Going Back to Ohio 

Bush trolls for votes in the land of closing factories

Thursday, Aug 12 2004
Photo by AP/Wideworld photos

You have to hand it to President George W. Bush. The guy has chutzpah.

He can claim Iraq has weapons of mass destruction when it doesn’t. He can justify a war for one reason, and then later insist he started it for another. Not to mention, he’s redefined leadership as never having to say you’re sorry or that you made a mistake.

During a recent campaign swing through Ohio, a place he seems to visit every week, he really outdid himself:

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He went to Canton.

Yes, Canton, in Stark County, home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and a sometime Republican bastion. It’s also the same county that’s lost more than 6,000 jobs in the last four years, and 3,000 jobs so far this year, during an alleged economic recovery. And it’s where, a little over a year ago, George W. Bush visited a factory owned by Timken Steel, Stark County’s largest private employer. At the time, Bush praised Timken as a model for the modern American economy. If by that, Bush meant an economy that disappears local manufacturing jobs despite record profits, he was right. In April, Timken announced its plans to shut down three plants, eliminating 1,300 jobs.

While Ohio’s doldrums — 160,000 jobs lost in four years — are not all his fault, Bush doesn’t have that much to say about how to fix things, other than to bang the drum for tax cuts, beat up on lawyers as the demons behind the nation’s ills, and talk about how America has “turned the corner.”

“Bush will never show his face in Stark County,” predicted a top Kerry aide at an Ohio event for Kerry in June.

Guess again.

Bush not only showed up but made a point of meeting with steelworkers who may lose their jobs. They were among a contingent of 10 Timken employees Bush invited onto the presidential bus for the 30-minute ride from the Akron Hilton to Canton’s civic center, where Bush then strode into a campaign rally.

Bush met the workers without script and without handlers; he was glib, responsive and funny. The workers on the bus liked him, and he might’ve won over a vote or two. And in this place, every vote counts.

No Republican has claimed the presidency without winning Ohio, and the state has the seventh-largest block of electoral votes. Bush and Kerry are neck and neck in the polls, and often seem to be running for president of Ohio, as their bus caravans nearly cross each other’s paths.

Despite the abysmal job numbers here since Bush took office, the president can’t overlook Stark County, which has a particular knack for calling winners. In 2000, Bush won here by less than 2 percent, and he’s not giving up despite the compromising position his prior visit has put him in.

The Bush team could hardly want a reminder of his April 2003 appearance in Canton, when company chairman W.R. “Tim” Timken Jr. warmly introduced the president.

At the time, the photo-op at a Timken factory seemed prime, as Bush explained in his speech: “Tim told me that this is a company — ‘we are a roll-up-your-sleeves company, a can — it is a can-do environment.’ Which is one of the reasons I’ve got so much optimism about the future of our economy . . . because of the business sense of ‘we can do whatever it takes to overcome the obstacles in our way.’”

The Timken plant-closure announcement came almost exactly a year later. Labor leaders characterize the move as union busting, because the company has only one other unionized U.S. plant that manufactures metal bearings (round, hollow pieces of metal used in motors). That compares with 27 nonunion metal-bearing plants, most of which were acquired last year in the company’s $840 million acquisition of rival Torrington.

The layoffs are “a business decision,” said a company spokesman, who denied union busting. A Timken statement faulted the union, for not accepting givebacks to increase productivity.

The plant shutdowns are expected to take two years, but workers already are having trouble getting loans to buy cars or homes — “once they find out you work at Timken,” said union local president Stan Jasionowski. “There’s no good-paying jobs left in this area,” he continued. “The government — you might as well say the Bush administration — has given tax breaks to companies that move jobs overseas. I don’t know how they’re saying employment is up because it’s not.”

The unemployment rate in the Canton area in June was 6.4 percent — that’s worse than the nation as a whole and compares with 4.6 percent here when Bush took office. These rates typically underreport reality because they don’t count people who have given up looking for work or who are forced to work only part-time. Or those who’ve surrendered relatively high-paying factory jobs to work at places like Wal-Mart. Union jobs at Timken pay between $15 and $19 an hour and include benefits. Wal-Mart hourly workers typically get less than $7 an hour.

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