Res­i­dents say they vote for jobs, not a spe­cific party

The Columbus Dispatch - - Nation&world - By Marty Sch­laden

MARTINS FERRY, Ohio — They’re proud of their old he­roes in the towns along the Ohio River as it bends south, form­ing the bor­der be­tween Ohio and West Virginia.

Stretches of Rt. 7 are named for Steubenville na­tive Dean Martin and Pi­rates base­ball leg­end Bill Maze­roski, who grew up in east­ern Ohio. The Bridge­port High School gym is named for bas­ket­ball great John Havlicek. And, as you turn off Rt. 7 and into Mingo Junc­tion, there’s a sign com­mem­o­rat­ing fa­vorite son Rob Parissi, who wrote and per­formed the 1976 su­per­hit “Play That Funky Mu­sic” with the group Wild Cherry.

There seems to be less to get ex­cited about these days in the towns hud­dled be­tween the high hills and the river.

Gi­ant steel mills hulk along the river­front, va­cant or nearly so. As one lo­cal man puts it, they once were the back­bone of the re­gional econ­omy. But now they’re part of an in­dus­try that has de­clined more than 35 per­cent since 2000.

As the re­gion has suf­fered, po­lit­i­cal pref­er­ences have shifted.

Bel­mont and Jef­fer­son coun­ties broke com­fort­ably for Demo­crat Al Gore in 2000. By 2008, Bel­mont went for Barack Obama, but just by 2 per­cent­age points. Jef­fer­son split be­tween the Demo­crat and Repub­li­can John McCain, at 49 per­cent apiece.

By last year, the swing seemed com­plete. Repub­li­can Don­ald Trump blasted Hil­lary Clin­ton in both coun­ties with more than 65 per­cent of the vote. Democrats, it seemed, no longer spoke to dis­tressed work­ing peo­ple.

But with Trump feud­ing with his own party and seem­ingly un­able to pass big leg­is­la­tion,

it seems un­likely that quick re­lief is com­ing to east­ern Ohio’s river val­ley — if that’s even pos­si­ble for an area caught in the teeth of struc­tural eco­nomic change.

So Ohio Democrats have been scram­bling to make them­selves rel­e­vant again to vot­ers who feel left be­hind by the 21st cen­tury econ­omy.

To­ward that end, the party kicked off the 2018 gu­ber­na­to­rial cam­paign with a de­bate Tues­day in Martins Ferry.

“I could not have thought of a bet­ter place (to hold the first gu­ber­na­to­rial de­bate) than east­ern Ohio,” party Chair­man David Pep­per said in an in­ter­view be­fore the de­bate. “It’s a place that’s been left out and over­looked by the state for a long time.”

He and the Demo­cratic can­di­dates say suf­fer­ing in the re­gion is at least partly the re­sult of an era of Repub­li­can rule in Colum­bus, which has pro­duced a $1 bil­lion an­nual tax cut weighted heav­ily to­ward the rich while slash­ing funds flow­ing to lo­cal govern­ments al­most in half since 2008, to just $382 mil­lion.

“Not only is the state not help­ing them, they’re tak­ing money away from them and mak­ing it harder,” Pep­per said.

Whether his ar­gu­ments can gain trac­tion with vot­ers in the re­gion is an open ques­tion.

Some mem­bers of the tra­di­tional Demo­cratic coali­tion are caught be­tween the party’s en­vi­ron­men­tal poli­cies and their own eco­nomic im­per­a­tives.

Jim Coppa, 60, drove down to Martins Ferry on Tues­day from the Sam­mis Power Plant up­river in Strat­ton to see what the can­di­dates had to say.

As sec­re­tary of Lo­cal 457 of the Util­ity Work­ers of Amer­ica, he Coppa ap­pre­ci­ates the Democrats’ pro-union stand. But as an em­ployee of a coal-fired elec­tric­ity plant, Coppa is loath to see the party turn away from the source of his and other union mem­bers’ em­ploy­ment.

“I’m com­ing down to see if (the can­di­dates) have an in­ter­est in keep­ing coal,” said Coppa, 60, who didn’t vote for Trump, but said, “At least he isn’t anti-coal.”

Some oth­ers in the area were alien­ated from the Demo­cratic coali­tion for dif­fer­ent rea­sons. Once a Demo­crat, Virginia Dom­browski said it would be all but im­pos­si­ble for the party to re­gain sup­port.

“I’m pro-life,” she said as she stood out­side the of­fices of the Catholic Dio­cese of Steubenville.

Dom­browski finds the Demo­cratic Party’s abor­tion-rights stance anath­ema. Oth­er­wise, her vote might be winnable.

She said she sup­ports Ohio Gov. John Ka­sich, but would not la­bel her­self a Repub­li­can. As for Trump, all she would say was, “I pray for him. I think he needs prayer.”

To win over oth­ers, the Demo­cratic mes­sage will have to pen­e­trate right-wing ra­dio and TV.

As she waited out­side a Martins Ferry dis­count store for a bus to take her back to her gov­ern­mentsub­si­dized apart­ment, Bar­bara Be­hanna, 61, said she’s had no luck land­ing a part-time job wash­ing dishes or do­ing cus­to­dial work.

Re­fer­ring to peo­ple like her­self, she said, “These peo­ple don’t want to be on wel­fare and food stamps. They want work.”

When asked if she would con­sider vot­ing Demo­cratic, Be­hanna, a Trump sup­porter, said, “Prob­a­bly not. They would have to be ex­tremely con­vinc­ing.”

She crit­i­cized Hil­lary Clin­ton and asked how any­one could take any­thing Democrats say se­ri­ously.

Asked where she gets her news, Be­hanna Be­hanna listed Fox TV host Sean Han­nity, ra­dio host Rush Lim­baugh and TV and ra­dio host Glenn Beck, all three right-wing en­ter­tain­ers known for an of­ten ques­tion­able re­la­tion­ship with the facts.

“Their whole job is re­search­ing what hap­pens in the world, so you can count on what they say be­ing ac­cu­rate,” she said.

Some votes in the area seem winnable by Democrats and Repub­li­cans.

Richard Loew, 52, of Shady­side, voted for Obama and then he voted for Trump. He’s for any­body who can help, he said. “In times like these, Demo­crat and Repub­li­can and in­de­pen­dent — doesn’t mat­ter any­more,” Loew said.

Oth­ers in the area are re­sent­ful that out­siders seem to think ev­ery­body’s gone over to Trump.

Beth Young, 31, of Martins Ferry, said de­cent jobs are what the area needs and Loew that Trump is woe­fully un­equipped to bring them about.

“He’s a clown,” she said, adding that many peo­ple in her com­mu­nity feel the same way.

Back up the river in Mingo Junc­tion, peo­ple in­sist they just need some­thing. Folks are hope­ful that the gi­ant Mingo Junc­tion Steel Works is fir­ing back up af­ter be­ing shut­tered for eight years.

But any ben­e­fits haven’t yet shown them­selves on Com­mer­cial Street, the main drag in front of the mill. The ma­jor­ity of build­ings seem va­cant and res­i­dents say wa­ter­ing holes are the vil­lage’s only thriv­ing busi­nesses.

“We’ve got more bars than any­thing here,” said Gary Allen, an un­em­ployed 59-year-old. “There’s noth­ing here to do, re­ally. We’ve got to wake up ev­ery day and find some­thing to do.” Young


Martins Ferry, in east­ern Ohio, sits along the Ohio River bor­der­ing West Virginia. Its res­i­dents have long voted for Democrats but re­cently sup­ported Don­ald Trump in the pres­i­den­tial election.

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