How Obama's Hopesters Took Ohio

An ailing factory town votes for change

Lorain's population is about 70,000. Whites—a polyglot mix of ethnics drawn to the mills—are in the majority and hold most local offices. Blacks are 16 percent; Latinos, 21 percent. A fifth of the city's residents fall below the poverty line. There's a large Puerto Rican population, thanks to a recruiting drive that U.S. Steel conducted on the island in the 1950s. Both of Rios's grandfathers came to Lorain that way: "They were looking for men who could work long hours in very hot conditions—like working in sugarcane fields, which is what my grandfathers did."

At the group's first meetings, Rios said, people talked about the good old days. "People had a nostalgic view of what Lorain used to be—that it had jobs, movie theaters, restaurants. People were going through a grieving process for their loss of that city, like mourning a lost loved one."

Christina Futchko, a Lorain native who taught public school for 13 years and helped organize Reclaim Lorain, remembers visiting her grandmother who worked on Broadway at Ted Jacobs, the town's largest apparel shop. "It wasn't Fifth Avenue, but you could buy a nice dress there. I couldn't believe it when it closed."

Gloria Nieto, a soft-spoken mother of five, got involved through her pastor at Sacred Heart, Father Bill Thaden, who urged parishioners to speak out about local conditions. "When I grew up, we had everything," Nieto said, whose father and three brothers worked in the steel mills. "We never had to worry about crime. I just feel like, if we don't fight back, this city is going to disappear."

Obama came to Lorain in February during the Ohio primary to visit National Gypsum, a plant where Nieto's husband worked hauling wallboard. "It was supposed to be just the media and the workers, but I wanted to go so badly and I got in," she said. She listened as the ex-organizer preached about creating "green" jobs and ending tax breaks to corporations that shift work overseas. A few weeks after Obama's visit, company officials closed the plant, laying off 58 workers.

Four years ago, on election night, I stood in the rain a few miles away in East Cleveland—another of Ohio's poorest cities—watching a different group of church-based organizers work their hearts out to get voters to the polls. The rain fell in dismal buckets day and night, but people still turned out in droves in an overwhelmingly Democratic city with a history of underwhelming turnout. The grim weather matched the mood after early returns showed Bush winning Ohio and its critical electoral votes. The day was made brighter only by echoes of the cheers that were raised at the polls every time a young man in full hip-hop regalia showed up to cast his first proud vote.

Election Day 2008 saw Ohio bathed in warm sunshine. Reclaim Lorain dispatched some 100 local volunteers—along with three dozen energetic students from nearby Oberlin College—to its base of operations at Sacred Heart Chapel and to a dozen polling places around the city. Their marching orders, in addition to turning out the vote, were to assist those whose residence or identity was challenged. "We don't want to see people forced to vote by provisional ballots," Rios instructed her troops. "They usually don't get counted until days after the election."

Outside the polling place, at General Johnnie Wilson Middle School on the city's west side, a first-time voter named Diraus Wagner Jr. asked for help after being told he wasn't registered. A volunteer in an orange T-shirt called the church office, where someone typed Wagner's name into a voter database. A van was dispatched to pick up Wagner and take him to the right polling place.

"I just know the one thing I'm going to do today is vote," Wagner insisted. "I'm out of a job, and even the temp agencies are cutting back on hours. I'm hoping a lot of people make the right decision today for a president who's going to bring change."

Beside him, Kenny Gordon, 59, a big man with a graying beard wearing a Cleveland Browns cap stood in the parking lot holding a large "Obama–Biden" sign. He said he'd been dispatched by his local chapter of the steelworkers' union. "I'm in the mills 40 years. I swore I'd never be there as long as my father; he did 42. But I'm getting there." After high school, Gordon worked for awhile at Steinbrenner's shipyards before switching to steel. "Back then, you could quit one job and get another that afternoon. There were 7,500 men in my mill when I started. All the closings have taken their toll. Jesus, there are so many empty homes now. One day, I'm watching TV, and it shows these people down in Texas living under a bridge. I look, and it's one of my old neighbors. I couldn't believe it. He told me he was going to get a job down there in oil because he heard it was busy. He ends up living under a bridge."

Gordon said he'd been following the presidential polls closely. "I think it's Obama. I just feel good. McCain is just an extension of Bush. We can't keep going that way. It has to change."

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