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Three weeks before the primary there was hardly a yard sign to be seen for any of the presidential candidates. On the rise of frozen grass in front of Steel Workers Local 1123 bold red, white and blue letters urge Elect Hiles, State Representative. The Local’s president, Randy Feemster, wore a T-shirt sporting the same message for Richard Hiles, who worked at the Timken steel plant here for thirty-eight years. “There are Democrats, and there are labor Democrats, you know what I mean?” Feemster said. He is a big man with a thick, powerful build. But “to tell you the truth,” he said when we first met, “I feel like a little bird that was flying, flying and then hit the glass, and now I’m just lying there by the window, stunned.” The Steel Workers had backed John Edwards, and when he dropped out, Feemster says, “we had our heart broken.”
Across town at Communications Workers Local 4302, four out of five workers I spoke with were similarly dashed and undecided. Edwards had shown up on picket lines and at union rallies, embracing issues that, they said, involved them mentally, emotionally, financially. No other candidate has yet picked up that baton with the same conviction, and the CWA International has not endorsed a candidate because its membership is split. One of the workers I met, Blanche McKinney, 59, is backing Hillary Clinton, as is the Local’s vice president, Bob Wise. Experience. Problem-solving. Day one. The reasons McKinney gave for her choice are bullet points of the Clinton campaign. And then there’s Bill. “I feel Bill gave me eight good years,” she said.
The standard narrative of 1990s prosperity, and thus Bill Clinton’s most important remaining legacy, is on the line in Ohio’s primary. That, as much as Hillary’s flagging electoral fortunes, is why Ohio is a must-win for the Clintons. In the same way that South Carolina shattered the myth of Bill as America’s first black President, Ohio could shatter the myth of generalized Clinton-era good times.
Other states’ primaries might have done the same; Virginia and Wisconsin broke Hillary’s presumed lock on the white working-class vote. But for myriad reasons, earlier primaries did not searingly confront the campaigns with the issue of working-class decline. Decline is everywhere apparent in Ohio, where as a direct result of the North American Free Trade Agreement, 45,734 jobs were lost between 1995 and 2003. That only skims the surface of loss, because for every shutdown factory there are concentric bands of devastation, from direct support industries to the small businesses that depended on the custom of hourly workers to the schools that can’t win new levies because people are taxed out. NAFTA sliced the skin, and the bleeding continues. After LTV Steel closed in Cleveland in 2001, according to Don Singer, a former official who worked with the state labor department, 3,100 businesses went down with it. Between November 1999 and November 2003, according to Policy Matters Ohio, the state had a net loss of 244,000 nonagricultural jobs. Today Ohio is the seventh-worst state in the country for finding a job.