Kerry Mocks Bush on Economy

Times Staff Writer

Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry taunted President Bush Tuesday while campaigning in Ohio, daring the Republican to visit this economically strapped state and tell the unemployed here how he will find them work.

While an optimistic Bush officially kicked off his own 2004 campaign on Monday with talk about how America is economically stronger, Kerry described it as “almost a fantasy speech about a world that does not exist for most Americans.”

“The president talked about a prosperity that millions of Americans are not seeing, feeling or living,” he said after touring a shuttered steel mill here.


“It’s a prosperity, perhaps, for the stock market. It’s a prosperity, perhaps, for the wealthiest Americans. But it’s not the prosperity for the 270,000 people who have lost their jobs in Ohio.”

Ohio is one of the big prizes for Democratic candidates next Tuesday, when voters in 10 states including California and New York vote on a nominee. Of the 1,151 delegates at stake on Super Tuesday, Ohio will provide 140.

Kerry leads North Carolina Sen. John Edwards -- his last serious rival for the nomination -- in the state by a healthy margin in recent polls. But he upset people in nearby Youngstown this week.

Officials in the Democratic stronghold in northeastern Ohio were miffed, after the front-runner apparently changed plans and decided to block the public from a town hall meeting Tuesday at Astro Shapes Inc. here, restricting attendance to workers at the aluminum products maker.

On Monday night, after news of the allegedly changed plans surfaced, a local television station led its broadcast with the headline: “John Kerry’s coming to Youngstown, and you’re not invited.”

The perceived slight came just two days after Edwards spoke before a crowd of 1,000 at a local Teamsters hall -- with local officials in front-row seats.

“In my mind this was a huge tactical error,” said Democratic strategist Leo Jennings, who helped organize the Kerry visit to the Youngstown area. “We’re going to be out there trying to get the vote out for Kerry. He’s supposed to make our job easier, not harder. But he’s made it harder. People are angry.”

During local television interviews after the Astro Shapes event, a mystified Kerry was asked why he decided not to invite the public. “What do you mean?” was his first response. “I didn’t make that decision; I didn’t know anything about it,” was his second.

Then he said, “I think it was because of the company and the numbers of people who could come in, and they wanted to make it personal with the workers here, and I am doing a public event in Cleveland tonight, and people have always been able to ask me anything they want.”

After flying to Ohio from New York City on Tuesday afternoon, Kerry spent the bulk of the day reaching out to union workers here. Some fear that their jobs are threatened by unfair foreign trade; others are struggling to make ends meet after being locked out of their jobs in a local labor dispute over salary and benefit reductions at RMI Titanium in nearby Niles.

With several such men in tow, Kerry toured the cavernous hulk of Youngstown Sheet and Tube, which closed in the mid-1980s as part of a widespread shutdown of steel mills that cost 25,000 people in the region their jobs.

Randy Velk, 50, told the senator that he had diabetes and found it difficult to afford his $500-a-month prescription drug bills while he was locked out from his job at RMI.

“I only work sporadically,” Velk said. “It’s really tough.”

Bill Burga, president of the Ohio AFL-CIO, pressed the candidate to fight for trade policy that protects American jobs. “All we’re asking for is a fair chance,” Burga said. “Let us compete. Give us the tools that we need. All we want to do is work and make a living for our future.”

Kerry voted in favor of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which was opposed by organized labor. He now says that, as president, he would not sign a treaty unless it had appropriate protections for workers and the environment in the countries where the U.S. has trade. Edwards has made trade and Kerry’s NAFTA stance an issue in big industrial states during the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. The North Carolina senator went to the RMI plant in Niles and railed against NAFTA from the picket line Sunday.

Kerry didn’t visit the RMI picket line, said spokesman David Wade, because the campaign didn’t know there was one.

“Picket line? We knew they were locked out,” Wade said. “I didn’t know there was a picket line.... John Kerry has always been a strong supporter of the right to organize. Today he wanted to highlight the need for enforcement of trade agreements.”

Which is largely what he did during the intimate town hall meeting with workers from Astro Shapes and at a rally with more than 1,000 supporters in Cleveland, where he was endorsed by the American Nurses Assn.

In addition to talking about the need for fair trade that protects American workers, he also talked about the need to create jobs and protect workers who want to organize unions.

Making reference to the Struthers aluminum manufacturing plant, he said, “this is a union shop and it ought to mean something to you to have a president who’s going to respect the right to organize, who’s going to respect the right to have decent wages.”

Edwards spent most of his efforts Tuesday raising money in Atlanta and Houston, signaling that his campaign was looking beyond the Super Tuesday primaries to March 9, when Texas, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi hold their primaries.

Edwards also spoke briefly at the weekly meeting of an Atlanta social-action group, met with about 50 elected state Democrats who had endorsed him and addressed several hundred people arrayed along the main floor and two floors of balconies in a large atrium in the state capitol building.

“Today I’ve got a message for somebody in Washington,” Edwards said, speaking from the bottom steps of a flowing central staircase. “And that message is this: ‘Not so fast, George Bush. You don’t get to decide who our nominee is, and you don’t get to decide what this election is about.’ ”


Times staff writers John Glionna in Youngstown and Scott Martelle in Atlanta contributed to this report.