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Key question in ’96 election: Who’s ‘middle class’?

The current wrangling over the “99 percent” and the “47 percent” brings to mind a similar issue that helped to oust a North Carolina congressman in 1996. This is from Jack Betts’  blog post on the 2010 death of former Raleigh police chief and U.S. Rep. Fred Heineman:
“In 1995, then-Rep. Heineman was quoted in a newspaper story for remarks that set the tone for 1996. In that 1995 story, he said, ‘When I see a first-class individual who makes $80,000 a year, he’s lower middle class. When I see someone who is making anywhere from $300,000 to $750,000, that’s middle class. When I see anyone above that, that’s upper middle class.’

“Heineman’s income at the time was about $183,000, including his congressional salary of $133,000 and [Raleigh] police pension of about $50,000. The statement made Heineman look arrogant as well as out of touch in a state where many families were struggling to rise above the poverty level, let alone dream about making $80,000 a year.

“And in the 1996 campaign, [David] Price’s campaign took advantage with a funny but biting ad now known in political lore as ‘Earth to Fred.’ It played on the far-out character of Heineman’s remarks and included such lines as ‘Earth to Fred. Come in Congressman’ and ‘Fred Heineman, he’s out of touch with average families here. Way out.’

“As I wrote at the time 15 years ago, ‘Egad. The chief got elected to Congress barely a year ago and has been in Washington only 10 months. That’s mighty quick to lose touch with so many constituents who make considerably less than Heineman’s salary but who thought they were in the middle class. The fact is that per capita N.C. income is $18,760; median family income is about $28,424. Less than 8 percent of N.C. families had incomes of $75,000 or over. Perhaps 1 percent have incomes as high as the chief.’ ”