Buckeye Blues

LORAIN, OHIO -- The Steelworkers hall here is a musty monument to American labor's glorious past. On the walls are photos of Franklin Roosevelt signing the Wagner Act in 1935, and of Philip Murray, president of the United Steelworkers of America from its inception in 1937 until his death in 1952. Newer images are nowhere to be found, and the hall itself, while functional, is cheerless and stark.

And what's to cheer? In this corner of northern Ohio, about 40 miles west of Cleveland, the factories that once employed thousands of workers are almost entirely gone. On an August afternoon, I'm meeting with union leaders from across Lorain County, each with his own mournful numbers. Tim Donovan, president of the United Auto Workers local that represents the local Ford plants, says that they now employ 2,100 workers, down from 10,000 a decade ago. The Steelworkers local represented the workers at a United States Steel plant that employed 20,000 in the 1970s; today, that workforce has shrunk to 1,400.

The meeting itself is not downhearted. The two dozen leaders talk about the unions' political program in Ohio, the most extensive labor has ever mounted. The program in Cleveland, everyone agrees, has never had so many union activists reaching so many of their fellow members so early or often in the Democratic cause. Still, the leaders' is a tempered enthusiasm. “Is [John] Kerry getting his message out?” one worries. “Every time he opens his mouth, the Republicans call it a lie.” “They're really hitting hard on this whole gay-marriage, homosexual thing,” says another. Their unanimous recommendation is that Kerry stick to bread and butter. “He really needs to stress health care,” says one. “They say, ‘How do we fund this?' I say, ‘How did we fund this war that nobody wants?'”

Polling shows that Ohioans, whatever their initial position on the Iraq War, now see it as a drain on resources that could be used in Ohio -- a state that has 4 percent of the United States' population but, notes Lorain-area Representative and progressive Democrat Sherrod Brown, 19 percent of the nation's jobs lost during the presidency of George W. Bush.

This is the kind of point that union political programs are good at hammering home. Since the birth of exit polling in the 1960s, union households have invariably been found to vote between 9 percent and 12 percent more Democratic than nonunion households. That margin has always been wider among white males, among whom union members have been roughly 20 percent more likely than their nonunion counterparts to vote for Democratic presidential nominees.

Which is why the decline in union membership makes much of the industrial Midwest such a challenge for Kerry in a year when Bush's indifferent economic stewardship should make those states easy pickings. “People think we're a big union state, but we're not anymore,” says Paul Ryder, a senior staffer for Ohio Citizen Action, from his office in downtown Cleveland that looks out over what seems like miles of abandoned steel mills. Just 18 percent of the Ohio workforce is unionized, and its four largest unions are in the service and retail sectors, not manufacturing.

And yet Ohio has not made the transition to a postindustrial economy. The percentage of college-educated Ohioans lags behind the national average; white working-class voters still constitute slightly more than 60 percent of the total electorate in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Indeed, the two fundamental transitions -- one socioeconomic, one demographic -- that are turning some states more Democratic are nowhere to be found in the heart of the Rust Belt. The socioeconomic transition is the rise of vibrant, postindustrial metropolitan areas whose populations tend to be socially liberal; the demographic one, the explosive growth of the economically liberal Hispanic population. Such transitions are behind the conversion of California from Nixon-and-Reagan Land to the most Democratic of states. They are the reason why the Southwest is in play this November. They are why Florida is trending Democratic: The state's Hispanic population increased from 12 percent to 17 percent of the state during the ‘90s.

Not so in Ohio. Because the state is not creating postindustrial jobs, its brighter and more ambitious young people tend to leave. And because the state is not creating any jobs, virtually no new immigrants end up there. Hispanics constituted just 1.9 percent of the Ohio population in the 2000 census; they were 12.5 percent nationwide. Ohio was 84-percent white in that census; the United States was just 69-percent white. (Indeed, one can imagine a long-term transition in which Florida and even Texas become increasingly nonwhite Democratic strongholds, while Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia become more Republican.)

When Republican strategists look to Ohio, then, they see an economically and educationally lagging, increasingly nonunion white working class. In short, they see the South. Ohio whites may not be as conservative as their southern counterparts, but they don't have to be, because the (heavily Democratic) black share of the population is correspondingly smaller than it is in Dixie.

The small towns of southern Ohio are close to southern to begin with, an extension of Appalachia north of the Ohio River. The Bush campaign is organizing heavily there and throughout rural Ohio. It has managed to depict Kerry as an untrustworthy cultural alien, and, after a month of “Swift”-boat and Republican-convention mendacity, Bush has taken a narrow statewide lead.

Against this onslaught the Democrats have erected a phenomenal organization, and are hoping that Kerry is able to reach voters with the right message. Into the void created by the demise of industrial unions and the decade-long collapse of the state Democratic Party, America Coming Together (ACT) -- the largest of the Democratic “527s” -- is spending a breathtaking $15 million for its statewide voter-mobilization effort.

On the day after my meeting in Lorain, I spend the afternoon walking the sidewalks of Canton, where the old Republic Steel mill is long gone, and where newer layoffs at Timkin, Rubbermaid, and Diebold are convulsing the economy. I'm with Canton ACT's two lead organizers, Dave Leasure, who used to work at Republic, and Sean McDonald, who worked at a local carpet store until it went under. By mid-August, they and their co-workers had contacted 18,000 Canton voters; statewide, ACT had reached more than half a million. “A highly effective field program,” says Ohio ACT Executive Director Steve Bouchard, “can probably deliver 3 points on election day.”

On the doorsteps, Leasure and McDonald ask their neighbors which issues concern them most, then hand them a Palm Pilot, which shows one of six 20-second films on, presumably, their neighbor's designated issue. The videos say how many jobs Ohio has lost, how many Ohioans go without health care, how much money that could be going to Ohio is routed instead to Iraq. Leasure and McDonald persuade a number of sympathetic voters to fill out absentee-ballot applications, and some even to help out as volunteers. But among more conflicted voters, Kerry himself will have to close the deal.

Certainly, he will need to use the debates to convey the image of a capable commander in chief. Beyond that, with Republicans proclaiming a bond between Bush and white working-class voters on cultural issues, Kerry needs to create his own bond on economic issues.

“I always want to see a more populist message,” says Brown, who notes that he carried 81 percent of the vote in heavily Catholic Lorain during the 2002 congressional election, despite his pro-abortion-rights positions. Brown opposed NAFTA and is leading the charge for affordable prescription drugs -- an economic populism to which he attributes his success.

I'm sitting with Brown in Donna's Diner in downtown Elryia, one town over from Lorain. On his last visit, he says, one of the waitresses shied away from a discussion of politics. “She probably makes $18,000 a year,” says Brown, “and the Democrats don't know how to talk to her. Democrats assume that workers know we're better on the economic issues than the Republicans. I don't think that many of them do. We have to talk about all those issues to her, to make crystal clear which side we're on. If we don't, she'll vote on abortion and the guys in the plants will vote their guns.”

Harold Meyerson is the Prospect's editor-at-large.

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