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A Republican Adrift in Ohio

By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, August 11, 2004; Page A21

ELYRIA, Ohio -- In theory, Dan Imbrogno shouldn't be a voter George W. Bush has to worry about. Imbrogno, a lifelong Republican, Ohioan and business executive, looks like central casting's idea of the model Bush voter.

Imbrogno is president and chief executive of Ohio Screw, a precision-parts manufacturer located in this working-class suburb of Cleveland. In newer and more upscale suburbs, office parks may dot the landscape, but in Elyria, small factories were plunked down in residential neighborhoods many decades ago, and, whether open or shuttered, there they remain.

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Ohio Screw is emphatically open, and if you had to have a factory next door, Imbrogno's is the one you'd ask for. The plant -- employing 75 workers, chiefly highly skilled machinists -- is in an attractive building on almost manicured grounds. It produces an array of distinctive metallic little thingies that Imbrogno places on the conference table for my inspection.

Imbrogno calls my attention to one thingy in particular, a hollowed-out cylinder about an inch in length. His company had been supplying that part to Cooper Power for years when, in 2002, Cooper announced it would be buying its parts in China. Ohio Screw responded by developing new machinery that cut the price of producing the part to just one penny-per-part more than the Chinese estimate. Cooper then asked its Chinese contractor to bring down its costs still further, which the contractor did -- to the level of the cost of materials, a level where Ohio Screw could not follow.

"It cost us $500,000 a year -- a big chunk out of our $8 million in total sales," says Imbrogno. In 2000, before the recession hit, Ohio Screw was doing $10 million in sales. It has won new contracts now that the recession is easing, and Imbrogno says the company would be nearly back to $10 million today were it not for its clients' decisions to do their shopping in China. "I was a tried-and-true free-trader," Imbrogno says. "But you put details into the theory and it falls apart. When the Chinese government manipulates its currency and subsidizes its manufacturers, the theory doesn't work. Now I believe in managed trade. It's how we built our country; it's how European and East Asian nations built theirs."

Imbrogno is a tried-and-true Republican, too, but even so, he says, "I won't vote for Bush. I won't necessarily vote for Kerry; I have trouble with his positions on some issues other than economics." But he supports John Kerry's proposal to end tax breaks for companies that have moved their jobs overseas.

Imbrogno is not alone. He's active in the Northeast Ohio Coalition for American Manufacturing (NEOCAM), a group of corporate executives who Imbrogno estimates to be roughly 80 percent Republican. And among his fellow NEOCAM members, he says, "I know I'm not exceptional" in breaking with Bush.

Even as some NEOCAM members shift allegiances, the votes of hundreds of thousands of less affluent Ohioans are still very much in play. One Ohio Democrat who's been successful at winning the support of culturally conservative working-class voters is Sherrod Brown, a progressive Democratic congressman whose suburban Cleveland district includes Elyria. When I meet Brown for lunch at a classic '50s Elyria diner, he mentions that he and his staff registered one somewhat reticent waitress during their last lunch there.

"I think her indecision was based on social issues, and the problem is, most Democrats don't know how to talk to her. Democrats have long assumed that workers know we're better on the economy than the Republicans, but I don't think many of them do." Brown has been fighting for years to move his party toward a more managed trade perspective -- this year, with some success.

But that's hardly enough, Brown believes. "Until we take on the drug industry, the energy industry, the insurance companies front and center, we won't win working-class votes." Brown points to the overwhelming margins by which he's carried heavily Catholic Loraine County to prove his point. "We can't just be the party of social issues favored by the elites on the coasts," he says.

Brown's message is certainly that of America Coming Together, the Democratic 527 group that is waging a massive, $15 million ground campaign in Ohio on Kerry's behalf. Republicans are countering with an unprecedented church-based mobilization of religious traditionalists.

Dan Imbrogno and his NEOCAM buddies aren't susceptible to either pitch. Indeed, Imbrogno voices a more distinctively Burkean conservative concern about the fast-forward destruction of the Ohio he's lived in almost all his life. He supports policies that would manage the transition to a postindustrial economy, he says, "but it can't happen overnight. What happens to our guys -- very competent machinists -- who are 45 or 50 years old if manufacturing closes down?"

But the Republicans have gone from manufacturing to finance, from Mark Hanna to Karl Rove, leaving Dan Imbrogno in search of a political home.

meyersonh@washpost.com


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