Rust Belt find­ing no shin­ing knight on Nov. 6

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY BEN WOLF­GANG

STEUBENVILLE, OHIO | Scott Dres­sel has risked his life sav­ings to help res­cue this strug­gling old steel town that is still plagued by dou­ble-digit un­em­ploy­ment and bank­ing on a nat­u­ral gas boom that has yet to ma­te­ri­al­ize.

He has in­vested hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars to re­store rental prop­er­ties and to open a quaint bed-and-break­fast in the his­toric dis­trict. He uses his free time to tackle a mas­sive re­build­ing project at Steubenville’s Grand Theater, a di­lap­i­dated down­town struc­ture that used to be the pride of a city that is the birth­place of Rat Pack leg­end Dean Martin.

“It’s worth sav­ing,” the soft­spo­ken 51-year-old en­tre­pre­neur said, out­lin­ing the years of work that re­main to get the theater back in work­ing or­der. “What con­cerns me is not be­ing able to get it done in time. I’d like to get it done be­fore I die.”

Like other towns throughout the na­tion’s Rust Belt, Steubenville is mired in an up­hill bat­tle to re­gain the eco­nomic pros­per­ity of decades ago, when a thriv­ing steel in­dus­try fu­eled growth and cre­ated wealth.

Steubenville’s de­cline has been ex­treme — un­em­ploy­ment topped 15 per­cent two years ago, and pop­u­la­tion has dropped ev­ery decade since the 1950s — though the strug­gle is mir­rored in towns across eastern Ohio and western Penn­syl­va­nia and New York.

Now, with both pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates promis­ing re­vival, res­i­dents are left weigh­ing the prom­ises.

“One crook, the other crook — they’re all go­ing to steal our money from us,” said 54-year-old Peggy Mur­phy, a long­time res­i­dent of John­stown, Pa., about two hours east of Steubenville.

“I tell my son all the time to get out of this town,” she said in be­tween tak­ing or­ders at the city’s Coney Is­land res­tau­rant, where her son also works be­cause he is un­able to find a bet­ter job.

John­stown, too, has seen its vi­brant coal and steel in­dus­tries dis­ap­pear, though for years it had a guardian an­gel in the form of Rep. John P. Murtha, a Demo­crat whose po­si­tion on a de­fense spend­ing sub­com­mit­tee in Congress helped him pump tens of mil­lions of dol­lars back to the city. But with Mr. Murtha’s death in 2010, the money is dry­ing up.

Pres­i­dent Obama and Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee Mitt Rom­ney have some ex­plain­ing to do to vot­ers here, too.

Dur­ing the 2008 race, Mr. Obama in­fa­mously said vot­ers in ru­ral ar­eas are “bit­ter” about the lack of eco­nomic op­por­tu­ni­ties, and so they “cling to guns or re­li­gion or an­tipa­thy to­ward peo­ple who aren’t like them.” Ear­lier this year, Mr. Rom­ney com­mit­ted his own mis­step by declar­ing that 47 per­cent of Amer­i­cans are de­pen­dent on gov­ern­ment help, and there­fore are un­likely to vote for him — a state­ment that cov­ers many in the Rust Belt who are in poverty and el­i­gi­ble for wel­fare as­sis­tance.

The state­ments have left the peo­ple of Steubenville and John­stown feel­ing for­got­ten, not fully trust­ing that ei­ther can­di­date will make a real dif­fer­ence in their lives.

“I don’t think it will make a dif­fer­ence for me per­son­ally,” Mr. Dres­sel said of the elec­tion’s out­come, though he al­ready has cast a vote for Mr. Obama. The peo­ple of Steubenville “are frus­trated, so why bother vot­ing? I hear a lot of that. … There’s a lot of ap­a­thy. Peo­ple are very pes­simistic here. When you’re neg­a­tive in your mind for 20 years about an area, it’s hard to turn around.”

He based his vote mainly on the fact that he thinks Mr. Obama hasn’t had enough time to turn around the econ­omy and ar­gues that the hard­ships in Steubenville and sur­round­ing ar­eas aren’t the pres­i­dent’s fault.

“I don’t think he’s ru­in­ing the coun­try any worse than any­body else did,” Mr. Dres­sel said.

Steubenville is see­ing some im­prove­ment. Its un­em­ploy­ment rate is down from its high of 15 per­cent in 2010 to 10.6 per­cent as of Septem­ber.

How the re­gion will vote re­mains un­pre­dictable. Steubenville’s Jef­fer­son County is a his­tor­i­cally Demo­cratic area, a party al­le­giance cre­ated by la­bor groups rep­re­sent­ing the steel­work­ers of decades past. But in 2008, the county split al­most evenly be­tween Mr. Obama and Repub­li­can John McCain. It was a sim­i­lar story in John­stown’s Cam­bria County, a Demo­cratic strong­hold but one that went for Mr. Obama by 1 per­cent­age point, with 49.6 per­cent of the vote to Mr. McCain’s 48.5 per­cent.

Mr. Rom­ney’s run­ning mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wis­con­sin, vis­ited New Philadel­phia, Ohio, about an hour west of Steubenville, last week­end and promised that help is on the way if the Repub­li­can ticket wins the White House on Nov. 6.

“We want to wake up that morn­ing [af­ter Elec­tion Day] and know that our coal jobs are com­ing to eastern Ohio, that our nat­u­ral gas jobs are com­ing,” he said, speak­ing to a crowd of sup­port­ers at a lo­cal busi­ness. Mr. Obama has made a sim­i­lar pitch to those in ar­eas where eco­nomic de­spair has led many vot­ers to out­right po­lit­i­cal dis­in­ter­est and fo­mented doubt in po­lit­i­cal lead­ers of both par­ties.

For res­tau­rant and bar owner Greg Froehlich, who runs one of Steubenville’s night­time hot spots across town from Mr. Dres­sel’s bed-and-break­fast, nei­ther can­di­date fully un­der­stands the chal­lenges he faces to make it each month.

“They don’t have a clue,” he said as he sat back in his of­fice chair in a back room at Froehlich’s Clas­sic Cor­ner, as a lo­cal mu­si­cian ser­e­naded about 20 pa­trons with clas­sic rock tunes in the bar.

“They don’t know that I’m fight­ing a la­bor force that knows they can sit at home and make as much money through en­ti­tle­ment pro­grams, rather than com­ing to work for me. Wash­ing­ton doesn’t know that,” he said.


RUST BELT RELIC: Steubenville, Ohio, was once a place where steel mills were churn­ing and wealth was cre­ated. The city now faces a long, hard slog to re­gain the pros­per­ity it once knew.

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