Postcards From Ohio

Postcards From Ohio

The white working-class vote is on the line–so is the myth of Clinton-era good times.


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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.

Local 1123 is down to 2,400 members, while also servicing 6,000 retirees, and neither Obama nor Clinton has an answer for Feemster and other union leaders who again and again concede on wages to maintain company-paid health benefits and retiree pensions. Even before Edwards dropped out, the Democratic Leadership Council was congratulating itself that none of the top contenders favored a single-payer health insurance system, which Feemster supports. Nevertheless, he was waiting to be wooed by one of the candidates.

It is remarkable that, when we met in mid-February, he hadn’t been. Stark County is an important swing county, and Feemster has long been key to mobilizing labor support in elections. Elsewhere I met other experienced election organizers whose only contact with the campaigns has come through robocalls. My requests to both campaigns for their county coordinators’ contact information went unanswered. It is as if no one had thought that Ohio would matter, that industrial unions would matter; as if these workers who say they often feel forgotten actually have been, even for the cynical aim of vote-rustling. In such circumstances, it is hard to know what might tip a vote. In Feemster’s case it was a talk with Bill Clinton versus a meeting with Obama surrogates. The one, he said, gave specific answers to specific questions, even if Feemster didn’t always agree; the others, no way as close to their candidate, danced around the issues. “Will Obama do away with NAFTA?” They waffled about legalisms; Bill said Hillary will fix it, and expounded beyond what Feemster had already heard about both candidates from the TV news shows that have become the background music in his house. Local 1123 cannot endorse a candidate, but with two weeks to go it rented part of its hall to the Clinton camp: “They were the first to ask.” With less than a week to go, no one had yet shown up to work.


No question, Election ’08 enlists white men in identity politics for the first time. What will lead them, their skin or their dick? A vote for Hillary might cover both propositions. Amid the arcing conveyors of splashy Chevy Cobalts and Pontiac G5s at the GM Lordstown plant, some of Hillary’s white male supporters ticked off her plans, her ability to “hit the ground running.” But sooner or later, usually sooner, it was Bill they admitted they’d be voting for. Bill will guide her. No one is as experienced as Bill. Because of their past failures, “the Clintons” are better positioned to get it right next time. NAFTA was a good idea that was badly implemented. In 2006, when Sherrod Brown swept away the Republican incumbent in the Senate race by hammering on trade deals, no Democrat called NAFTA a good idea. But the rationalization now is not as bizarre as it first seems. Organized labor rallied for Bill Clinton and the Democrats after he strong-armed Congress to pass the trade agreement, arguing in 1994 and again in ’96 that he and the party could best control the downside. And the stock market bubble meant that, for a while at least, the economy expanded and some people had more money in their pockets.

Hillary reminded 200-plus assembled workers at the plant of those good days. They handed her a pair of boxing gloves, and she promised to fight the bankers, the corporations, the credit card companies, Wall Street, China. Afterward, as “She’s an American girl…” blasted from the speakers, some workers said she had made the emotional connection they sought: “She actually seems like she’s got feeling. Maybe it’s because she’s a woman. Women don’t lie,” said a white millwright named Mike. He has worked at GM for thirty years, and for thirteen of those, beginning in the ’90s, he worked “seven twelves,” twelve hours a day, seven days a week. “You don’t make money unless you want to live here,” a white man named John said. “You’re kind of a slave.” GM now wants to outsource most of Mike’s work. Last year the United Auto Workers agreed to let the company hire new employees at about $13 an hour, half the rate of veteran workers, and rolled the dice by taking control over retiree health and pension benefits. In her speech, Hillary had said, “Some may call this the Rust Belt. That’s not what I see. I see those shiny new cars. They look like the future to me.” As Mike was explaining why he voted no on the GM contract, a company flak ordered him back to work and me off the premises.


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.


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.

Brook Park

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.”

North Canton

“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.

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