A Grocery Clerk's Fight: How to Live on $32,000 a Year
Bob Fustero took a pay cut from $60,000 to $32,000 when he retired on a disability from his job as a grocery clerk at Giant. Trying to make ends meet in pricey Montgomery County has propelled him into a very different world, a longshot run for county executive. Today's column looks at his world view and some of the topics that may be missing from the big campaigns.
When Bob Fustero went to work as a grocery clerk at Giant in 1976, he made $5.50 an hour. The money wasn't exactly gushing in, but it was enough for him to buy a car, get an apartment and take classes at American University.
Three decades later, clerks starting out at Giant make barely more than that, and the pay doesn't come close to supporting the middle-class life that Fustero enjoyed.
"These are the forgotten people," said Fustero, 55, who is retired because of a disability. "These are the grocery clerks and nurses and cops and teachers who cannot afford to live in Montgomery County."
Fustero has never held elective office. He has never been in management. But he is running for county executive in the Democratic primary next month because he knows that despite Montgomery's million-dollar houses and affluent image, most people don't make megabucks, and he wants to speak for them.
"People in Montgomery talk about how they love the diversity of the county, but the only diversity they really like is the different kinds of people who can afford to live here," Fustero said. "So if you're black or Asian, and you can buy a $600,000 home, fine. But they're not interested in the people who make $60,000 a year. They're not interested in the homeless guy.
"When they see the guy selling flowers on the street corner, they roll up their windows. Buy the flowers, even if you don't need them, because that guy's not on welfare, and he's trying to make it here."
The political know-it-alls say the race to succeed Doug Duncan is between Steve Silverman and Ike Leggett, and they're almost certainly right. In that choice, Montgomery has, as usual, far better options than most places. Silverman and Leggett are intelligent, committed and serious, and both want to address mounting problems with affordable housing, traffic and the yawning gap between rich and poor.
But Montgomery is packed with families that moved to the suburbs when life there was affordable, only to find now that their children cannot stay where they grew up unless they strike it rich.
Fustero doesn't have position papers, radio ads or policy staffers. He has a handful of photocopied sheets laying out his platform. And he had four volunteers, until one took a trip to Turkey.
A jovial, heavyset guy whose crowded one-bedroom apartment in Silver Spring features a working slot machine that he bought off a late-night infomercial for $300, Fustero admires Silverman and Leggett and says one of them will probably win. (Fustero likes Leggett better because "he seems like a person who wouldn't be too upset if he lost.") But he wishes they would talk more about people like him, "the people who aren't doing so well, the people who wish they could live here, the people living two or three families to a house."
Fustero is no bleeding heart. He is pro-gun, antiabortion, pro-slots and a big fan of Gov. Bob Ehrlich's. But Fustero also favors setting a minimum living wage, killing the intercounty connector because he thinks it won't alleviate traffic on the Capital Beltway and scrapping Metro's proposed Purple Line between Bethesda and New Carrollton because he says the inner county is too crowded. In an age when politicians dare not say such things, Fustero is cheerfully pro-sprawl. "There's a whole lot of land out there," he said.
Fustero considers himself the kind of Democrat his party left behind, a moderate who cannot fathom how the party of the working class abandoned those wage earners and buddied up to the college set and the public radio crowd. He knows there are people out there like him. In 2002, when he ran for governor in the primary against Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, he spent $600 on his campaign and drew an astonishing 20 percent of the vote -- an early and all-too-accurate sign of Townsend's weakness as a candidate.
This time, Fustero will spend about $60, mostly on photocopying. On his $32,000 in retirement income, it's all he can afford. He goes to forums and argues for 4 percent mortgages for working people and for a ratcheting down of the culture of affluence: "The developers put in these luxury houses with granite countertops. There's nothing wrong with Corian or Formica."
Instead of finely honed positions, Fustero has random ideas. He has been an officer of his condominium association for five years, and when there were too many ducks making a mess at the swimming pool, Fustero suggested a duck roast. "People thought that was cruel," he said, laughing, "but it was a creative idea."
Fustero has ideas for the county, too, such as paying some county workers a flat fee to stay home for two years. The county would save on benefits, and at the end of the two years, the positions could probably be eliminated when people realize that everything was okay without having those workers in the office.
"I'm just a grocery clerk," Fustero said, "but there are other people like me, and they're going to surprise everyone with how they vote. You know, I get these letters from psychics all the time. They say September's going to be a big month for me. We'll see."
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