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Ohio Economy Isn’t Working

Times Staff Writer

At age 55, David Leasure has big hopes for his latest job application: as a bag boy in a local supermarket.

A victim of recent layoffs, the truck driver has gone 15 months without steady work. Now he’s ready to swallow his pride and sack groceries for near-minimum wage -- if it means health benefits and sleeping at night.

In nearby Youngstown, steelworker Dennis Church has full-time work but nagging insecurity. A 50-year-old father of two, he has known of suicides and home foreclosures. He has seen laid-off friends leave Ohio, only to return and move in with their parents at age 45.

For Democratic candidates John F. Kerry and John Edwards, the battle for the Buckeye State in Tuesday’s primary may come down to economics: who can best articulate a plan to revitalize a region hit hard by major manufacturers pulling up stakes and moving production work to Mexico and China.

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Ohio has lost 272,000 jobs in the last three years -- more than half of them in manufacturing.

Factories aren’t the only business in Ohio; nearly half the workers here are employed in such sectors as transportation, public administration and education. But manufacturing jobs, which account for 16% of employment -- down from 33% in the 1970s -- remain key to the state’s identity.

As a result, both Kerry and Edwards have targeted blue-collar voters in the Rust Belt region just south of Lake Erie, an economically distressed area that has inspired country and western laments and a Bruce Springsteen ballad. They have listened to the woes of jobless workers at rallies staged at abandoned manufacturing plants and still-billowing factory smokestacks.

Polls show Kerry, the Democrats’ national front-runner, with a comfortable lead here -- one bolstered by major union endorsements. He conducted a “Jobs Tour” last week in northern Ohio areas hit hardest by layoffs.

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But Edwards has taken the fight directly to workers. The millionaire former trial attorney has played up his small-town roots and criticized Kerry for voting for the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement.

Edwards’ TV ads include one called “American Jobs,” and his speeches mention the closure of the South Carolina mill where his father once worked.

The ability of Kerry and Edwards to win votes here has broad implications for the general election because of Ohio’s tradition as a “swing” state. In 2000, Republican George W. Bush beat Democrat Al Gore here by less than 4 percentage points.

Edwards, while running short on money and time, has more of a chance to pull off an eleventh-hour victory in Ohio than in any other of the Super Tuesday states, political experts say.

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“If Edwards does it right, he could undermine the official union support thrown at Kerry’s feet,” said John Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at Akron University. “Going right to working-class people, he could pull off an upset.”

On the day that Kerry began his push with a town hall meeting in Dayton and a rally in Columbus, Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken spoke of the high political stakes at play.

“Welcome to the battle of Ohio,” Luken said. “This will be ground zero in terms of this presidential campaign.”

In Youngstown last week, two contrasting campaign stops demonstrated the potential for shifting political fortunes.

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Union members invited Edwards on Sunday to a packed rally at a Teamsters hall.

“The bosses called me and said, ‘What the heck are you doing? We’re endorsing the other guy,’ ” said Bob Bernat, secretary-treasurer of Local 377. “I told them that Edwards needed a chance to speak his mind.”

Two days later, Kerry aides changed plans and closed to the public a meeting with workers at a local manufacturing plant.

One of those who felt snubbed was state Sen. Bob Hagan, who had attended the Edwards rally. Though he had been leaning toward Kerry, Hagan promptly changed his mind and endorsed Edwards.

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“What John Kerry did was an offense,” he said. “Just because you’re the front-runner doesn’t mean you can start taking your supporters for granted. Because no support is etched in stone.”

Experts say both Kerry and Edwards risk running afoul of industrial Ohio’s “politics of resentment” against candidates who pander to regional problems to win votes -- and then are never seen again.

“Youngstown is tired of being portrayed as a poster child for deindustrialization,” said John B. Russo, director of labor studies at Youngstown State University and coauthor of “Steeltown USA: Work and Memory in Youngstown.”

“Workers don’t like candidates dancing on their graves for sound bites. They want answers to the job loss problem.”

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A Milken Institute ranking of 200 cities nationwide in terms of economic vitality saw Ohio cities rank near or at the bottom: Akron at 180th, Cleveland at 194th and Youngstown second to last at 199th. Canton ranked the highest among Ohio cities at 149th.

Many voters here say either Kerry or Edwards would do a better job at reviving the state economy than Bush. The latest Ohio Poll, released this month, showed that Bush’s approval rating dipped to 49%, down from 87% in November 2001.

Robert Bennett, chairman of the Ohio Republican Party, is surprised Bush’s approval rating isn’t lower, considering the constant slams from his Democratic rivals.

“This is the Democrats’ hour,” he said. “We’re not up on the air with [Democratic] primary ads, and we’ve yet to answer the negative attacks. But we will.”

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No Republican has ever been elected president without first winning here. And just two Democrats -- Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944 and John F. Kennedy in 1960 -- captured the White House without taking Ohio.

While Bill Clinton won the state in 1992 and 1996, Bush reclaimed the state in 2000. But he saw a comfortable double-digit lead in the polls dwindle in the final hours before election day.

And many agree the state will be up for grabs in 2004.

“Call it ‘The Temptation of Ohio,’ ” said David Leland, former state Democratic Party chairman. “It’s gone Democratic just enough times to look appealing. On one hand it looks winnable. But it can also be a black hole that sucks up a lot of time and money.”

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When times were good, David Leasure often worked 80 hours a week driving a truck at the Republic Steel Mill in Massillon. He earned $60,000 a year.

Last year he scraped together a total of $10,000 doing odd jobs. He recently broke the news to his son that he couldn’t help pay tuition at nearby Kent State University.

“At age 55, I’m supposed to have the tiger by the tail,” he said. “You tell me what tail I’ve got. Because the one I’ve been given is whipping me to death.”

Having exhausted his unemployment benefits last summer, he thinks the president should consider opening a new Homeland Security office -- “for the economy.”

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On Tuesday, he will support Kerry, a fellow Vietnam veteran who, he believes, has the wisdom and experience to put people like him back to work again.

Leasure says he likes some of Kerry’s initiatives, such as cutting the tax incentives to companies who move jobs overseas and a proposal to require employers to disclose jobs they ship abroad, along with a requirement that they give workers 90 days’ notice before outsourcing positions.

He also likes Kerry’s promise to enforce existing measures in NAFTA penalizing countries for trade practices that harm U.S. workers.

He acknowledges that Kerry voted for NAFTA. “Do I like that he voted for NAFTA? No, but at least he saw the error of his ways,” Leasure said.

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In Youngstown, where numerous public statues pay homage to the sweat and labor of steelworkers, Dennis Church supports Edwards, who he believes can stop the mass exporting of blue-collar labor.

Church likes that Edwards is a Washington outsider who wants to make it easier for workers to organize unions. And he’s drawn to Edwards’ proposals for college tax credits and a $1.50-per-hour increase in the $5.75 minimum wage.

“They play us for fools in Washington just because our hands get dirty at work,” said Church. “This country needs a president like John Edwards who knows what’s it’s like to be a working stiff like me and my wife.”

Nobody can blame Edwards for NAFTA, he said, because he has always been opposed to the agreement. Besides, Edwards didn’t join the U.S. Senate until 1998.

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Driving home from the mill’s midnight shift, Church sometimes listens to a Bruce Springsteen song, “Youngstown,” which laments how the country has cast aside blue-collar laborers like so much scrap metal.

“Once I made you rich enough,” the song says, “Rich enough to forget my name.”

Hands on the wheel, his eyes focused on the shuttered factories around him, the steelworker sings along.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Ohio profile

Ohio, with 140 delegates at stake, may be the key Super Tuesday battleground. The state has been hit hard by manufacturing job losses, which should make voters receptive to John Edwards’ criticisms of U.S. trade policies. But with polls giving John F. Kerry huge leads in California and New York, a win by him in Ohio as well could force Edwards from the race.

Snapshot

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Population

Statewide: 11.4 million

Urban residents: 77.3%

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Residents 65 and older: 13.3%

Median household income: $40,956

Families below poverty line: 7.8%

Families with preschool children below poverty line: 16.1%

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Ethnicity

White: 84%

Asian: 1.2%

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Latino: 1.9%

Black: 11.5%

Native American: 0.2%

Other: 1.2%

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Politics

Registered Republicans: 19.3%

Registered Democrats: 14.3%

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Independents/minor parties: 66.4%

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Occupation

Management/professional: 31%

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Sales/office: 26.4%

Production/transportation of goods: 19%

Service: 14.6%

Construction: 8.7%

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Farming, fishing and forestry: 0.3%

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Top exports

Automobiles and parts, engines, jets and parts

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Sources: U.S. Census Bureau and Almanac of American Politics

Graphics reporting by Times staff researcher Susannah Rosenblatt


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