Letter from Ohio:
Campaigns, Courage, Crisis, and Change

by Hans Johnson
President, Progressive Victory
ph 202-329-7202


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.

My 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 District representative bowed out of politics.

Rural, 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 giving up.

Yard signs 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.

The struggle 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.

Local 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.

This area isnít supposed to be competitive. "Democrats have a long history of putting up losing candidates in that district," Jason Mauk, director of the Ohio Republican Party, 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.

The focus 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."

Starting 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.

Ceremonial 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.

A striking 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.

One young 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 downtown.

Among the 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 tragedy.

In early 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 heads.

She pulled 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.

For such 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 canceled coverage. 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.

"Boccieri 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."

Like Obama, 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."

Austen and 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.

Winning 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."