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.

Laura Rios (right) lays it out for volunteers.
Philip Lange
Laura Rios (right) lays it out for volunteers.

"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."

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."

Lorain voted better than 2 to 1 in 2004 for John Kerry. But many polling sites showed turnouts of 50 percent and less. Efforts by Obama's campaign and Reclaim Lorain helped increase city registrations by 25 percent, officials said. Final tallies of early and absentee votes from this year's election are still under way, but preliminary results show a sharp drop in Republican votes, with dramatic spikes in Democratic votes at the city's poorer precincts. On Election Day, the big question was whether Lorain's many white Democrats would cancel out that surge by refusing to back an African-American candidate.

There were many surprises. Richard Schuler, a 63-year-old white man who owns a paint-contracting business, talked nothing like McCain's Joe the Plumber. "I am happy to see there's an intelligent candidate stepping up to run," he said after casting his ballot at St. Cyril & Methodius Church. "I like his speeches, like what he has to say, how he handles himself. I voted for Bush the first time, then changed my mind. I felt the country was headed in the wrong direction. Let's just hope it can get turned around now."

A few minutes later, a pair of young white men in work clothes emerged from the polling site and jumped into a mud-spattered Jeep Cherokee. "I did Obama," said Jason Hilton, 25, a laborer. "I wasn't even registered. Someone gave me a form at the racetrack, I filled it out, and here I am. Hell, I could've watched those debates till 2 a.m. Obama cleaned McCain's clock every time." His pal, Chris Hartman, 22, an auto mechanic, nodded. "If we had another 9/11, I think McCain would freak out—have a heart attack, drop dead—and then we'd have her for president."

On Lorain's southeast side in front of Southview High School, a pair of middle-aged white men stood outside the polls talking about bowhunting season. One man, who gave his name only as Steve, wore tattered camouflage pants and a bandanna around his head. The other had on a rumpled gas-station attendant's shirt bearing the name "Bill." Both looked like sure bets to have one of those "NO-bama" stickers—sported on cars around the state—on their bumpers. Wrong again. "I thought about McCain for awhile," said the man named Bill. "People said Obama was from the Middle East and has Arab blood. But I changed my mind. Obama's more the right man."

"I've got 14 guns, and if I thought he was going to take away one of them, I'd be against him," said Steve, a construction worker. "But I sorted everything out. We've had eight years of getting porked by this Bush, and that's enough. I want the guy who's going to do right by working people."

For that matter, not every minority voter matched the Obama profile. Luis Rosario, 34, wore gold studs in his ear and an African-style necklace to the polls. "We don't need someone with no experience in the White House," said Rosario, an ex-Marine who's spent five years as a correctional officer at Lorain Correctional Institution, a state prison in nearby Grafton. "We don't need Kuwait, places like that, trying to test us."

It was a day that tested many stereotypes. One of the leaders of Reclaim Lorain is a middle-aged black woman from Louisiana named Jo Ann Charleston, who is pastor of a local house of worship called New Birth Church. On Election Day, Charleston worked as a roving troubleshooter at the polls, helping voters and volunteers alike figure out how to cope with poll judges intent on handing out provisional ballots at the first sign of trouble.

In between answering voters' questions, Charleston filled in the rest of her remarkable résumé. If Lorain's problems are mired in its rust-belt past, Charleston stands for its hopes for a different future. An engineer with double degrees in divinity and chemistry, Charleston has worked for NASA for 30 years, where she helped design a battery that the agency plans to use in the next moon launch. She's received numerous awards for her work, including being named one of the agency's top five women employees. These days, she heads NASA's educational-outreach efforts, coaching high school students into becoming scientists: "We've got a shortage of students pursuing math and science," she said. "There's no reason we can't turn out a new generation of scientists right here in Lorain."

She turned to speak to an older white man wearing plaid pants—another likely McCain–Palin voter. He'd been told he was at the wrong polling site. Charleston made a call on her cell phone. "You're in the right place, just the wrong precinct," she told him, directing him to the proper table. "Everyone's vote should count," she said as he shuffled back into the polling site.

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