How Obama's Hopesters Took Ohio

An ailing factory town votes for change

Lorain, Ohio—The kind of hope Barack Obama promised to deliver was nowhere craved more deeply on Election Day than in this battered old manufacturing city on the shores of Lake Erie.

Hope got scores of local residents up before dawn to bounce over rutted streets that haven't been repaved in decades. Hope had them standing all day outside of polling sites at schools forced to lay off 300 staff members last month for lack of funds. Hope sent them scurrying back and forth across town, picking up voters in need of a lift. It sent them past the mammoth, mile-long steel mills by the Black River, mills that once offered their own brand of hope, employing more than 13,000 workers at gritty but solid jobs with benefits and pensions. Barely a tenth that many jobs remain.

Hope got retired auto worker Joe Gonzalez, 59, over to his church, Sacred Heart Chapel on Pearl Avenue, before sunup to pilot a van to pick up stranded voters. Gonzalez put in 30 years at the vast Ford auto plant on Lake Road, alongside 15,000 other workers, turning out Falcons, Thunderbirds, and Econolines, often at a breakneck clip of more than 50 an hour. The speed didn't help. The plant was shut in 2005, taking $2.2 million in city tax revenues with it, according to the local Morning Journal, which tabulates plant closings the way other dailies list obituaries.

"I came out of the Army in 1967, went to apply at Ford on Wednesday, got called to work on Thursday," Gonzalez said, sipping coffee under a basketball hoop in the church's hall. "Once, they had so many workers at the plants that some people pitched tents because there wasn't enough housing around."

That's no longer a problem. There are 1,000 foreclosures in the city of Lorain, officials say. Many of the homes belong to laid-off auto workers forced to walk away. The vacancies are a green light for scavengers, who rip out the copper piping, rendering the homes uninhabitable. Even some of the fancy new condos built along the river on the site where George Steinbrenner's huge American Ship Building plant operated, until he closed it in 1983, have been seized by lenders.

Broadway, the city's main strip, is neat and tidy, with stylish late-19th-century buildings. But it's like a movie set. Most stores and offices are empty. There's a lovely waterside park, built with federal funds, that's dedicated to Toni Morrison, the Nobel Prize–winning writer who was born here, and the Underground Railroad, which offered runaway slaves a last stop before freedom in Canada on the far side of the lake.

But the most riveting sight there is the open drawbridge over the mouth of the Black River, where Route 6 links the east side of town to the rest of Lorain. Built to let the huge freighters pass through on their way to deliver ore to the steel plants, it's been stuck open since June. Its big arms stand 50 feet high in the air facing the Great Lake, as though the city were offering to surrender. State officials say that it's a computer problem and they're working on it. Still, it's too late for the Dairy Queen on East Erie Avenue, a town favorite that closed last month after 33 years because customers couldn't get there.

The way Gonzalez and several hundred other Lorain residents figured it, the 2008 election was their last best chance to respond to these insults, to register their voices with the political powers-that-be, and to keep their own hopes alive. They would do it by turning out as many voters as possible, a show of force to be ignored at any politician's peril.

Obama was the big draw at the top of the ticket—the former community organizer inspiring a new wave of organizing. But their own platform was strictly nonpartisan. They made their slogan, "Reclaim Lorain," and issued a manifesto calling for neighborhood revitalization and anti-crime initiatives. Starting in 2006, they began the grunt work of rallying their neighbors. They put their slogan on lawn signs and on bright orange T-shirts that they wore as they tramped up and down the cracked sidewalks of the poorest city wards in the months leading up to Election Day.

Leading the effort is Laura Rios, a Lorain native and mother of three, who decided to start organizing when she was laid off after 15 years as a marketing director at a nearby manufacturing firm. "It gave me the first chance in a long time to take a look at what was happening in my community. I'd be driving around, and it was like, 'Wow, when did that building get boarded up empty?' "

Another nasty nudge came when drug dealers moved into a rented home next door. "I live in a quiet neighborhood. It was a real wake-up call about what was going on."

Rios received training from the Industrial Areas Foundation, the Saul Alinsky–inspired advocacy group that helped create Brooklyn's famed low-cost Nehemiah homes. IAF dispatched Jonathan Lange, a former textile workers organizer, from Baltimore. "We know that the most effective way to get people out to vote," said Lange, "is face-to-face meetings with people like themselves, who love their town and also want change."

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