Postcards From Ohio
No "bridge to the twenty-first century" was ever built here in the 1990s. In place of the biggest steel plants, which left in the '70s and '80s, there are nonunion mini-mills, a steel museum, nursing homes and two prisons. The state university, where Obama was speaking, graduates more corrections officers than teachers. It used to be good at engineering. Cecil Monroe, a black man, 65, who works for the county government, said he doesn't want his mixed-race daughter to come back here after college: "I think if she comes back, it's just going to be death and destruction." The city is about even black and white, and that seemed roughly the mix of the 6,000-plus people who came to hear Obama. Only 83,000 people live in Youngstown now. The labor historian and radical lawyer Staughton Lynd, 78, who lives in nearby Niles, said it was "the most integrated crowd I've seen in thirty-two years." Also the most easy-spirited. A number of white adults I spoke with had been led by their kids, many of them too young to vote.
The day before, I had been in Toledo, where Bill Clinton spoke to an overwhelmingly white crowd of about 1,000. As in 1992, he emphasized the high-tech future, this time in green technology. Toledo has some infrastructure for such things; Youngstown does not. What Youngstown has is desperation. In that circumstance, it is easy to see why feeling good is no small thing. This is not a liberal town, and even if class clichés were valid the crowd could not be described as "latte-drinking, Prius-driving, Birkenstock-wearing trust fund babies"--an insult the buffoonish president of the Machinists' Union, Tom Buffenbarger, threw at Obama supporters before introducing Hillary the next day at a Youngstown high school. The Obama rally was on Presidents' Day; people had the day off. Obama was introduced by a laid-off union pipefitter (white, female) carrying a baby in a sling. He ticked off the requisite class issues and took one brief, sharp shot at NAFTA, which drew big applause. But the greatest response was for issues of no direct consequence to Youngstown: closing Guantánamo, ending the debate on torture, restoring habeas corpus, restoring constitutional rights--in other words, righting the wrongs that have only added shame on top of desperation.
By the old math, this should be Hillary country: a white ethnic working-class suburb of Cleveland. It might be, and Hillary has a passionate surrogate in Anthony D'Amico, president of the Brook Park Democratic Club, a retired Teamster who can tick off her plans and forcefully make the change-through-experience argument. He has organized campaigns for years and was once a city councilman, but as we talked, with less than two weeks to go to the primary, he said no one from the Hillary campaign had contacted him. As he gauges it, neither campaign is visible on the ground, so people are scrambling to do things ad hoc. He puts no faith in the polls, the phone banking: "People are being very standoffish. They hold voting very sacred, and they don't want to tell you shit." There is one other wild card in the deck: "Brook Park used to be 1,000 percent Democratic. Years ago when I was growing up [in the mid-'60s], they're making the signs in the backyard with the hammer and nails." Before the 2005 elections he looked at the registration rolls from the town's four wards, and it shocked him: Democrats, 4,448; Republicans, 882; independents, 6,508. "If you'd asked me even a few years ago, I'd have said there is no way independents are the majority. There's where you want to roll the dice."
"Who said there was going to be a giant sucking sound? They made a fool of him, but he was absolutely right." Out his office window Jim Repace, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1985, could see the Hoover factory as he spoke. Hoover was once a Fortune 500 company, the number-one floor-care manufacturer in the world, the only unionized floor-care manufacturer in the country. A few years ago it was posting 30 percent profits; a few months ago it had workers disassembling machines right beside those still on the job. Now this beautiful 100-year-old brick specimen of a daylight factory is cold; 817 hourly workers (down from 2,400 as recently as 2000) will get full wages, health and pension benefits through June. Repace says the shutdown will affect 8,000 in the area; North Canton has a population of 16,000. Next-door to his office, the message board at St. Peter's Catholic Church reads, "God be our hope when life is difficult."
However profitable, Hoover could not compete here with its plants in Juárez/El Paso and China. The union went through the usual rounds of concessions and legal action to keep the plant open, and for fourteen years it almost worked. Hoover did some hiring in the '90s, but Repace could look toward other cities where NAFTA was killing plants, the broad scenario being a fight of all against all, with those left standing cutting living standards to avoid catastrophe. Behind the increases people saw in their CDs, the economy was going. No one who has not lived through this kind of shutdown can really understand the ruthlessness of it, or the fear that the pleasant streets around the plant, the park where workers ate lunch, are in preboarding for hell. NAFTA has not been emphasized in the election, and Repace says, "It's troubling me that it's not" because "it's still going on." He spent years defending Bill Clinton in the '90s, but "I'm just tired of the status quo. We've had eight years of Clinton, eight years of Bush. Enough is enough. I like a new perspective.... I truly believe Obama's going to go in there with something to prove. He is not going to want to be a failure."
A failure for whom is always the question. Sixteen years ago, at a blimp hangar a few miles away in Akron, 50,000 people cheered another fresh face in the general election. Bill Clinton played the working class, and if it were to repay him by proxy on March 4, '90s prosperity should finally enter the book of political fairy tales. However the vote turns, not just the people of Ohio will need some potent ways to show they won't be played again.