Friday, December 3, 2010

Cursing the blues in kingmaker state

Dec 3, 2010

In the last instalment of our series on how economic anxieties have affected ordinary Americans and the way they vote, we look at the 'kingmaker' state of Ohio, where polling results in last month's mid-terms could have a lasting effect on the Obama presidency.

By Paul Zach

As a lifelong Republican, Kelly frowns on government handouts: the political party he supports detests anything that smacks of 'socialism'.

But on Tuesday, the 36-year-old father of three turned up at the Parma Hunger Centre with his own hand held out.

For the first time in their lives, he and his wife, Chris, accepted a shopping cart overflowing with cartons of eggs, cans of spaghetti, a sack of Russet potatoes and other groceries, without paying for them.

'It feels like crap,' said Chris, 39.

'It doesn't feel good,' said Kelly. 'But if it feeds my kids... my kids are worth a lot more than my pride.'

Indeed, the couple are so mortified about their plight that they did not want their full names to be used or their pictures taken for this report.

Their decision to turn to a branch of the Hunger Network of Greater Cleveland, which relies in part on federal and local government subsidies as well as donations, came after another first in their 10 years of marriage: they have started receiving disconnection notices from utility companies just as the winter chill is setting in.

Chris said bills started piling up after she lost her job as a nurse in the nearly bankrupt school system of Parma 'a couple of years ago', and she had to see doctors about a medical condition they have yet to diagnose.

Her husband is the manager of a restaurant outlet in another city a long daily drive from their home. His salary is not enough for them to make ends meet.

'We went through all my retirement funds,' said Chris. 'The last couple of months I was counting change, buying groceries with change.'

Parma is a suburb that borders Cleveland, traditionally the most blue of Ohio's big cities. Located on the banks of Lake Erie, and fuelled by a legion of steel mills and auto factories in the early part of the last century, Cleveland was a magnet for hardworking immigrants. They joined unions and became solid supporters of Democratic Party politics.

When the steel and auto industries started leaving town in the 1960s, however, the population followed.

Over the past few months, years of corruption in government also saw federal charges filed against many of the most powerful Democrats in the Cuyahoga county government. Cleveland, the heart of the county, became the capital of the growing 'rust belt', an economic basket case unkindly called 'The Mistake on the Lake' - a long way from the days it billed itself as the 'Best Location in the Nation'.

Still, its legacy of supporting Democrats persists.

In 2008, the media projected that Mr Barack Obama would win the United States presidency for the Democrats as soon as it became clear that he had taken Ohio, with overwhelming support in Cleveland, even before vote counting had ended in most of the country.

Ohio has long been known as the 'kingmaker' in American politics - and not just because the state has sent the most number of natives to the White House. It has often been the key to victory in the presidential elections.

Political pundits thus viewed the decisive victory by Mr Obama in 2008, and that by Mr Ted Strickland for governor in 2006 - a win that ended 16 years of Republican domination in the post - as a sure sign that Democrats would rule Ohio, and thus the nation, for years to come.

Fast forward to this year.

Those same pundits now point to last month's mid-term election results in Ohio as a sure sign that Mr Obama will lose the state, and thus re-election to a second term, in 2012.

Mr Strickland is now a footnote. He became a one-term governor when he lost to Republican John Kasich, even though - although some would argue because - Mr Obama made more visits to Ohio to campaign for him than he did to any other state.

Mr Kasich is not going to be a regular governor in regular times.

When he takes over the post next month, he will have a direct hand in drawing Ohio's legislative districts next year as the head of the Apportionment Board.

That exercise - a once-in-10-years affair - involves the redrawing of electoral boundaries to reflect population changes.

The process has been criticised as a form of gerrymandering, and having a Republican in charge of the process means it markedly improves the party's chances of upending Mr Obama in Ohio, and - assuming history repeats itself - the country, in the next presidential election.

In the wake of the red tidal wave that swept Republicans into power in the US House of Representatives across the country on Nov 2, Ohio's Mr John Boehner, 61, was also elected the next Speaker of the House. He takes over from Democrat - and powerful Obama ally - Nancy Pelosi when the new Congress is sworn in next month.

So how did things come to this?

Put simply: jobs.

As states across the nation weathered the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, hundreds of thousands of Ohioans lost their jobs during Mr Strickland's four years as governor.
The state's jobless rate was 5.5 per cent in September 2006, when only 328,000 were unemployed, according to Department of Job and Family Services data. By March this year, unemployment had doubled to a 26-year high of 11 per cent.

The final snapshot of Ohio's job market before election day last month showed the state's unemployment rate had improved to 10 per cent in September. That was too little, too late to save the jobs of Mr Strickland and many other Democrats in the state.

While the media loudly blamed the seismic shift on 'voter anger', Chris and Kelly looked more defeated than upset at politicians as they loaded their modest Chevy with groceries in the cold rain outside the Parma Hunger Centre.

In fact, Kelly did not even have time to vote for his Republican Party candidates; he wound up working from 5.30am until 8pm on election day, and did not get home until the polls had closed.
Mr Kevin O'Brien, the conservative columnist for The Plain Dealer, Cleveland's nationally respected newspaper, told The Straits Times that he blamed the Troubled Asset Relief Programme (Tarp) and 'Obamacare'.

He was referring to Mr Obama's decision to pour dollars that came out of the pockets of ordinary taxpayers into Tarp which rescued rich banks and financial institutions, and to focus on health-care reform rather than addressing the plight of Americans struggling to make ends meet.

'If the Democrats had waited two years to play for the big-government jackpot, they would not now be facing a huge turnover in state legislatures and governorships from November's election, which will lead to a decade of congressional districts drawn to suit Republicans,' he said.

'Tarp alone might not have cost the Democrats much, in Ohio or elsewhere. Forcing the issue on unpopular health-care reform will cost them for quite a while, though.'

Over at the Hunger Centre, Kelly refused to point fingers at either political party for his own problems, in effect showing his Republican side by accepting responsibility for them.

But he said: 'I've always noticed when the Republicans are in office, at the presidential level, I wind up making more. My raises are better. I take home more in my pay cheques.'

Sentiment like that, in a kingmaker state where making ends meet is more of a struggle than it usually is, and where Republicans hold the power to rezone polling districts, will mean the results of the mid-term elections could resonate all the way to 2012.

And Mr Obama may well pay the price then.

Voters reject tax raise for schools

VOTERS in Ohio are so angry, they are willing to mortgage the future.

The instinctive Republican anti-tax mentality kicked in during last month's elections, and the target was schools.

During the polls, Parma voters rejected a tax increase for their city's public schools - for the seventh straight time. That will leave a system that is already on life support with a US$3.7 million (S$4.9 million) deficit next year.

In the Cleveland area alone, 41 school districts asked parents for more money to help them keep up with rising costs on the mid-term ballot on Nov 2. All but two went down in flames.
Foreign analysts wondering why the United States no longer leads in many areas of education need look no further than places like Parma.

The city has already slashed US$18 million from its budget and closed three primary schools. It has eliminated so many courses that students spend a large part of their school days in study halls, say some parents.

A campaign in the affluent Brecksville-Broadview Heights school district saw signs on lawns in both cities begging people to give their school system - which had been ranked third in the entire district - the thumbs up. No dice. Voters rejected calls for a school levy for the second straight time.

West of Cleveland, the city of Lorain has been begging residents to approve school funding for almost 20 years, to no avail. In last month's polls, 56 per cent of the residents again voted no.

Yet the tax increases asked for in such issues are far below tuition fees for private schools in the region. The suburb of Garfield Heights, for instance, asked for the area's biggest hike. It would have cost residents there another US$273 a year in property taxes per US$100,000 home valuation - and few homes there are worth that much.

Even in Hudson, a lush wealthy suburb south of Cleveland, people who can afford million-dollar mansions and Porsches refused to shell out another cent for their children's education.

They nixed a tax levy although the school district has already made US$8.8 million in budget cuts since 2006 and teachers agreed to freeze their wages.

In Medina, residents voted down a school levy for the third straight time.

Afterwards, the system's superintendent, Mr Randy Stepp, said: 'Based on my conversations with people, there's a lot of unhappiness out there with government, and the only place people really get a chance to voice their opinion is locally, which hits the schools.'


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