Ohio Town's Democrats See 'Hope' Differently

The Clinton and Obama campaigns have set up camp in Lima, a town that is unpredicitable in its support. What is certain is the desire for economic reform and a torn population that is trying to decide to is the right person for the job.
By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 17, 2008

LIMA, Ohio -- A six-cylinder engine rolls down the conveyer belt and stops in front of Bo Huenke every 28 seconds. He attaches a metal pipe, twists in four screws with hands that suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome and finishes just in time to stretch his back before the next engine arrives. His hands move from memory while his mind calculates the math: 28 seconds per engine, eight hours each shift, five days a week, 13 years until retirement.

Inside this Honda manufacturing plant built on top of an old pig farm, Huenke's only hope for distraction is a good argument with the other men who work on the line. They're mostly what he calls "good ol' boys" -- white, Catholic and descendants of Italian and German immigrants, just like him -- so liberal proclamations usually instigate heated debate. "Democrats are taking over Ohio," Huenke says to a chorus of protests. Or, "This war has been a disaster from Day One." But, every now and then, Huenke makes the rare political assessment that most people here seem to agree on.

"Obama, doesn't he sound a little naive?" asked Huenke, 52. "He stands up there, so optimistic, preaching about hope and change. It sounds great and everything, but come on. He doesn't quite get it."

Voters like Huenke present a difficult challenge to Sen. Barack Obama as he looks ahead to March 4, when primary battles with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in Ohio and Texas threaten to halt his campaign's momentum. In Lima and other fading manufacturing towns, he must confront difficult questions that go to the heart of his candidacy and its appeal to a broad section of Americans:

Can grandiose visions of hope and change resonate in places where change -- in this case economic change -- has brought housing foreclosures and economic ruin, where hope means avoiding another round of layoffs? Can a candidate whose support has been based on African Americans and upper-middle-class whites transcend class and race in places where racial tension still colors everything?

When the Clinton and Obama campaigns set up field offices in Lima last week, they discovered a sad town of about 40,000 already at odds between black and white, between dreamers and realists. There are people here like Josiah Mathews, 25, a black man who believes Obama can help bring peace and prosperity to his home town. But there are also people like Huenke, white and working class, who sense a disconnect between Obama's inspirational rhetoric and life's daily struggles. They prefer Clinton for her experience and economic policies, which they believe might stabilize Lima's decline.

"A minority president or a woman president -- both are hard sells in Lima," Huenke said. "But Hillary's easier, because you also get Bill. When you're thinking politics around here, you've got to be practical."

Hoping for Stability

The Lima that Huenke grew up in was a canvas for big dreams -- a booming industrial town halfway between Dayton and Toledo where jobs outnumbered workers, trees lined the downtown square and a new airport opened a portal to the world. Huenke lived in a large house near Main Street with seven brothers and two sisters. The oil refinery gave his father regular raises. When Huenke left home to try college at Ohio State, he never doubted he'd return to Lima.

He came back in the late 1970s to open a restaurant, and he discovered a Rust Belt town that had lost its major railroad and its biggest bus company. Racial tension twice erupted into violence and riots that necessitated the presence of the National Guard. The city built low-income housing near Huenke's old neighborhood, and he eventually moved into the country. "I had a lot of those minorities around me," Huenke said, "and some of them were just causing trouble and collecting welfare."

Huenke's restaurant leaked money, then closed. He became a paramedic, driving an ambulance through a town much poorer than he remembered and dealing with big-city problems such as violent robberies and crack overdoses. When Honda called a decade ago to offer a $23-an-hour job, he hardly hesitated. Lima had lost 8,000 jobs in the previous 25 years; no decent-paying work was beneath him. "Yes," he said. "Thank you. I'll take it."

That decision has resulted in two hand surgeries and constant shoulder pain. "It's like getting beat up at football practice for eight hours," Huenke said, "but you do anything here for steady money." A divorce last year doubled Huenke's housing payment to $800 a month, and a faulty thermostat means the temperature in his house sometimes dips to 52 degrees. He plans to work at Honda until he's 65 so he can pay off his house and save some money. The day he retires, he wants to leave for Florida.

A lifelong Democrat, Huenke went to a rally in Columbus last month and decided that Clinton's economic and health-care ideas could help him endure another decade or so in Lima. He liked how the senator from New York outlined her plans with specifics. Obama, he thought, sometimes spoke about long-term goals and principles, which Huenke rarely had the leisure to consider.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company