The following article by John Russo, former co-director of the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University and currently a visiting scholar at Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, is cross-posted from newgeorgraphy.com:
Ohio has long been seen as a battleground state, up for grabs in most Presidential elections. The state supported winning candidates of both parties for decades. But as the state shifted back and forth, the Mahoning Valley (Mahoning and Trumbull Counties) in Northeastern Ohio remained a Democratic stronghold. If Democratic candidates could garner more than 62% of the vote in this region – as they often did — they would win the state. In years when Republicans won, the Mahoning Valley still voted for the Democrats, but with less enthusiasm.
Not this time. In the 2016 primaries, a number of Mahoning Valley Democrats changed their party affiliation to vote for Donald J. Trump. Last year’s big shift came from people who had sat out the past few elections but showed up to vote this year. In November, Hillary Clinton won Mahoning County but received less than 50% of the vote. She actually lost in neighboring Trumbull County. She lost Ohio by more than 8 points, the biggest loss of any candidate in the state since Michael Dukakis gave up the state to George H.W. Bush in 1988.
That’s why political operatives and journalists are now paying even more attention to the Youngstown area. Even the Ohio Democratic Party (ODP), which has long counted on the Mahoning Valley, is taking notice of a region they didn’t think they needed to worry about.
In what has become a familiar practice following a series of defeats in recent state-wide elections, the ODP sponsored a “Listening Tour.” On June 12, 2017, the tour came to Youngstown with National Democratic Party Chairperson Tom Perez, who reiterated that Youngstown was a political “bellwether.”
The event was held at a local pizzeria, Wedgewood Pizza, and billed as “Pizza with Perez.” Approximately 75 attendees, mostly loyal Democratic Party supporters, including a number of local and state politicians, paid $25 to attend the midday event. I paid my $25 to find out whether Party leaders were seriously listening to the concerns of voters and to see how they would react.
What I saw was a typical campaign event, with the audience doing the listening while Democratic operatives touted their positions. After brief introductions by state and local Party chairs David Peppers and David Betras, Perez explained his commitment to Democratic politics by recalling his father’s experience of moving to Buffalo from the Dominican Republic. Perez talked about how the community and especially the labor movement helped his family make a home there. He promised that Democrats could be counted on to speak to hopes and fears of the working class and to fight for working people.