Media General News Service
April 25, 2004
WOOSTER, Ohio – Joe Tomassetti’s last day on the job felt like the end of his life.After 17 years with one of America’s best-known companies, Tomassetti got 14 weeks of severance pay and his box of tools – for machines he won’t be fixing any more.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” he said just before his final shift last month. He checked the clock with a look of dread.
“This is something you read about in the newspaper, isn’t it? It happens to the other guy. It happens in other towns,” he said.
At 40, the single father of two boys had lost his $20-an- hour paycheck because Rubbermaid Corp. decided to abandon the town it built.
Tomassetti and his family – father, uncle, brothers, sisters – worked at Rubbermaid a total of 200 years. They thought it would be there always, even after a tornado ripped off the roof in November. Employees labored all night to get the factory running the next day.
` `That place is half my life. It’s all I know,” Tomassetti said, turning away to hold back the tears. “It makes me want to cry, you know? Life’s suddenly so uncertain. What am I going to do tomorrow?”
He had lived the working- class dream, securing a steady job with a high school education, a job good enough to see a man through to retirement.
Suddenly, he was unemployed, apprehensive – and ready to take out his frustration in the election between President Bush and challenger John Kerry.
“I’ll take my chances with John Kerry,” he said. “This country needs a big change.”
That feeling could prove pivotal in Ohio, where, as in Florida, the margin between the candidates looks razor- thin.
Four years ago, Bush won Ohio, population 11.4 million, by 166,735 votes. Since then, the state has lost about 223,000 jobs, a chunk of the 2 million lost nationally.
Pollsters speculate that economic insecurity could make Ohio “the new Florida” – a populous state where a few voters could tilt the presidential race.
Some workers, such as Tomassetti, blame both political parties along with corporate greed. President Clinton, a Democrat, opened doors to U.S. companies exploiting cheaper labor overseas; Bush, a Republican, hopes a rallying economy and talk of retooling workers will save him from vengeful voters.
Tomassetti has heard the president’s assertions that jobs are being created as old ones vanish.
He doesn’t think they’re the kind of jobs his town found at Rubbermaid.
“Where am I going to go, Burger King?” he said. “Is that where jobs are being created?”
Ohio and Florida are not alone this year. Pollsters and strategists envision tough fights and close calls in at least 15 other states where the vote split narrowly four years ago.
Those states are Arizona, Arkansas, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin.
The fiercest campaigning is under way in these states. On a political map awash with states clearly favoring Bush or Kerry, these are the states that, once again, could go either way.
`The No. 1 Issue’
Bush may benefit in Florida from a statewide economy that has gained 236,000 jobs since his election. In Ohio, conversely, the loss of well-paid manufacturing jobs could spell trouble for the president.
“It’s the only issue,” said Jim Ruvulo, Kerry’s Ohio campaign chairman.
“It hurts us,” acknowledged Bob Bennett, Ohio’s Republican Party chairman. “Economy is the No. 1 issue, and if we’re still faced with large unemployment [at election time], that’s going to affect things. That’s people’s pocketbooks.”
Even if the economy improves, Democrats will try to exploit anxieties over lost wages and rising prices, blaming Bush for his economic policies and for hiding the true costs of war.
“The loss of jobs is having a profound effect on the quality of people’s lives,” Kerry said one recent afternoon between forays to Great Lakes states hit hard by manufacturing struggles.
“In Ohio,” Kerry said, “you’ve got this incredible job loss where pain is being felt.”
Four years ago, Democrats infamously abandoned their strategy in Ohio, packing up Al Gore’s campaign and yanking television advertisements just weeks before the election. They piled their chips on Florida and rolled the dice.
Bennett concedes that his Republican Party got lucky.
“Did we dodge a bullet in Ohio? We probably did. We almost lost it,” he said.
Had Gore won the state’s 20 electoral votes, he would be president today.
This time, neither party is taking anything for granted. Republicans are trying to sign up one volunteer for every 50 voters. Democratic-allied labor unions are mobilizing members with a ferocity unseen for years.
“The intensity of their turnout is probably as unified as I’ve seen it since I’ve been chairman,” Bennett said. “There’s no question, their base is fired up.”
Bush and Kerry frequently visit the state, stopping even at towns generally neglected since the days of Presidents Hoover and Truman.
At Ironton, a once-bustling industrial center of blast furnaces and smokestacks now down to 11,000 residents, Bush appeared in front of a banner that said: “Strengthening America’s Economy.”
“As the economy changes,” he said, “people need to change with it.”
Jay Nolan/Tampa Tribune
`Mouse On A Wheel’
Some 250 years ago, the area that became Ohio was a wilderness rich in resources and ready for the taking. Bear, deer and elk roamed deep forests. Buffalo foraged in pristine meadows.
Explorer Christopher Gist, drawn to the “river-ribboned land” of the Miami Valley, said it “wants nothing but cultivation to make it a most delightful country.”
Today, at the confluence of the same Miami and Mad rivers that Gist exulted, the delight has darkened.
In Dayton, a city of idled factories, shuttered shops, dozens of food banks and hundreds of rundown homes, some highly qualified and connected people pine for work.
Donna Riddlebargar solved other people’s problems for 14 years by plowing through government bureaucracies as a caseworker for the area’s congressman, Tony Hall.
Since his term expired in January 2003, Riddlebargar has been unable to find work, even as a temporary hire.
She’s pulling money out of her retirement account, incurring tax penalties, to make car payments and buy groceries.
“I was always the helper. Now look at me,” she said. “You feel like a mouse on a wheel after awhile.”
Since Bush took office, the Dayton area has lost 15,000 jobs.
McCall’s ceased its magazine publishing.
Nabisco took its famous crackers elsewhere, leaving an empty factory that looms over a crime-ridden housing project.
Even cash registers, which were invented in Dayton and stuffed the city with dollars, are gone. The factory that first made them is an empty lot without so much as a historical marker.
Delphi Corp., a General Motors spinoff, and NCR Corp., successor to the National Cash Register Co., have eliminated thousands of jobs. Where a factory once stood, signs on a fence remain: “Support your job. Buy G.M.”
“What job?” asked Herman Panstingel, staring at broken windows in the vacant Frigidaire complex where he once made air conditioning parts for General Motors.
`The Company’ Departs
Wooster felt immune to such pain for a long time.
An oasis of Victorian homes and conservative values in northeast Ohio, Wooster had watched for years as other communities endured manufacturing slowdowns and shutdowns.
The name of a local outlet store almost defined the town: “Everything Rubbermaid.”
Over eight decades, “the company,” as it was known, created a global brand for plastic household products. It helped build schools, an arts center, a fitness center, an ice arena, a library and an alumni building at the College of Wooster.
People raved about the good living.
But the company that struck it rich with garbage pails and ice cube trays eventually found wages and benefits too costly in unionized Wooster. Other companies made similar products more cheaply, often abandoning U.S. factories for inexpensive labor overseas.
Rubbermaid was sold, altered, streamlined. It started making bath mats, for example, in Mexico. Still, sales foundered.
Today, nearly a quarter of the U.S. plastic industry’s injection molding machines – the kind of machines Tomassetti kept running – sit idle.
The ripple effects of Rubbermaid’s pullout are obvious. An elementary school is being closed in anticipation of lower tax revenues. Thefts are on the rise. There’s a moral backlash against an entrepreneur who tried to make money in a novel way for conservative Wooster: renting pornographic videos.
“It’s been devastating,” said Mike Kendall, vice president of United Steelworkers of America Local 302. “All the restaurants, the gas stations, the outlet stores they shop at, all of them will pay.”
Tisha Klopfenstein is one of many who don’t blame the president for such changes, but she recognizes the divisions among customers at the downtown store where she clerks.
“Instantly you can tell from the look in people’s faces who has been laid off,” she said. “It’s like their life is over. It’s like, what does their life mean now?”
Karen Redick, a quality auditor sent packing after 28 years with the company, echoes the familiar theme.
“For a lot of us, we grew up with Rubbermaid. It’s in our blood,” she said. “You want to get a good-paying job there right out of high school, and you plan to retire there.
“But maybe we just weren’t seeing the whole picture.”
`This Glorious Future’
Life in Ohio is not grim everywhere, of course.
Even Dayton boasts examples of prosperity, mostly involving engineering and technology related to military contracts at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. The base is the state’s fifth-largest employer, with 22,000 workers.
As with Tampa’s MacDill Air Force Base, however, local leaders worry because of the federal effort to close and consolidate some military bases.
Bob Taft, Ohio’s Republican governor, likes to say that the Buckeye State – once dominant in agriculture, then in manufacturing – has simply entered a new era.
A “third frontier” is opening with high-paying technology jobs, Taft contends. Some suburbs of Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati appear as flush with disposable income and reliable employment as Brandon or New Tampa.
Yet the transformation to a technology economy has a long way to go, cautions Robert Adams, political science professor at Wright State University in Dayton.
“There is insecurity and fear about when this glorious future will arrive,” he said.
Sometimes Leslie Smith drives to the house she used to have, a three-bedroom ranch in the country outside Dayton, the type of place where she always wanted to live. She sits in her car at the end of the driveway remembering joyous family times, and she cries.
Then she returns to the gritty area where she lives now, where she has lived most of her life – a place she escaped, briefly.
“Having something, then losing it all and starting over,” Smith said, “you can’t imagine how awful it is to have your dream for 4 1/2 years, and then it all gets taken away in 30 seconds.”
That’s how long she recalls it took bosses at International Harvester in nearby Springfield to give her the bad news in March 2002. She was a supervisor on the truck maker’s assembly line for radiators, earning $100,000 a year.
“I was the breadwinner of the family,” she said. “Suddenly we had no benefits, none of that money coming in. I had 12 weeks’ severance pay, but that went by in no time. No matter where I looked, there just weren’t jobs.
“And, well, that’s when you call your father and say, `What am I going to do? I lost my home. I lost my dream. I had to file bankruptcy. What now?’ ”
`Not So Sure Anymore’
There was a time Smith’s father could have helped a lot of people.
As leader of Ohio’s second- largest labor union council, Wesley Wells is almost a microcosm of the state’s modern labor movement, fighting to save just a few jobs.
Every day, unemployed union members call looking for work, often any kind of work.
“It’s heartbreaking,” said Wells, the AFL-CIO regional labor council director. “I have to say, `There are no jobs out there.’ ”
As recently as 1980, Local 87 represented 8,000 workers. Today there are 1,517, and many auto parts are being made elsewhere, including overseas.
“I’ve never seen it this bad in Dayton or Ohio, where people can’t find a job,” Wells said. “A lot of my members are on welfare.”
His daughter works in his office as his secretary. She earns one-fifth of her old income: $20,000 a year.
The labor woes don’t guarantee an electoral shift for Ohio, though.
“It’s not so bad here yet that anyone with a `D’ after their name will automatically win,” said John Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics in Akron.
In a culturally conservative state, job losses create “a great opportunity for Democrats,” Green said, “but Bush still has strong support.”
That is why both parties are working so hard across Ohio, which has voted for the winner in every presidential election since 1964.
No Republican has lost the state and won the presidency. Only two Democrats, Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy, lost Ohio but gained the White House.
One recent poll showed Bush and Kerry neck-and-neck statewide, and Kerry ahead in Franklin County, which includes Columbus and has voted Democratic only recently.
There was a time in Delaware, just north of Columbus, when the parties “could run Jesus on the Democratic ticket and Hitler on the Republican ticket, and Hitler would win 3- to-1,” said local antiques seller Robert Tuttle.
Today, “a lot of people seem to be fed up with Bush,” said barber Joy Stewart, who voted for him in 2000 but has doubts about his strategy in Iraq, where her nephew is a military helicopter pilot.
“All the pastors seem to want Bush,” she said, “but people are not so sure any more, including me.”