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.