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Delegation visit frames question: How best to serve?
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Students at the Salvation Army daycare center in Brooklyn greet members of the Minnesota delegation to the Republican National Convention. (MPR Photo/Bob Collins)
A group of Minnesotans attending the Republican National Convention in New York spent several hours on Tuesday painting a day care center. The volunteer work was part of the Republican Party's theme of "compassionate conservatism." Minnesota Republicans say the activity highlights their belief that the government can't fix all of society's problems, and individuals need to step to the plate. Critics say while Republicans talk about compassion, Republican officials have cut much of the safety net for people in need.

Brooklyn, NY — Several dozen Minnesota Republicans donned grubby T-shirts and shorts and took a bus to Brooklyn, where the Salvation Army's Bedford Day Care Center is located. The center serves about 40 children from low and middle-income families. As the Minnesotans got off the bus, they found the children about to leave for the park down the street. Also outside the center was a handful of union members, hoping to persuade Republicans to pressure New York's Republican mayor, Michael Bloomberg, to approve a new contract for day care workers. Glen Huff, president of Local 205, says nearly 7,000 public day care employees, who make on average $17,000 a year, have been without a contract for four years.

"We hope that the delegates that come into the Republican convention will somewhat persuade the mayor to do the right thing."

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Image Wants more than $17,000 a year

Huff handed out a press release that said, "compassion for two hours does not compare with the real compassion that is evidenced by the workers in these centers." The Minnesota Republicans didn't stick around to talk to Huff; they hurried into the day care center to begin painting.

Sixth District Congressman Mark Kennedy led the volunteers as they taped, scraped and painted. They transformed a play room from institutional green to bright yellow with lilac trim.

The center director, Les King, said he appreciated the help.

"I need a paint job because our custodian is out sick; he has cancer. So a lot of our maintenance work has been falling on subs and stuff like that," he said.

The Minnesota volunteers said they're happy to help out. They say the activity cuts to the core of the Republican Party's philosophy that government is less effective than individuals in giving a helping hand.

As he worked, Chaz Johnson of Farmington said it's all part of the American tradition of helping your neighbor.

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Image Not a 'photo op'

"I'm not doing it for a photo op, and I'm not doing it for this interview. I'm doing it because somebody asked for our help. And that's being an American to me. I don't ask the government to do it for me, and I think that's the difference. I think we get better things accomplished when people do it on their own," he said.

Johnson admitted that he doesn't do much volunteer work right now, because he has two children under the age of two. But many of his fellow painters said they do plenty of community service work ranging from Habitat for Humanity to the YMCA to the Salvation Army.

Retired teacher Rosella Dambowy of St. Joseph says she used to work with troubled teens, and now gives most of her volunteer time to the Republican Party. She says she's always been a Republican, because she's fiscally conservative.

"I just feel that people should work for their keep," she said. "And I think if they do work, they usually appreciate it more. I remember I needed $100 to finish my college education, I asked my mother for it. She said 'no.' So that took care of that." Dambowy says she's willing to help people who truly need it, but believes able-bodied people shouldn't expect the government to take care of them.

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Image Veteran volunteer

Many Democrats say the problem is that Republican fiscal policies have cut essential government services. While the Minnesota delegation was painting, backers of Democrat John Kerry were back in Minneapolis criticizing President Bush's environmental policies. One of them, Minnesota Attorney General Mike Hatch, said the Republican compassion events seem very staged.

"It's all form," he said. "Go out there and do this, you get your media shot, everbody feels good. And yet, at the same time, what are these kids going to do? We're cutting their morning breakfast. We cut their education. We're cutting out health care, Medicaid, you name it. It's very unfortunate. And hopefully people see through that."

Minnesota Republicans say their commitment to community service isn't a one-day event. As they left the Brooklyn day care, they talked about helping the Bedford kids on an ongoing basis.

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