Looking to Help Ailing Cities, Ohio Mayors Split Over Democratic Nomination

Northeast Ohio, an area heavy with Democratic voters and a host of economic problems, has become a focus for both Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama in a state that has emerged as a critical test in the unusually complex 2008 primary race.

Lorain County’s major cities, Lorain and Elyria, have shed jobs and seen an escalating number of home foreclosures as economic woes have rippled across the country. The cities are mid-sized: according to the 2000 U.S. Census, Elyria has approximately 56,000 residents, while Lorain has a population of approximately 69,000.

Lorain and Elyria mirror many of the challenges facing cities in middle America — but much like Democratic voters throughout the country, their mayors support different brands of leadership for the nation’s top job. Elyria Mayor Bill Grace, in office since 1999, has endorsed Obama. Just a few miles to the north, recently elected Lorain Mayor Anthony Krasienko has backed Clinton.

Like many other supporters, Grace speaks of Obama’s message of change as reasons behind his first-term senator.

“His ability, I believe, to unite the country is very important,” Grace said in an interview, regarding his Obama endorsement. “I think (Clinton) would do her best to unite the country, I just think Sen. Obama would be substantially more effective at that.”

Krasienko, who introduced Clinton at a campaign rally held in a Lorain high school, instead cites her stance on issues of particular importance to his constituents, particularly health care or job growth.

“This community wants to be heard, and it’s a mirror image of what (we) are talking about in this presidential election,” he said. “Whether it’s health care or jobs or education or foreclosures, this is the heart of America and Sen. Clinton’s message is to the heart of America, to the working families of America.”

The divide sheds light on how closely tied Clinton and Obama are on policy issues: both support propping up a lagging middle class by cutting their taxes, creating environmentally friendly jobs and making college more affordable.

But the split also underscores Ohio Democrats’ differing visions for a post-President Bush era.

Northeast Ohio‘s political impact

The support of northeast Ohio may prove critical to both Democrats as they seek to craft a winning strategy in the state. Greg Haas, a longtime Democratic strategist in the state, said the candidates will likely focus the tail end of their Ohio campaign energy there.

“I think based on the fact that they’ve done large events early in central Ohio to me actually means they are planning to focus more on northeast Ohio as they close out the campaign,” Haas said. “The most important areas, you save till later. You do something a little bit early and you kick into gear the last four days really hard. [Northeast Ohio] is where both camps should be closing out. You still have 60 percent of the Democratic primary vote in a concentrated area in northeast Ohio. It’s not surprising that it’ll be a primary focus.”

Lorain County has seen its share of campaign stops by the Democratic candidates and their surrogates. Aside from the Clinton rally Tuesday in Lorain before a debate with Obama in Cleveland, Obama visited the National Gypsum Co. in Lorain on Feb. 24. Obama supporter Caroline Kennedy visited Elyria on Thursday.

Once a center of industry, Lorain County has hemorrhaged jobs in the once well-paying manufacturing field for more than a decade. According to Krasienko, the city of Lorain suffered 750 foreclosed homes in 2007, a 24 percent increase over 2006. The city accounts for a third of the county’s foreclosures, he said.

Grace said that concerns about a slowing economy — a top national issue — have been on the minds of Lorain County residents for decades and one of the core reasons for his backing Obama.

“Our area has largely been built on industrial development: steel mills and auto plants,” Grace said. “They’ve reduced employment dramatically over the past 25, 30 years. A large number of our residents have historically relied on lower-skilled employment opportunities to provide for themselves, and those jobs have been evaporating quickly in Ohio.”

And it is that focus on the economy that has prompted Lorain’s Krasienko to choose Clinton, citing her ability to hone in on Ohio’s specific economic issues helped sway his support.

“She’s the one talking about foreclosure and that’s one thing that’s really important to us right now. It could have detrimental impacts, serious impacts, on our community,” the mayor said

Those job losses are also fueling the debate over the North American Free Trade Agreement in the Ohio race. Obama’s campaign mailers tied Clinton to President Bill Clinton’s signing of NAFTA into law in the 1990s. Clinton retorted that the attacks were unfair and claimed she was consistently against NAFTA’s impact on U.S. jobs.

Particularly in Ohio, a state hit hard by the loss of manufacturing jobs, NAFTA is seen by many as giving American workers a raw deal, forcing them to compete for jobs with lowered-paid workers in Canada or Mexico.

Defining the lines between being a part of her husband’s pro-NAFTA administration and her current criticism of the trade deal, Clinton sought to blame the current administration for its handling of the trade pact adopted by her husband, telling the NewsHour : “So the impact of NAFTA and other trade agreements was not so obvious in the economy at large until the Bush administration, because they stopped enforcing trade agreements. They really stopped going to bat to try to keep jobs in this country.”

Obama has blamed NAFTA for costing the U.S. jobs during his Ohio visits.

“NAFTA didn’t put food on the table here in Youngstown,” Obama told a crowd in that struggling northeastern Ohio city, the Chicago Tribune reported.

But both candidates have less than a clear record on endorsing protectionism or free trade. Lori Wallach, director of the Global Trade Watch division of Public Citizen and a free-trade opponent, told the New York Times that neither candidate has a legitimate claim of being a trade reformer.

“Neither of the current Democratic candidates were in the category of leaders fighting for improving U.S. trade policy to try to come up with different terms for globalization, but in the course of their campaign they have come to see both the political necessity and the substantive problems, pushing them to some interesting new thinking,” she said.

Focus on job growth

According to the Wall Street Journal, Ohio has lost more than 200,000 manufacturing jobs since 2000, and voters here rate the economy as their top issue. Statistics from Lorain County Community College’s Joint Center for Policy Research show that Lorain County has lost 4,014 jobs in the early 2000s, mostly in the manufacturing sector.

Some 90 percent of the fastest-growing jobs in the area are in advanced manufacturing, information technology and health care, but those jobs require post-secondary education or other training, according to LCCC research. The study also found that the number of small and medium-sized businesses grew, while larger companies have left the region. The county also lags behind state and regional averages in terms of education level.

The changing face of Lorain County and other parts of Ohio have enjoyed the national spotlight in the run-up to Tuesday’s vote — but Grace said that media reports on the dire economic situation of his city and region don’t compare to actually experiencing it.

The area’s industrial job losses are fairly accurately portrayed in the media, Grace said, but “I’m not sure they recognize the impact. It is more dramatic here in northeast Ohio than it is in any other part of the country, other than perhaps the Detroit area.”

“I recall this last weekend George Will was commenting about how ‘hey this country isn’t that bad, it’s not that big a deal.’ He’s living in a part of the country that has no appreciation for the struggles that are taking place in the industrial belt that built this country 100 years ago, and the trials it’s going through.”

The impact of the dueling mayoral endorsements will be difficult to measure. But Elyria’s Grace hopes his public endorsement will help guide some of his constituents.

“I’ve certainly been elected three times to this office so obviously there’s a level of confidence that the majority of our residents feel in me,” Grace said. “I would think some of them would take a cue. Particularly those that were on the edge of which way to go.”