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In Toledo, Promises Of Change Ring Hollow

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Toledo, Oh.
The Washington Post
By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 24, 2008

TOLEDO -- The Ford plant in nearby Maumee, where workers stamped out automobile fenders and dash panels, will close this year. Johnson Controls, which for years made seats for the iconic Jeeps that are assembled here, recently lost that contract to a firm in India. And American Standard is closing its century-old plumbing fixtures plant, eliminating the remaining 165 manufacturing jobs that paid as much as $19 an hour.

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It is a common story throughout Ohio, which has lost more than 200,000 manufacturing jobs since 2000. "Manufacturing is getting its head handed to it around here," said Thomas J. Joseph, business manager of Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 50, which covers northwest Ohio.

It is also a story the two Democratic presidential candidates are promising to change. As Ohio's pivotal March 4 primary approaches, Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton have each called for significant infrastructure investment, development of alternative energy and other "green-collar" jobs, while promising to toughen environmental and labor standards that accompany free trade deals.

Those ideas are welcome here in heavily unionized and heavily Democratic northwest Ohio, but at the same time, no one seems to believe they go far enough to reverse the powerful tide of globalization that many blame for the constant manufacturing job losses.

"They identify with the situation, but they don't do anything about it," said Rep. Marcy Kaptur, (D-Ohio), whose district includes Toledo. "They are descriptive, not prescriptive. We want more detail and we want it now."

This is the dilemma facing the Democratic candidates as they campaign in Ohio's scarred economic landscape. The problems confronting places like Toledo are so deep and complex that there may not be answers that are both viable and popular.

Infrastructure investment could help stem the floodwaters that regularly overwhelm riverbanks after heavy rains and rebuild Toledo's rutted roads and provide more jobs. Developing alternative energy meshes with the vision of local officials who tout the region as a hotbed of renewable energy technology.

Both candidates said they would eliminate tax breaks for companies that send jobs overseas and use the money for programs to help displaced workers. Many here are up in arms about what they think is an unfair trade and worldwide business environment. But short of erecting trade barriers that many economists and business leaders say would be self-defeating, no one seems to know what to do -- including Obama and Clinton.

"To get elected, you have to appeal to everybody. But it is hard to say this makes a lot of sense. If you don't figure out how to engage in the world's economy in today's world, you're kidding yourself," said Thomas E. Brady, president of Plastic Technologies, a suburban Toledo firm that designs and oversees the manufacturing of containers for such products as soda to laundry detergent. "The auto industry simply can't afford to pay people $28 a hour plus benefits anymore."

Brady, a board member of the Regional Growth Partnership, a privately funded economic development group in Toledo, said the prescription for a secure economic future lies in innovative technology and education -- a view that Obama and Clinton endorse.

But the question is how to get there. The Toledo metropolitan area's unemployment rate has dipped below 6 percent only once in the past 20 years, and is now 6.4 percent -- 1.5 points above the national rate. Median home prices here barely top $100,000, yet the city is in the top 20 in the nation in number of foreclosures. Even a bright spot is the result of a downside. One of the fastest-growing segments in the local economy has been warehousing, where employment grew 40 percent in the past year -- but that is largely because of the conversion of vacant factories into storage space.

Both the Clinton and Obama economic plans offer protections to these struggling working-class voters. They would repeal tax cuts for upper-income Americans, extend the cuts for the middle class and offer tax credits to help families pay for college.

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