TOPICS > Politics

In Ohio, Job Losses May Sway Election Choices

October 22, 2010 at 5:14 PM EST
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As campaigning enters the home stretch before Election Day, job losses and the economy remain dominant issues in races across the country -- especially in the former manufacturing powerhouse of northeastern Ohio. Special correspondent Betsy Stark reports on one of the state's House contests.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And to campaign politics and the second of several stories from our Patchwork Nation project.

On air and online, we have been reporting on how the bad economy is affecting communities across the country.

Tonight, special correspondent Betsy Stark reports on a contest for a House seat from a hard-hit district in Northeastern Ohio.

BETSY STARK: It’s two hours before showtime at the Factory of Terror in Canton, Ohio. According to “The Guinness Book of Records,” the longest haunted house in the world.

What are you in the process of becoming?

MAN: A creature.

BETSY STARK: The night we were there, there was a two-hour wait to get inside — 1,500 people paying $23 apiece to be shocked, disoriented…

WOMAN: We got company, boys.

BETSY STARK: … and horrified.

WOMAN: Tiny’s going to get you.

BETSY STARK: Before this abandoned property was turned into a spook house, it was a real factory, a working foundry that made aluminum parts used by automakers from GM to Jaguar to build cars.

JOHN ESLICH, Owner, The Factory of Terror: To me, it was completely awesome. There was heavy manufacturing here. They actually took aluminum, raw aluminum. They melted it in the furnaces, they machined it and the whole nine yards.

We’re like, you know what, this building is going to survive. It’s living, it’s — something’s going to happen here. We’re not going to let this building die.

BETSY STARK: By day, the owners of the Factory of Terror run a demolition company, a family business that’s been a fixture in Northeastern Ohio for more than 50 years.

When John Eslich’s grandfather started in the 1950s, Canton was a manufacturing powerhouse, offering good lives with secure retirements. Today, this former aluminum factory, which once employed workers year-round, is now open for business just 20 days a year. And many of the 85 people who work here as goblins and ghouls are grateful for even temporary work.

Nick Katusin is a full-time student and father of two.

Does the money that you make in this job help out at home?

NICK KATUSIN, Employee: Oh, yes, definitely.

BETSY STARK: What does it help with?

NICK KATUSIN: Any extra bills that we have, it’s just money in the bank, and it’s that little buffer zone that we like to have.

BETSY STARK: Economists say the recession that has battered the nation for the last two years has plagued this part of Ohio for a decade.

GEORGE ZELLER, Ohio Economist: Stark County’s been pretty much continuously losing jobs for the whole of the last decade. And two out of every five manufacturing jobs that Stark County had 10 years ago no longer are here. Now, losing two-fifths of the main sector of your economy is a disaster.

BETSY STARK: By almost any measure, the citizens of Stark County face some of the harshest economic conditions in the country. The unemployment rate here is well above the national average. According to the latest census figures, a quarter of the children in this county now live in poverty. And in what was once a manufacturing hub, more people now collect unemployment checks than work in manufacturing jobs.

So, it’s not surprising that, this election season, it’s all about the economy and jobs in the Ohio 16th…

REP. JOHN BOCCIERI (D), Ohio: That’s why I opposed the Wall Street bailouts.

BETSY STARK: … a Rust Belt battleground that pits John Boccieri, a freshman Democrat who’s warning voters not to hand the keys back to the folks who drove us into the ditch, against Jim Renacci, a successful businessman who says the incumbent campaigned as a conservative, but has voted the liberal Obama-Pelosi agenda that has hurt Ohioans.

JIM RENACCI (R), Ohio Congressional Candidate: Boccieri voted for the Obama health care bill, for Pelosi’s national energy tax.

BETSY STARK: Neither message seems to have caught fire in a district Dante Chinni of the Patchwork Nation project describes as much more than a manufacturing community, a district that voted for John McCain even as the state went for Barack Obama.

Republicans had a virtual lock hold on this district until 2008. Is that surprising for a district with manufacturing at its heart?

DANTE CHINNI, Project Director, Patchwork Nation: Well, I think it might be surprising to some, just because we think of manufacturing centers as being Democratic. But the fact of the matter is, these places in particular, the type of district this is, this is small-town America. Canton is the biggest city here, but, really, when you stretch out the district, it’s a bunch of small towns along US-30.

BETSY STARK: As we traveled around Stark County, the largest county in the 16th, we found a kind of weary resignation to the joblessness here. At Saint John’s Catholic Church in Canton, where the local community center serves a free hot meal every Thursday to anyone who needs it, virtually everyone we met is struggling.

STEVE SANDERS, Unemployed: I just got laid off about a month ago. And it’s getting kind of tough. It wasn’t like I was making a great deal of money, but I had enough money to live. And, right now, that’s — you know, I’m here.

SHAWN SHASTEEN, Ohio: You can’t go to a fast-food restaurant, ask to fill out an application and expect to get a job. That’s how bad it is.

BETSY STARK: In the 29 years she’s worked at the community center, director Debbie Horn says she’s never seen it this bad.

DEBBIE HORN, Director, Community Services of Stark County: We have seen now, within the last couple of years, our donors are now individuals coming to the agency for help.

BETSY STARK: People who were giving you money are now coming for help?

DEBBIE HORN: Yes. Yes. It’s pretty sad.

BETSY STARK: And we found many people asking, in the face of all this, does my vote really matter?

Are you going to vote in this election?

STEVE SANDERS: Probably not.

BETSY STARK: Why not?

STEVE SANDERS: Seems useless. You know, it seems like, no matter who you put in, it’s the same thing.

BETSY STARK: So, who are you going to vote for in this race?

LARRY DOWDY, Ohio: What difference does it really make? All of them make promises.

JOHN GREEN, Professor, University of Akron: Part of it is that, simply, there’s a sense that the change that people voted for in 2008 hasn’t happened, that things haven’t improved the way they were supposed to. And even some of the legislation that has been passed has not yet changed people’s ordinary lives.

BETSY STARK: On a perfect fall day in North Lawrence, Ohio, on the Stark County line, we learned that even voters who have jobs see jobs as the No. 1issue in this race.

APRIL PHILLIPS, Ohio: I have a job. I know a lot of people I know don’t have jobs. So that’s the main thing, is getting the jobs back here, where we need them.

JENNIFER SMITH, Ohio: I’m just concerned about what’s best for my family and — and how we’re going to be able to keep jobs in our community and keep our community strong.

BETSY STARK: Throughout the district, many we spoke to are still undecided about which candidate will do the best job of creating jobs.

MAN: By the time I go in there, I will know who I want to vote for.

BETSY STARK: So, are you going to vote in this election?

MAN: I’m not sure.

(LAUGHTER)

MAN: Undecided.

MAN: I’ll have to do some more research.

WOMAN: I’m not decided on anyone particular yet.

NICK KATUSIN: Right now, I’m — you know, I’m just kind of focused on the haunted house.

BETSY STARK: These days, real life in Stark County is harrowing enough. And there seems to be little conviction that a congressional election can change that, which is why many voters seem to be waiting until after Halloween to make up their minds.