Postcards From Ohio
Michelle Obama gives the talk her husband can't. "Things have gotten worse--through Republican and Democratic Administrations," she says flatly. She didn't quite count the ways at Ohio State as she had when I saw her at a black church in South Carolina, but she deftly linked the shifting expectations for her husband's campaign with the constantly "moving bar" that has made people anxious wrecks. She projects herself as a class sister in telling of her "little unmiraculous life"--the daughter of a disabled shift worker on Chicago's South Side, product of public schools who managed to get to Princeton, a life that is out of reach for more and more people. But she also represents the wife every straight man wants: beautiful, loyal and strong; the helper, the lover, "the rock." Charlie Bush, retired former president of UAW Local 402, which represents workers at International Truck and Engine in Springfield, told me he thought Michelle might be decisive in swaying the votes of more than a few men. She is like Hillary was in 1992, he said, "a supporter." An undecided Edwards voter when we met, Bush now says he's going with Hillary; his wife, Cheryl, is still undecided.
"That white's kickin' in, isn't it?" a friend said as I told him about my last day in this town in Clark County, typically a swing county in elections. But first things first. There was once money here, lots of it. Mansions, some moldering, line High Street, along with Frank Lloyd Wright's 1906 Wescott House--saved from the wrecker's ball and now a museum. Before St. Louis, Springfield was the jumping-off point for the West, and for a time it was second only to Chicago for manufacturing in the Midwest. Not so long ago, International Harvester was the biggest private employer; today that title goes to a call center. International's workforce plunged from 4,500 to less than 1,000 over a six-year period through layoffs and outsourcing; it too has a new union contract allowing it to bring in new workers at about half the old $25 to $30 hourly rate. The call center pays $8 to $12. At CWA Local 4326, Paul Storms, an AT&T technician and the Local president, recited a litany of lost manufacturing: "Speco Aerospace, gone; Buffalo Road Roller, gone; Bomag earth movers, gone; White Motors, gone; Boise Cascade, gone; O-Cedar, gone; O.S. Kelly, gone; the foundries, gone; Robinson Meyers, gone." Solid, cheery housing in working-class parts of town--going, going and sometimes gone.
Manufacturing began moving to the nonunion South in the '80s; in the '90s NAFTA ensured that it would never come back. Storms summed up the situation: "Corporate America, you give 'em an inch, they take a mile, and in this case they've taken our lives." Springfield today is a go-between city for people working in Dayton or Marysville, at the nonunion Honda plant. Local 4326 itself has only fifty-three members. Mayor Warren Copeland is trying to create an information technology park to bring in higher-paid jobs. What has mainly kept the town from imploding is Wright Patterson Air Force Base and earmarks. According to Copeland, "Community Development Block Grants were cut, UDAG grants were cut; what substituted was earmarks"--up to $20 million annually. The source of that largesse, Appropriations Committee member Dave Hobson, is about to retire from Congress. Copeland, a white man, caucused for Obama in early January, when delegate slates were chosen. Three times as many people caucused for Hillary Clinton as for anyone else--almost all the professional politicians, the known party regulars, some unions. Edwards drew union people. Copeland, who has been in Democratic Party politics a long time, knew only one person in the Obama group.
"When people are running they have all kinds of plans," he went on. "Once they get in office, neither one of their plans is going to be adopted, so that's a crazy debate. I'm much more interested in whether they will help people down-ticket. I think Hillary will energize Republicans, and people down-ticket will be hurt." In 2004 the conservative churches, buoyed by Ohio's antigay initiative, called out all their people to vote, and wherever there was no strong union presence in the state, Kerry lost. He lost Clark County by 1,406 votes.
In a conversation with five CWA members, one mixed-race man was leaning toward Obama, one white man was for Hillary ("I'm 61, and ever since I've been alive there's been a man, and that's my big selling point; I'm curious to see if a woman would make a difference"), two other white men were undecided but said they would be happy with either, and the only woman in the Local, a middle-aged white Republican, said she would decide in the booth. She veered between appreciating Hillary's moxie to run and expressing wariness about a woman who took what Bill dished out and who has "her foot in the door of the good-old-boy network." What united them all was a feeling, not yet cynicism, that Democrats and Republicans alike have abandoned unions, the working class and cities like Springfield, and that no matter who wins in November once they get behind closed doors there is no counting on anything.
It is for that reason, along with the similarity of Clinton's and Obama's plans, that gender, race, hope, energy--the Democrats' equivalent of religion, abortion, marriage on the fundamentalist side--count for so much this year. Some white professionals I talked with here were favoring Obama. He is new and didn't vote for the war. We talked about racism and the critique that a vote for Obama only makes white people feel better about themselves. These white people, most in their 50s or early 60s, did not think racism was as pervasive as it had been, but even acknowledging that it exists, an electronics engineer at Wright Patterson said, "The flip side of that is that we should feel bad about any progress. Do we have to feel bad all the time?"
There is plenty to feel bad about. There are de facto whites-only private key clubs in Springfield. The city is segregated by race and class the way most cities are. A ride-around one afternoon with local Obama backers stopping at various intersections with homemade signs urging, Honk and Wave, Obama suggested a fair amount of white support, until the group got to a crossing in a predominantly white neighborhood whose fortunes have been tumbling. There expressions were set, grim, like their wearers meant it. No honks. No waves.
"This is Hillary Clinton's base," said Kimberly Beard. "They are Democrats, and they vote. I've lived here for fifty years; I know these people. They're scared, and they can't see that something can be done. They are disillusioned, disconnected from any economic development in the county and disappointed. I've lived in different cities, but I've always come home because I like to be in a place where I can spot a racist from fifty yards away." Beard worked for Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988. "He got a delegate here, which was virtually unheard of."
Later that night at the Disabled American Veterans key club, a bar that does not require disability or veteran status for entry, only $17 a year and sponsorship by a member, all of whom are white, the women said, "It's time for a woman," "Women are more compassionate." None of them were hankering for Bill. It was a little different with the men. "I'm for Hillary. I love Hillary," a middle-aged man declared with increasing volume. He is a registered Republican, but he voted for Bill in '92 and '96, for Kerry in '04. He said he's never done worse than he's doing now and wants someone who can "bring down the costs of this goddamned healthcare." Really, though, he said he wishes he could vote for Bill a third time. Entrepreneurs have capitalized on this, selling buttons saying, Bring Back Peace and Prosperity and The Clintons over an image of the two.
If Hillary doesn't get the nomination, this man said, he'd not only vote for but work for McCain, "and I hate McCain."
"Why not Obama?"
"He's too inexperienced."
"And why else?" a woman down the bar asked.
"Because he's black."
"Thank you!" she replied.
More talk, a little heat, and the man exclaimed, "I'm not going to vote for the nigger!"
Some in the bar seemed tensed; they were "undecided." The man goaded them; that's not what they had discussed the other day. He laughed. Another man from across the bar said he knew whom he wasn't voting for: "the nigger."
The first man continued to proclaim, "I love Hillary." He and a friend said she probably should take the VP spot if it were offered; even if Obama gets the nomination, "he's not going to make it." Later he apologized for saying "nigger"; "I'm not a racist." In the hallway a young worker said quietly that I shouldn't pay much attention to the man, that for what it was worth he himself was just trying to figure things out politically, was worried about schools for his two young sons and that most of all he was sick of all the division in the country.