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In Ohio, voters share unease about the future

In the fading evening light, Jeff Snider played catch in the middle of the street with his 14-year-old son, the baseball thwacking their mitts. They stepped out of the way and waved when cars passed. The friendly neighborhoods in hilly Oakwood, a picture-perfect suburb nestled against Dayton, belong in a brochure for the American Dream. But the tranquillity hides a churning discontent.

A lanky high school math teacher, Snider worries about the mortgage and the cost of sending four children to college. He’s dismayed by the federal debt, unhappy that the bank bailout “benefited people with huge, huge salaries,” irritated that politicians cater to the rich and the poor but not the middle class, and distressed “big time” by the nation’s division into hostile political camps.

In this season of political promises, the 44-year-old had a crisp response to whether he believed the country was headed in the right direction, or the wrong one. “No direction,” he pronounced. “I look at the candidates running for president, and I say, ‘That’s the best they can do?’ ”

For almost a decade, as manufacturing jobs ebbed and cities shrank, Ohioans have told pollsters they are discouraged about the fate of the nation, putting them at the head of the pessimism curve. Even as Super Tuesday’s 10 contests — with Ohio the key battleground — arrived with undercurrents of an economic revival, interviews with voters in the Dayton area found that deep anxieties remain.

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In Dayton and its suburbs, which tend to mirror Ohio’s swing voting, some fear the country is in an irreversible decline. They share an unease about the future, heightened by job insecurity, vanished home values and, now, rising gas prices.

As Democrats and Republicans bicker ceaselessly, voters here said they saw politicians as wealthy and untouched by day-to-day worries, a view only hardening as the rich spend millions on “super PACs” to sway the election.

The wrong direction is easy to see in cities near the meandering Great Miami River, although the economic news here is not all gloomy. Dayton has a storied history of inventors who spawned entire industries; the bicycle shop tinkerers Wilbur and Orville Wright are just the most celebrated. But the Miami Valley has suffered immensely as manufacturing jobs disappeared, leaving vacant houses and factories. Adding insult to injury, two years ago, NCR, founded in 1884 as the National Cash Register Co. and cherished as an exemplar of Dayton-bred ingenuity, moved its headquarters to Georgia.

“It sucked the soul right out of Dayton,” said Kris Rankin, 65, whose family came to the city in the 1860s and who can readily list other scarring industrial losses. “I’m sure Dayton is a microcosm of all these little towns all over the country.”

Rankin and her brother were urban pioneers, renovating an 1870 Queen Anne Victorian in Dayton’s once scary, now hip Oregon District. A bar near their brick-paved street that once stewed a combustible brew of “roofers, hillbillies, winos and college kids” is now a multimillionaire’s home.

She considers herself middle class. “I’m not really hanging at the country club,” she cracked. But she saw the posh life when she worked in the travel industry and catered to executives. “I fear for class warfare,” she said. “It’s so egregious these days, the disparity, and it’s not just a talking point.”

Rankin is not optimistic about the economy. “If you’re not white, educated and almost willing to sacrifice your soul to a corporation, you’d better be afraid,” she said.

Michael Hogans grew up in African American neighborhoods, but moved to a racially mixed one north of downtown Dayton, where he found the perfect home. But right after the city bus driver and his wife bought, the economy soured. Now, gas prices are pinching them. “I would have thought I was middle class. I think I’m right at the poverty level now,” he said.

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The 54-year-old is grateful to have his job when many have lost theirs, but he is worried about upcoming contract talks. “I’m quite sure they feel we should be thankful for what we’re making in this economy,” he said. “Look around. There’s not that many jobs in Dayton.”

What he sees when he looks at the election is super PACs spending millions on negative ads that could be spent on the nation’s problems. He is not envious of the rich, but wishes they would spend more on their workers. “If you are wealthy, you should treat others fairly,” he said. “Make it where your employees can benefit from some of your wealth.”

In Centerville, a quaint village-turned-suburb south of Dayton, Mike Beach, a 52-year-old painting contractor, drove his pickup over to MacDiggers Pub in a barn-red clapboard cottage. He spurns chain restaurants. “I don’t think the money stays here. It’s not helping the little guy,” he said.

The city was founded in 1796 and is distinguished by its many limestone-block houses. Beach owns a 1950s-era three-bedroom rancher, which is now worth about what he paid for it 15 years ago. Only bankers are making money, he said, “and they’re trying to take your house away from you.”

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The mood of Ohio’s voters is ugly, he said, and the area’s economic prospects are grim. “If I got five cents to leave this town, I’d be out of here so fast,” he said.

He thinks all politicians are easily corruptible and quickly forget the people who elected them. “I don’t think they care about us,” he said. “I vote against anybody that’s an incumbent.”

Behind his desk at Price Stores sat Edd Wimsatt in a white shirt with French cuffs, a patterned pink tie and gray nailhead cuffed pants. His suit jacket, hanging nearby, had a four-pointed black handkerchief in the breast pocket. He has kept up with the times, adding casual work clothes to his inventory, but they aren’t for him. And he’s not so sure they’ve been good for the country.

“Unfortunately, when you relax from here to here,” he said, gesturing from his neck to his waist, “you relax from here to here,” he continued, shifting his hand from his chin to his crown.

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The genial 62-year-old sees little value in party loyalty. Like Ohio’s swing voters, he has picked some presidents: Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama.

“I’m having a hard time this year. I want someone who gets it, who wants the best for America,” said Wimsatt, whose store has outlasted 40 others, surviving more than six decades in downtown Dayton. Wimsatt planned to retire two years ago, but the economic downturn has kept him on the job. “We’re crawling out,” he said.

Wimsatt hasn’t heard an economic plan that impresses him from any of the candidates. And he’s disheartened by the righteous rigidity on both sides. “I’ve never figured out in politics how someone can claim over here they’re right and someone else can claim they’re right over here,” he said.

Price Stores competes with national retailers, offering hard-to-match service and expertise. Only at his store, Wimsatt said, can a customer walk out with a tuxedo the same day. He keeps 4,000 in the five-story, nearly century-old building. His formal wear manager has been there 32 years; one seamstress, 27 years. Above his office, a steam press sighed and thudded.

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Wimsatt tries to blends Midwestern values with Dayton innovation. He wishes the nation’s leaders would do the same. “We’re not happy, and we all want to be happy, and the economy’s the answer to that,” he said. “We have to get people buying and selling stuff again.”

john.hoeffel@latimes.com


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