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Originally published October 6, 2012 at 6:54 PM | Page modified October 6, 2012 at 11:24 PM

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For many jobless, presidential contest is a world away

Despite all the talk by Mitt Romney and President Obama about the unemployed, those looking for work say they have little hope this presidential campaign is about them.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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With her 1-year-old slung across her lap and her 5-year-old in tow, Ieesha Kelly continued her search for what she has been trying for three years now to find: a job.

But ask Kelly if the presidential election is about unemployed voters like her, and she'll give you a polite but definite "Are you kidding?" kind of look.

"I just want to be employed to do better for my kids and succeed in life," said Kelly, 32, as she used the public-access computers at the WorkSource employment center in Renton last week. Kelly said she was working two part-time jobs before her hours were cut in one, and she was laid off from the other.

The presidential candidates "have never lived like I've lived, they have no sympathy or understanding for my situation, from my judgment," Kelly said. "They have never been through this."

Wednesday's presidential debate focused largely on economic issues, and both Republican Mitt Romney and President Obama, the Democrat, pledged to put Americans hit hard by the recession back to work. On the campaign trail they talk of people they've met who are struggling to get by.

But with a month to go before the November election, unemployed people interviewed for this story had one thing in common: None of them seemed to be expecting much from either presidential candidate to bail out the economy or help them get a job.

"Don't get me started, honey," said Raymond Arthur, as he worked the room Wednesday at an aerospace and advanced-manufacturing job fair at the Georgetown campus of South Seattle Community College.

"I think they are more concerned about them than the rest of us," Arthur said of the candidates. He was laid off after 25 years in the printing business and, at age 48, suddenly faced one of life's start-overs.

"I was scared to death," said Arthur, who was encouraged by WorkSource staffers to enter a retraining program. "Next thing I know, I am yanked down the hall and signed up, and it's been an excellent, challenging, great experience."

WorkSource is a government agency that offers job and training referrals, job-hunting advice and other services.

Arthur made the dean's list his first quarter back at school, studying aerospace composites. "My daughter is so proud of me," he said, beaming.

But the partisan politics he has been witnessing in this presidential election, to him, don't have much relevance to what he is facing.

"I think the blue team and the red team just need to get over it," Arthur said. "You know what? Enough is enough."

At last week's job fair, the faces of the unemployed were as different as the jobs they lost — from a production manager laid off for the fifth time in 15 years, to a former Subway "sandwich artist" enrolled in a community-college training program to learn manufacturing skills.

Pervis Willis, site operations manager at the Renton WorkSource office, said he sees more skilled workers unemployed today than he can remember in his nearly 20 years helping people get back on their feet.

"It's a high level of job seeker that's available that can do a lot of things — complex, senior analyst positions, very high skill sets — that is common this go-round," Willis said. "It's highly competitive, you have to be polished, complete, and be able to articulate your skills. That's always been true, but now so more than ever."

The connections at the job fair, and practical help they received at WorkSource, seemed far more relevant to some out-of-work voters interviewed than anything coming out of this election.

"I don't think you can fix in one day what's been broken for a long time," said Marilyn Kuhn, 58, of Federal Way, looking for work as an assembly mechanic. She feels that Romney is particularly out of touch.

"I don't think he has a clue what we are up against, and has no idea what it is like to live from poverty to poverty, let alone paycheck to paycheck," she said.

Their sour political outlook was unaffected by the fact that unemployment has gone down, to 7.7 percent in August in King and Snohomish counties, from 8.4 percent at the same time a year ago.

On Friday, the government announced the national unemployment rate had dropped to 7.8 percent in September.

The aerospace, manufacturing, leisure and hospitality industries are adding jobs, and software publishing and computer services have been strong performers, said Desiree Phair, the regional labor economist for Seattle-King County at the state Employment Security Department.

The recession has left scars, though.

The number of Washington residents on food stamps climbed for the past two years to reach record-high levels in the summer, with more than 1.1 million people needing basic food assistance, more than a third of them children, according to the state Department of Social and Health Services.

And about 111,000 people statewide have exhausted unemployment benefits, according to the state Employment Security Department. About two-thirds of those who have exhausted their benefits remain out of work.

For Ieesha Kelly, life is so chaotic, she's hardly watching political ads and debates on TV — she can't afford cable.

"I am just trying to keep a roof over my head and keep the kids fed," said Kelly, who is a single parent.

Some don't even intend to vote.

"I feel like no matter who we vote for, our economy is going to be the same, we are so deep in a hole," said Michelle Johnson, 29, of Tacoma, who last worked at Subway.

She said she's been a voter since age 18, but added, "I'll have nobody to be upset with if I don't vote."

A single mother of four, she has gone back to school in hopes of landing an aerospace manufacturing job. She also attended the job fair at South Seattle Community College, and looked with optimism at the tables set up by employers.

"It's a big jump," she said of the 10-week course she is taking. "I love it, it's something. It's going to be a career, whereas working in fast food never is. There are a lot of opportunities here. I feel like a kid in a candy store."

After losing five jobs in 15 years, Guy Sykes, of Everett, said his problem, and the country's, is years and years of outsourcing production work overseas. He was laid off from his production-manager job at a plastics company with no warning five weeks ago, at age 59.

He cares enough about voting to have handed out voter-registration forms at one of his last jobs, but he doesn't have much use for the current campaign.

The candidates have not connected with him.

"It's really changed, you can see the polarization, one camp versus another, the shots being fired," Sykes said. "I think the economy is on both their minds. But I don't think anybody knows the answer, or we'd have it by now."

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or lmapes@seattletimes.com.

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