TOPICS > Politics

In Ohio, Friday Fish Fry With a Side of Politics

BY Terence Burlij  March 5, 2012 at 8:21 AM EDT

St. Mary's in Cleveland hosts a Friday night fish fry. Photo by Terence Burlij/PBS NewsHour.

CLEVELAND | Northeast Ohio is an area with many traditions. Among them are heartbreaking losses in professional sports that come with two word descriptors: “The Drive,” “The Fumble,” “The Shot” and, most recently, “The Decision.”

But there is another waist-expanding ritual that comes about once a year during Lent: the fish fry.

St. Mary’s Romanian Orthodox Cathedral on Cleveland’s West Side has been serving up fried fish every Friday during Lent for nearly three decades, bringing parishioners and locals together for good food and lively conversation.

While Southwest Ohio is the bedrock of the Republican Party in the Buckeye State, the Northeast region is reliably Democratic when it comes to presidential elections. In 2008, President Obama won Cuyahoga County, which includes downtown Cleveland and its suburbs, by a whopping 69 percent to 30 percent margin over Sen. John McCain.

Given the region’s relatively large population — it’s home to nearly 40 percent of the state’s residents — you’ll also find plenty of Republicans.

And that includes at St. Mary’s fish fry Friday.

With Super Tuesday looming and Republican front-runners Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum both in town that night, many attendees were primed to talk politics.

Retired businessman Robert Zufall of Lakewood had already cast his ballot for Romney. He said he liked the former Massachusetts governor’s background in politics and business. “The economy is doing better but I am still nervous about it. There’s a whole lot of suffering still out there,” Zufall said. “I just don’t think the current administration gets it.”

Zufall called Santorum “a good family man” with “good family values,” but he had serious doubts about his general election prospects. “I don’t think he can beat Barack Obama,” Zufall said. “I just think that there are more independents that are going to vote for Romney than Obama. I think Romney’s the only guy who can beat him.”

Diane Kalata of Parma said she was torn between Romney and Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator. “I’m going to sway a little more towards Mitt Romney because of his background. I don’t know if Santorum could beat Obama,” she said.

Others, like self-described Reagan Democrat Jim Galbraith of Cleveland, expressed interest in Santorum because of his focus on Rust Belt issues like manufacturing. “Santorum, I think, is more for the common, blue collar type,” Galbraith said. “Mitt Romney, I think he’s big business. He’s for the rich.”

Bill Bivlimski of Bedford indicated he was “leaning towards three” candidates: Romney, Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. “I think Newt’s the smartest. I like Santorum’s ideas. But I think Mitt’s got the best chance of winning,” Bivlimski said. “It’s kind of a multiple choice thing there.”

To be sure, there were lots of Democrats at St. Mary’s, and they spared no criticism of the GOP. “They’re out of touch with working class people. They just are,” said Pat Fowler of Cleveland.

Another Democrat, Maryann Darcy of Fairview Park, defended the president’s record. “Don’t give me that baloney about Barack Obama not doing what he could,” she said. “He’s trying to clean up the mess that was left for him.”