Campaigns, Courage, Crisis, and Change
by Hans Johnson
President, Progressive Victory
The cornfields look the same, and
the dramatic skies at dusk recall the autumn nights I knew here in my teens
and early twenties. Northeast Ohio, home of my alma mater and perennial
presidential battleground, is now a place I visit mainly for college
functions and elections. This trip, in the closing days of Campaign '08,
blends both purposes.
destination is Wayne County, where the presidency isn't the only race at
stake. After 36 years, the local Republican Congressman, Ralph Regula, is
retiring after 18 terms. Something of an exile from the House GOP even as a
staunch conservative, Regula ran afoul of party ideologues for striving to
maintain good relations with Democrats on the Appropriations Committee.
Republican leaders rewarded such apostasy by denying him the top minority
spot on the panel. The days of a GOP majority behind him and his 84th birthday right around the corner, Ohio's 16th
representative bowed out of politics.
exurban districts like this aren't supposed to be fertile ground for
Democrats. But even here, in the rolling turf stretching west from Canton,
so reminiscent of Germany that the area still boasts old-country eateries
staffed in part by descendants of tradition-minded settlers, change is in
the air. Democratic state senator John Boccieri, Air Force Reserve major and Iraq war
vet, actually holds a lead in the polls in vying for the seat that Regula is
for Boccieri (pronounced "boh-cherry") and Obama line the avenues
of Wooster. They are equally abundant near the liberal-arts college on the
hill uptown as in the working-class wards spreading outward from the quaint
town square. Typical of Ohio cities, Wooster developed around a mix of local
industries, including the Rubbermaid plant that closed in 2003 and the
Wooster Brush Company, a leading maker of painting tools, which still hums
in the cityís core. Along the grid of streets--a few still surfaced in brick
from a century ago--small apartment buildings intermingle with single-family
homes, some converted into units or showing signs of recent renovations
during brighter economic times.
of working people to pay bills and stay hopeful is the overarching issue facing the candidates. Reinforcing
the chill from the down economy is the onset of fall, gradual but
unmistakable, here in the part of Ohio known as the Snow Belt for the
weather systems that sweep inland off Lake Erie. The hint of winter that
tells avid Midwest voters that Election Day is nigh has merely heightened
the ongoing sense of urgency and purpose that Obama staff and volunteers
have manifested since the campaign's first triumph in Iowa.
Democrats' storefront office across the street from the historic courthouse
at the center of town teems with activity from dawn to nearly midnight.
Staffers David Litt and Alain Hunkins help marshal loyal volunteers like
Stephanie Ham, a coordinator for the campus, and Linda Houston, a longtime
city councilmember and something of a dean of local Democrats.
isnít supposed to be competitive. "Democrats have a long history of putting
up losing candidates in that district," Jason Mauk, director of the Ohio
told the Canton Repository in 2007. "Next year will be no exception."
But the mixture of economic anxiety and a charismatic presidential candidate
with a compelling story, a coherent message, a broad donor base, and a
tenacious and technologically sophisticated campaign the likes of which
progressives have never seen at this scale have already led some pundits to
eat their words and could defy Mauk's prediction, too.
for one day of my visit is awarding a new scholarship at the College of
Wooster. The recognition honors a late local friend of mine, John Plummer,
who was a mentor to generations of students and personnel at the
institution. He graduated in 1964 and stayed on to work in the business
office, where he remained for nearly four decades. John sometimes oversaw
the payroll checks for student workers. When I came out on campus in 1990
and withstood the usual mix of scrutiny and fear of backlash, John in the
weeks that followed attached a sticky note to one of my paychecks. It said
simply, "Hang in there."
this year, the
scholarship bearing John's name goes to a student who contributes to a
welcoming campus environment for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender
people. Its first recipient is Sarah Gollwitzer, a senior who has been an
outspoken advocate on campus and an intern at the LGBT community center in
Cleveland over the summer. She was also a member of the college band,
performing that day for the homecoming football game. Wearing the
distinctive plaid band uniform, she receives the award at the collegeís
alumni office amidst applause from more than fifty people.
duties aside, the majority of my time in Ohio I set aside for talking with
local voters. Walking door to door is an unrivaled way of seeing the
diversity of a neighborhood, gauging the local impact of issues, and feeling
the mood of an electorate. In these precincts, where I've canvassed before
in elections dating back to 1990, it's also an exercise in time-lapse
photography: being able to see up close how the voter base and overall
leanings of this community have changed in the past generation.
difference from earlier elections is the presence of young voters on the
rolls. In earlier tours down some of these same streets -- with Halloween
decorations on front doors and autumn leaves gathered in curbside piles
awaiting collection -- only a handful of voters under 30 would appear on
rosters. Now they are numerous, residing in about one of every three or four
houses, nearly all of them white. By an overwhelming margin, such voters in
their early twenties are not students at the college in town. Most are
working, often two jobs, and are simultaneously part-time students;
many are married, and some are raising children.
couple waves aside concern about any restrictions imposed by their landlords
about posting political displays on premises and requests two Obama yard
signs. One is for her house, where they are both registered to vote, and one
for the house he shares near the university where he's enrolled part-time in
Akron, twenty miles to the east. "My roommates there wonít dare to take it
down," he says with a grin. Both express interest in voting early, an option
that is still catching on in Ohio, at the board of elections office
other people I meet is a fellow member of the United Auto Workers. [For nine
years Iíve been a member and also an elected chapter chair of the freelance
writers' union, affiliated with the UAW.] The man drives up to his house in
an imposing pickup truck. In his fifties and gruff, he doesn't wear his
politics on his sleeve. But in wanting to know where the candidates for
president and Congress stand on labor issues, he shows an opening for
conversation. "Iím in the autoworkers," he reports. I happen to have
materials from the UAW with me, and he has them in his hand and a sticker on
the bumper of his vehicle by the time I leave.
He isn't the
only member of the UAW I meet in Ohio. In preparing for my visit, I had
called the head of the local affiliate of the AFL-CIO, the central labor
council. Living testament to womenís increasing leadership in the union
movement, Barbara Phillips is a character who practically leaps from the
big screen, equal parts Thelma, Louise, and Erin Brockovich, a tough working
woman with a sense of justice, a sense of adventure, and a sense of humor.
She hails from Ashland, her hometown lying just west of Wooster and beset
by an even more intense conservative climate. And she alerts me to a recent
October, cookie manufacturer Archway suddenly declared bankruptcy and shut
down its Ashland plant. The move left more than one hundred non-union
workers out of work, dropped from health coverage and without even their
final paycheck. Phillips became aware of the problem not by news reports or
urgent phone calls from friends or fellow labor leaders, but by following
her instincts. She happened to be driving through Ashland and saw a group of
people huddling together on a sidewalk, some crying and many shaking their
over in her car and got out to ask them what was wrong. They'd lost their
jobs that day, she learned. They had no warning and no idea what to do.
Beyond shock and awe at the speed of their cutoff from a livelihood and
source of income, they were angry and afraid. Phillips talked with the
workers about what safety net might be available to them, local sources of
food and any aid from the state. Even though the workers weren't members of
a local union, and thus beyond the scope of her official responsibility, she
took the time to remind them they had rights to their last week's wages.
Asked what other recourse they might have, she pointed out the federal WARN
(Worker Adjustment and
Retraining Notification) Act of 1988, which generally requires 60 days'
notice of termination for workers at plants with 100 or more staff members.
humane and neighborly attention, Phillips was rewarded with a whispering
campaign among local elected officials, impugning her motives. Phillips
learned that the cityís mayor, Glen Stewart, had inquired why a union leader
was meddling in the plight of non-union workers and putting the pro-business
reputation of the city at risk. Phillip still bristles at the attempt to
project onto her the responsibility for the economic woes of her beloved
Buckeye State. "Talk about blaming the victim!" she says.
Soon came an
even more hideous revelation about the terminations. In a story that got
some coverage locally but not nationally, Starla Darling, an Archway worker,
went on maternity leave at the end of September and prepared to give birth.
Hearing about the sudden shutdown of her plant Oct. 6, she sought to induce
labor in hopes of having the baby before benefits cut off that day. And so
she did, a day early. She found out later that the company had already
Even the advance delivery wasn't covered, and she would have to pay expenses
out of pocket.
Adversity breeds new and sometimes reluctant leaders. One worker to emerge as
a standard-bearer from among the Archway workers is Jeff Austen, a
soft-spoken man in his forties with a ponytail and an unflinchingly kind
demeanor. "This isn't the first good job I've had at a plant around here
that's shut down," Austen reports. "If I had a choice, I'd only work union,"
he adds, proudly holding up his key chain displaying the UAW logo, which he
obtained during tenure at an earlier job, which also evaporated in the past
decade. Despite deep uncertainty about the future, this second union brother
draws encouragement from Obama's rise in the polls and the fact that another
local official has tuned into what's happening to Ohio workers.
was there with us," he says of the state senator and candidate for Congress,
who met with Austen and more than a hundred former Archway workers within a
week of the shutdown. "He gets what's going on, and he's not afraid of a
fight," says Austen, referring to Boccieri's service in Iraq. "That's what
we need: someone who listens, someone who cares, and someone who will work
to turn things around."
who has made support for the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) a pillar of his
candidacy and appeal to union workers, Boccieri has prioritized attracting
good jobs and preventing Ohio workers from being denied the opportunity to
win the solid packages of pay and benefits that come with collective
bargaining. In late September, EFCA became a bone of contention between
Boccieri and his rival for the seat that Regula is leaving, Kirk Schuring,
who opposes the bill. The Canton-area labor council, named for the football
Hall of Fame located in the city, cited the Republicanís stance in stating,
"Schuring isn't a friend of working people."
other former Archway workers struggle each day leading up to Nov. 4. After
calls from elected officials in Columbus and Washington to the company and
the attorneys handling its bankruptcy filing, Archway in October delivered
the overdue final paychecks to the terminated workers. Some of them bounced.
elections isn't the only thing now on the mind of Phillips or her son Jacob,
who is working for Boccieri. "With some new leadership in Washington, I hope
and pray for health care that is portable and affordable and reliable," says
Barbara Phillips. "This is the area where I grew up, and I'll keep fighting
to bring Ohio back from this awful brink until the last breath is in me."