to take care of the rent in the middle of the month, which puts my landlord in a bind.”

Until then, Smith is working on a mural for the church, and must still contend with the daily aftershocks of Bunning’s antics. With their rent priced at $700 a month, and an unemployment check of $255 to sustain them for three weeks (or more) until disbursements restart, the mathematics of the Smiths’ situation remains dismal. And for someone who has had 20 jobs in the course of his life — 13 more than the average American — Smith finds it unconscionable how the actions of an insulated elected official can hurt so many helpless and innocent people.

“How come he won’t talk to us personally? I respect (Bunning’s) avenue on it, and I don’t know whether he’s trying to hide something — you never know with politics — but he’s saying stuff like… what’d he say?”

His nephew chimes in: “I think he said, ‘Let’s not try to protect the children of today, but the children of tomorrow.’”

Smith laughs. “I understand that the money’s gotta come from somewhere,” he says. “I had a plan a long time ago, it’d be a great plan. All these mega, mega millionaires — oh but if I air it out in the open somebody who’s got money would probably shoot me for it… I’m thinking, people who make $10 million or more, take 10 percent of that away. If you got $20 million, take 20 percent, and so on, and distribute it to the folks that are poor and who really need it. We know what poor is, they don’t have a clue. I survived one year on $14,000, but it’s killing these guys to survive on $250,000 or more. They have no idea what living’s all about.”