By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 5, 2008
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio, March 4 -- A candidate seeking to overcome an opponent who is preaching hope and optimism could not ask for a better place to rebound than here, a chronically depressed industrial region where on Election Day the only thing grayer than the abandoned steel mills was a slate sky pouring down near-freezing rain.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) had long counted on Ohio as her firewall against the streaking Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) -- and it was. Within the state, she banked on this reeling former steel town and the rest of the Mahoning Valley, which she visited three times in recent weeks.
It is not hard to see why: In a city that has lost more than half its population, where officials have targeted several thousand vacant houses for demolition and where the grand homes of industrial barons sell for less than $200,000, Clinton's bread-and-butter practicality holds more appeal for many voters than Obama's idealism. This was underscored Tuesday, with exit polls showing Clinton reasserting her edge with working-class white voters, a group with which Obama had appeared to gain ground in Virginia and Wisconsin.
Kathy Zarzycki was among those here on Tuesday doing her best to exploit Clinton's edge with voters concerned about the state's economy. She made calls to voters in Clinton's local office, a shopping plaza storefront flanked by two dollar stores, a thrift shop and a check-cashing outlet.
"We really need you to vote," Zarzycki implored one voter. "We're really struggling here in Ohio -- the economy, the cost of gas." She told another: "Hillary asked me to call you because it's all up to you."
Zarzycki, a registered nurse from nearby Boardman, has been on disability for three years. She decided to volunteer for Clinton after seeing her over the weekend at a local high school, where the senator was joined by middleweight boxing champion Kelly "the Ghost" Pavlik, a Youngstown native. Clinton had also visited the General Motors plant in nearby Lordstown, whereas Obama spoke at Youngstown State University.
Fifty-three, with bleached hair and teal eye shadow, Zarzycki contrasts the prosperity of the 1990s with what she sees around her now. Her boyfriend in Cleveland has a master's degree but is making $15 an hour at a plastic-molding factory, and her daughter is amassing college debts.
"I like the Clintons. When he left office, we were ahead with money. Now we're in a big hole," she said.
A lifelong Democrat, Zarzycki said she will not vote for Obama in November if he is the party's nominee. Her boyfriend, an Obama supporter, accuses her of racial bias.
"I'm not prejudiced. I just don't know him," she said. "I just feel like I can trust her more. I never heard of Obama. . . . My boyfriend said he gave a speech at the last convention, but I don't remember that."
Obama tried to undermine Clinton's standing with working-class voters here by reminding them of President Bill Clinton's role in passing the North American Free Tree Agreement, and of Hillary Clinton's statements in favor of the 1994 pact among Canada, Mexico and the United States. Many Ohioans consider NAFTA a lead cause in the state's steady loss of manufacturing jobs -- 200,000 since 2000 alone.
But local legislators backing Clinton said her pledge to revise NAFTA had distanced her from her husband. She also helped herself, they said, with her charge in a radio ad that Obama's criticism of NAFTA is insincere, based on reports of assurances that his economic adviser had given Canadian officials -- a charge Obama denies.
"I can tell you: In Dayton, Warren, Youngstown, Cleveland, that hurt Obama," said state Rep. Ronald V. Gerberry (D), from nearby Austintown.
But such obstacles did not stop Obama's campaign here. Tuesday morning, staff members and volunteers from the area and as far away as California gathered for a get-out-the-vote effort that dwarfed Clinton's, with dozens of supporters heading out with lists of homes to visit.
For local Obama supporters, many of them African Americans, Youngstown's plight has been a spur to activism. Judy Wilson, 55, has lived all her life in the city; her grandfather and mother worked in now-shuttered steel mills. Her husband works in Cleveland, 70 miles away, because he cannot find work here, and she is about to lose her job making light bulbs at a local General Electric plant, after working there 36 years.
Joining Wilson in her SUV was LaTrese Dawson, 30, who recently moved back to her mother's house with her seven children after their home became too decrepit to inhabit. "This is for my children and my grandchildren," she said of her support for Obama.
The two women canvassed Wilson's South side, a racially mixed neighborhood of handsome Colonial homes that once housed the city's upper middle class but are now pocked by sagging roofs and porches. At midday, Wilson was greeted by neighbors in their late 50s who, like her, were forced to take early retirement.
"From middle class to poverty," said Gary Turnage, 59, who was forced out of General Motors after 38 years. "It's a struggle until I get to 62" and Social Security.
Turnage told Wilson he had already voted for Obama. "Praise God," Wilson said.
But Wilson was chagrined when neighbor Margaret Gault said she had voted for Clinton. "I would've voted for either of them, but I think she's got the most experience," said Gault, who took early retirement 20 years ago. "Men have run this country long enough. Let the woman run it."