BROOKFIELD, Wisconsin (AP) – From his Chinese restaurant in the western suburbs of Milwaukee, Charles Yee watched with concern this week as Europe faces the greatest threat to its peace and security since the end of World War II. But at least for now, the challenges at home are more worrying for him.
As the pandemic stretches into its third year, the 62-year-old Brookfield, Wisconsin native is trying to keep his business afloat despite staff shortages. Disruptions in the supply chain make it difficult to keep basic supplies like to-go containers on hand. Perhaps nothing hits Yee harder than inflation-driven price increases that make everything more expensive. At some point he would like to have a whole day off.
Pervasive headwinds make Russia’s invasion of Ukraine seem like a distant problem to Republican Yee. It does not condone Russian President Vladimir Putin’s norm-breaking efforts to overthrow the government of a neighboring democracy while threatening the lives of civilians. But his own stubborn hurdles resonate deeper within him.
“That’s not my top priority,” Yee said of the invasion. “I’m just kinda, kinda – you know – making ends meet.”
In one of America’s most politically divided states, Yee is not alone. More than a dozen interviews with voters across the demographic and political spectrum on the eve of and immediately after the Russian attack suggest a broad focus on domestic issues, particularly the economy. While Democrats have often been quicker to express concerns about Ukrainians, they have also been reluctant to get too involved in a conflict overseas.
Harshman Sihra, an 18-year-old Democrat, said he wanted “everyone to be safe and healthy.”
“But we’re really worried about American citizens first,” he said. “That’s great, but us first.”
That sentiment poses a challenge for Democrats in a critical election year. President Joe Biden has described Putin’s aggression as a “contest between democracy and autocracy.” But if he hopes his party can prevail in November, he must continue to speak on issues that are more tangible to voters.
That’s especially true in a place like Wisconsin, where closely watched races for governor and senate are being held this year. In one of his first trips outside of Washington after next week’s State of the Union address, Biden is expected to travel to Superior, Wisconsin, to highlight the impact of his massive infrastructure spending legislation on the ground.
The President is balancing competing priorities as many in the US remain deeply skeptical of foreign entanglements after two decades of overseas failures, including the Iraq war and the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan. According to a poll released this week by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, only 26% say the US should play a major role in the Russia conflict.
Democrats were more likely than Republicans to believe the US should play an important role in the conflict — 32% to 22% — but still overwhelmingly opposed it.
Like much of the nation, Brookfield is a growing, changing community grappling with the recent crisis that once seemed unthinkable. Long the political epicenter of Republican Waukesha County, it has become more diverse as families move here from Milwaukee and locations outside of Wisconsin, drawn by the schools and access to housing and health care.
That has made the area more competitive for Democrats, who have won state legislature seats in statewide elections and eaten into GOP margins.
Regardless of their political views, many in this vibrant, diverse suburb are keeping a close eye on developments in Ukraine. Few are more perceptive than Lorika Hintz, a 40-year-old small business owner who doesn’t identify with either political party. But she is shaped by her experience of surviving three years of street wars in her Kosovo neighborhood as a teenager in the 1990s.
“People should be worried. And I know it’s far from us. But it’s getting really bad. My biggest concern is the kids,” said Hintz, who has a 5-year-old daughter and will be voting in a US election for the first time this year.
For Democrat Anne Leggio, an interior designer, the crisis is a major concern, reminding her of what she read about the start of World War II.
“I almost feel like my stomach turns when I hear the news and I hate it,” she said.
But some Republican residents took a harder view.
“I’m more worried about the United States. I know it sounds selfish, but I’m more worried about what’s happening here,” said Republican Dina Bernotas, a 35-year-old owner of a Brookfield grill bar. “Inflation, lack of border controls, lack of police presence. I’m more concerned about the safety of America and our cities and our communities — our people — than what’s happening overseas.”
Retired Milwaukee Police Officer Bob Chapman was moved by the thought of his grandchildren in uniform.
“I don’t want them, for all I know, to go to Ukraine to die for someone else’s situation,” said Chapman, a 72-year-old Navy veteran, as tears welled in his eyes.
On one thing, virtually everyone agreed: Regardless of whether the US becomes more involved in the conflict, Americans will eventually feel the consequences of the invasion.
Republican Gary Post, another retired Milwaukee police officer, said he expected market instability caused by the war to limit his spending power for retirement.
“Like the stock markets,” said the 62-year-old Post, who flies a flag in front of his home in support of former President Donald Trump. “We’ve already seen… how things can be disrupted.”
Hintz, the Kosovo immigrant, fears the waves of desperate Ukrainian refugees heading for American shores.
“There will be humanitarian consequences at home that people don’t understand,” she said.
Even Yee, the owner of a Chinese restaurant, who said he is more focused on his own paperback troubles, acknowledged that the US invasion is likely to take its toll at some point
“Everything is connected,” he said before returning to the kitchen. “Sooner or later it will bite us in the butt.”
Associated Press journalist Carrie Antlfinger of Brookfield, Wisconsin contributed to this report