BROOKFIELD, Wis. – From the Chinese restaurant he runs in the western suburbs of Milwaukee, Charles Yee watched with concern this week as Europe faced the greatest threat to its peace and security since the end of World War II. But, at least for now, he’s more troubled by the challenges at home.
As the pandemic enters its third year, the 62-year-old Brookfield, Wisconsin native is trying to keep his business going despite a staff shortage. Supply chain disruptions make it difficult to keep basic supplies like take-out containers on hand. Perhaps nothing hits Yee harder than the inflation-fueled price hike that makes everything more expensive. He would like a full day off at some point.
Pervasive headwinds make Russia’s invasion of Ukraine seem like a distant problem for Yee, who is a Republican. He does not excuse Russian President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to overthrow the government of a neighboring democracy, threatening the lives of civilians in the process. But his own lingering obstacles resonate deeper within him.
“It’s not my top priority,” Yee said of the invasion. “I’m just kind of – you know – getting by.”
In one of America’s most politically divided states, Yee is not alone. More than a dozen interviews with voters from all demographic and political backgrounds on the eve of and immediately after the Russian attack suggest a broad focus on domestic issues, particularly the economy. While Democrats were often quicker to voice concern for Ukrainians, they were also reluctant to get too involved in conflict overseas.
Harshman Sihra, an 18-year-old Democrat, said he wanted “everyone to be safe and healthy”.
“But we are really concerned about American citizens first,” he said. “So that’s great, but us first.”
That sentiment poses a challenge for Democrats in a critical election year. President Joe Biden presented Putin’s assault as a “contest between democracy and autocracy”. But if he hopes his party will win in November, he must also continue to talk about more tangible issues for voters.
That’s especially true in a place like Wisconsin, which is hosting closely watched races for governor and Senate this year. On one of his first trips outside Washington after next week’s State of the Union address, Biden is expected to travel to Superior, Wis., to highlight the impact on the ground. of its massive infrastructure spending legislation.
The president is balancing competing priorities as many in the United States are deeply skeptical of foreign entanglements after two decades of failures abroad, including the war in Iraq and the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan. Just 26% say the United States should play a major role in the Russian conflict, according to a poll released this week by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
Democrats were more likely than Republicans to think the United States should play a major role in the dispute – 32% versus 22% – but were still overwhelmingly opposed.
Like much of the country, Brookfield is a growing and changing community sorting through the latest crisis that once seemed unthinkable. Long the political epicenter of heavily Republican Waukesha County, it has diversified as families move here from Milwaukee or places beyond Wisconsin, attracted by schools and access to housing and to health care.
This made the region more competitive for Democrats, who won state legislative seats and eroded GOP margins in statewide elections.
Regardless of their political views, many in this teeming and diverse suburb are following developments in Ukraine closely. Perhaps few people pay more attention than Lorika Hintz, a 40-year-old small business owner who identifies with no political party. But she is informed by her experience of surviving three years of street warfare in her Kosovo neighborhood as a teenager in the 1990s.
“People should be worried. And I know that’s far from us. But it’s going to get really bad. I’m mostly worried about the kids,” said Hintz, who has a 5-year-old daughter and will be voting. in the United States for the first time this year.
For Democrat Anne Leggio, an interior designer, the crisis is a primary concern that reminds her of what she read about the start of World War II.
“I almost feel like my stomach is in knots when I hear the news, and I hate it,” she said.
But some Republican residents have taken a tougher stance.
“I’m more concerned about the United States. I know it sounds selfish, but I’m more concerned about what’s going on here,” said 35-year-old Republican Dina Bernotas, a Brookfield bar and grill owner. “Inflation, lack of border control, lack of police presence. I am more concerned about the safety of America, the safety of our cities and the safety of our communities – the safety of our people – than what is happening abroad.
Retired Milwaukee police officer Bob Chapman was moved by the thought of his grandsons in uniform.
“I don’t want them to go to Ukraine, as far as I know, to die for somebody else’s situation,” Chapman, a 72-year-old Navy veteran, said as the tears welled up in his eyes.
One thing virtually everyone agreed on was that whether or not the United States got involved in the conflict, Americans would ultimately feel the consequences of the invasion.
Republican Gary Post, another retired Milwaukee police officer, said he expected war-induced market instability to reduce his retirement purchasing power.
“Like stock markets,” said Post, 62, who waves a flag supporting former President Donald Trump outside his home. “We’ve already seen…how things can be disrupted.”
Hintz, the immigrant from Kosovo, fears for the waves of desperate Ukrainian refugees heading to American shores.
“There are going to be humanitarian consequences back home that people don’t understand,” she said.
Even Yee, the owner of a Chinese restaurant who said he was more focused on his own wallet issues, acknowledged that the invasion will likely end up wreaking havoc in the United States.
“It’s all connected,” he said before walking back into the kitchen. “Sooner or later it’s going to bite our ass.”
Associated Press reporter Carrie Antlfinger in Brookfield, Wisconsin contributed to this report
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