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Ohio: Portrait of a State in Flux

Ohio: Portrait of a State in Flux

By Salena Zito - October 21, 2012

MINGO JUNCTION, Ohio – As Sophia Schoolcraft explains, this Ohio River town once was a vibrant place, home to a powerful Wheeling-Pitt steel plant which helped to support a Main Street bustling with small businesses from one end to the other.

“The community prospered, the local government did too, as well as the schools and churches,” Schoolcraft said, “but as steel declined and finally collapsed, so did the rest of the town.”

Today the village treasurer says the village council plans to turn off street lights to save money.

Remarkably, she remains hopeful. “I can’t give up on my hometown,” she said, her voice cracking with emotion, although she is “very sad.”

“There were so many things thrown at towns like ours, like stimulus dollars and bailouts, but the problem is deeper. No one running the town over the years ever prepared for what might happen if the steel or coal industries left,” she said. “Too much dependency, not enough independent thought.”

Steel provided 75 percent of the tax base to keep services humming. In July, bankrupt RG Steel was bought by Frontier, which sold off the once formidable empire, piecemeal. According to Schoolcroft, “We are trying to save a furnace in it that is basically new.”

She said village workers have been laid off “and more layoffs are coming.”

Schoolcraft is an elected Democrat, as is the village council. “And by registration, so is almost all of the town,” she said.

Yet, in this Democrat-stronghold of 3,000 in the shadow of a massive steel plant hugging the Ohio River, hundreds of “Romney for President” signs clutter front yards, the few remaining small businesses and vacant brownfields.

At age 82, Schoolcraft not only is village treasurer but volunteers with the village social-services program, feeding those who fall on hard times. “I have coal miners here who haven't worked in a very long time,” she said.

This is a very real world untethered from a very sheltered political class and pundits who deliver all-knowing understanding of hardships from which they are completely detached. Washington, D.C., felt no recession, no shuttered businesses, no laid-off government employees – at least not to the magnitude of towns like this across America.

Throughout this Jefferson County region, interview after interview reveals an electorate incredibly dissatisfied with Barack Obama’s administration, confused by his gimmicky jabbing at Republican Mitt Romney while offering no presidential vision for another four years.

“I believe in my heart that Americans are better than this, that we can get through just about anything” said Schoolcraft of her community’s downfall.

Yet, as Americans consider who is best to lead the country and towns such as Mingo Junction back to prosperity, the Obama campaign has chosen to persuade Ohio voters with a story that is nothing short of what Vice President Joe Biden might call “a bunch of malarkey”:

Seventy-three miles downriver at a Youngstown soup kitchen, Brian Antal, a local St. Vincent De Paul Society chairman, made national news when he claimed that Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan lied about washing dirty dishes when he visited the facility.

Antal also claimed he was an “independent voter” who was there during the alleged event.

One day later, he admitted that Ryan did in fact wash dishes and that he himself was not at the facility when Ryan visited. Oh, and the record shows that Antal has voted as a Democrat for the last 17 years.

Yet Antal’s discredited tale is what the media focused on. This was the story that splashed across national news and penetrated into the culture – not the reality that, since 2009, a nearby steel mill that traces its origins to Andrew Carnegie has been shuttered and its 600 to 800 steelworkers will never work there again.

This is why Ohio and many of its lifelong Democrats have moved away in polls from Obama and toward Romney, who comes to the state and talks about “American exceptionalism” and energy jobs while the president jokes about binders full of women and Big Bird.

As Schoolcraft explains, “We don't want a handout. We need a plan and a vision to build a better future, to function within our means and keep our community going.”

Salena Zito is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review editorial page columnist. E-mail her at szito@tribweb.com
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