In Ohio county, electorate is hardened and fractured

September 22, 2012

Hank Segle, 59, is one of Mitt Romney’s “47 percent.” He lives off a $982 monthly Social Security disability check and intends to vote in November for Barack Obama. He volunteers in the campaign office of the local Democratic Party, which beats sitting at home doing nothing.

“I can’t take this being-disabled stuff,” he says. “I can only watch so many episodes of ‘NCIS’ and ‘House.’ It’s driving me batty.”

Segle spent two decades as a broadcast engineer before medical problems forced him into retirement, followed by suicidal depression. He’s recovering and now wants to get a degree in social work.

As for that monthly government check: “How can I be a ‘taker’ when I paid into Social Security all those years? That’s my money.”

This historic city is highly contested territory in what may be the most important swing state in the presidential race. Four years ago, voters in Jefferson County, which includes Steubenville, cast nearly 36,000 ballots for president, and Obama squeaked past John McCain by 76 votes. No Ohio county was so evenly split.

Although it’s not big enough to be a major target for campaign strategists, Jefferson County is a good place to plumb the divisions in American political life. Walk down the street, and you’ll hear strong opinions about the direction of the country and the proper role of government — and the opinions will be all over the ideological map.

Of course, people were talking in recent days about Romney’s “inelegant” (his word) description of Democratic voters as slackers who don’t pay taxes and expect the government to care for them. Such words can sting in a place where, despite some recent economic improvement, the jobs are still scarce, the steel mills are hollowed out and many of the smokestacks spew nothing into a clean and clear post-industrial sky.

This place on the bank of the Ohio River is a vintage working-class community. Longtime residents have a memory of the steel mill’s whistle, of crowds on downtown sidewalks and plenty of jobs that could let a person with only a high school diploma raise a family and own a home. People here don’t think of themselves as moochers.

But interviews with several dozen county residents last week suggest that Romney’s comments haven’t altered the political calculus. Ohio may be the most iconic swing state, but it’s hard to find genuinely undecided voters who are teetering between Obama and Romney.

The two candidates have been running for president for six years, counting the past election cycle. They represent parties that have become internally more homogeneous, with distinctly different philosophies. The ratings-driven news culture accentuates those divisions, and the result is that national politics has taken on aspects of trench warfare. A loose remark on the campaign trail, no matter how shocking to the pundit class, doesn’t seem likely to dislodge many voters from their foxholes.

A lot of voters are lukewarm about the guy they support, but they are white hot about the guy they loathe.

“If they had Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein and Barack Obama running, Barack Obama would be my last pick,” says Ray Morrison, 70, a retired steelworker and truck driver who lives on a country road west of the city. “If you want to know the true story about Obama, you have to watch Fox a little bit. I hate him.”

Here’s Cheryl Doran, 50, a waitress at the family restaurant Naples, speaking of Romney: “I think he’s the devil. I have no use for him.”

Al Fenner, 68, a bishop in the Shepherds Walk mission downtown, doesn’t think the president is “all-American” and believes that Obama once said that “he would stand more with the Islamic rather than with the American way.” Asked to cite a specific instance of Obama saying that, Fenner answered: “Go on YouTube and find it. I would not quote it if it were not true.”

******

There are many paths to the 270 electoral votes that are necessary to win the presidency, and many of them go — just like the Lincoln Highway and Interstate 70 and Interstate 80 and the old National Road — through Ohio. And yet although Ohio is a major swing state, that doesn’t mean voters are indecisive, or even that a given community could toggle one way or another. Ohio is, for the most part, a patchwork of Republican and Democratic strongholds.

Jefferson County used to be a Democratic bastion, thanks to the strong union presence, but the unions have been in decline along with the steel industry. The county is socially conservative and, like many blue-collar communities in this part of the world, has a lot of Reagan Democrats. The upshot is that Steubenville and the nearby towns are in a profound political and economic transition.

This was once a place that seemed geographically blessed, growing prosperous on a 1,000-foot-wide navigable river that led downstream to the Mississippi, the Gulf of Mexico and the world beyond. Steubenville had four railroad lines leading to all points of the compass. Founded in 1797, the city became a jumping-off point to the vast Ohio Country and the seemingly limitless continental interior.

The early inhabitants exploited abundant resources: bituminous coal, sandstone, limestone, natural gas and an endless forest. “Fire clay is to be found almost every where in the county in inexhaustible quantities,” boasts one early history of Steubenville. The banks of the Ohio became an industrial artery, with a series of mills, foundries, glassworks, ice factories and world-famous potteries.

It was a good place to grow up and get a job, as Dino Crocetti, born in 1917 on South Sixth Street in Steubenville, the son of a barber, discovered when he went off to work at the mill in nearby Weirton — though his honeyed voice led him to riches and fame under the name of Dean Martin.

Retired millworker John Meatris, 62, spent 41 years dealing with molten steel. He remembers how, when he was a child, downtown Steubenville was so crowded you could barely walk down the sidewalk on a Monday morning. He also remembers the soot falling out of the sky, coating everything to the point that you could write your name on a car windshield.

“The thing is, you need government,” Meatris says. Of Romney, he says, “He wants to take everything from the poor and the middle class to pay for his tax cuts for the rich.”

Just down the street, financial adviser Ken Perkins is a vocal Republican who thinks it’s true that some people aren’t keen on working. He’s got a sales position open and hasn’t been able to fill it. It’s a job that pays on commission. “I think we’ll always have about 6 percent unemployment,” he says. “Not everybody really wants to work.”

Steve Jones agrees that there are some layabouts in the community — and he’s on the other side, a Democrat. Jones, 65, stopped in at the Democratic campaign office to make sure he didn’t need to do anything special to register for the election. He’s African American and is worried that Republicans will try to suppress Democratic votes.

He’s also a working man. He’s spent 45 years in a steel mill upriver. His father worked in the same mill for 40 years. “I’m not in a hurry to retire, because I don’t mind working,” Jones says.

Rachel Zubay, 32, works as a waitress at Abdalla’s Steak House, in the shadow of a recently idled coal-fired power plant. She’s got two kids, is in the middle of a divorce, has no medical insurance and is paying $50 a month on a $15,000 surgical bill after she injured her ankle and foot in a nasty fall. She figures she’ll have it paid off in five or 10 years.

She’ll probably vote for Romney. What about the president’s health-care plan, which is supposed to help people afford medical insurance? “Obviously it hasn’t helped me at all,” Zubay says. “I’d be better off moving to Canada.”

In the corner of the steakhouse, sitting at the counter on a stool closest to the grill, John Abdalla monitors a slow night in the restaurant. He’s the head of the Jefferson County Democratic Party and mayor of the village of Stratton, population 300.

“What’s going to hurt Obama is this Obamacare,” the mayor says.

His voice is hoarse, and he has tubes feeding oxygen into his nose from a small tank sitting on the adjacent stool. “I was a boilermaker for some 20 years,” he says. “A lot of fly ash and asbestos. The lungs. Just shot on me.”

Grim and gritty as this corner of the world may be, people still have their hopes. They see fortune on the horizon, or at least under the ground. Everyone talks about the shale.

The vast natural-gas formation known as the Marcellus Shale extends into this part of Ohio. Below the Marcellus is the Utica Shale, which has gas and oil.

The fracking technology that can liberate those hydrocarbons has given the area a boost in jobs and a reason to believe that it’s not destined for history’s dustbin.

Jefferson County has seen its unemployment rate drop from more than 13 percent to closer to 10 percent, which translates into 1,053 more workers since January, according to Ed Looman, executive director of the Progress Alliance, a public-private partnership seeking to boost the economy.

The motels in the biggest city, Steubenville, are jammed with workers from out of town, and you couldn’t book a room at the Super 8 in the middle of this past week.

“We’ve got the best of both worlds as far as what’s underground,” Looman says. “We’d all like to see the mills get going again, but the chances of that are slim. . . . We have to understand as a county that that’s probably not coming back. We have to embrace this new opportunity, which is shale.”

He’s that rare voter, undecided. Not a fan of either candidate, he says. His biggest issue — he doesn’t want over-regulation of fracking.

“We don’t need for the government to get in the way this time.”

******

It’s hard to imagine a place more stressed, and depressed, than Mingo Junction, home to another stunning monument to the Age of Steel, a mill with soaring blast furnaces and smokestacks but not a solitary worker. Thousands of people used to walk down the steep hill and across a narrow bridge above the railroad tracks to earn their living here.

People have been hoping for years that the mill would reopen, and that the blast furnaces would again bring heat and light and jobs to the community. That is not going to happen, apparently; the mill has been purchased by a company that deals in scrap metal.

Much of downtown Mingo Junction is boarded up and condemned. The senior center has run out of money and may soon close. The city hopes to save money by turning off hundreds of streetlights. So few people walk the streets that it could be a movie set for a film about a deadly germ from outer space.

“We don’t even have no gas station. No bank. Our grocery store’s shut down,” says Mike Benko, 51, a self-employed heating-and-air worker drinking a $1.75 light beer at the American Legion hall, one of half a dozen bars still serving Mingo’s hardy holdouts and survivors.

Linda Horsburgh, a volunteer bartender at the legion hall, repeats the familiar jab at Romney: “He’s for the rich guy.” She lives off Social Security disability after she was hurt in a car accident caused by a drunk driver. She says she wishes she could hold a paying job. “It totally disgusts me that this is the life I have to lead,” she says.

Mingo is not quite a ghost town yet. Down the street, a married couple takes their 8-year-old son to a lesson at a martial-arts business that somehow stays open.

Up the hill, on a back street, one finds an explosion of color amid the gray landscape: Pesta’s Country Market.

Autumnal wreaths, artificial but bright, hang from the ceiling. Merchandise crams every nook and cranny. Homegrown tomatoes, fat and ripe, occupy every available surface — a bargain at 95 cents a pound.

In the corner, parked in her regular spot with a view out the window, is Cecelia Pesta, 88, whose parents started the market nearly seven decades ago.

“It was a beautiful town,” she says. “We had a lot of little stores. A lot of old-country people — Slovak people — lived here. But they’re all gone.”

A regular customer, Herb Barcus, 81, comes into the store. One of the employees quickly fetches him a stool so he can rest while his groceries are gathered for him. Barcus worked for 46 years as a boiler operator in the mill.

“That job was good to me,” he says. “Bought a house. Put my kids through college. Had a decent pension.”

He’s a Democrat who votes Republican. He doesn’t like the way the government has been raiding the Social Security trust fund. Thinks Romney is a just and honest man. Thinks Obama is “unqualified.”

But he’d rather not talk politics, preferring to talk religion and the end of days.

“I think the time’s running out,” he says. “You have to read prophecy. You ever hear of the Rapture? Soon to be coming, I believe.”

But the only thing that comes this day are his groceries, and then, as he’s leaving, a dark cloud that opens up on Mingo torrentially, the rainwater rushing toward the empty mill and the river beyond.

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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