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Election Report: Ohio: Get the Jobs First, then Spend on Infrastructure

Thursday, October 14, 2010 - 02:08 PM

(Canton, Ohio — Andrea Bernstein, Transportation Nation) Once, people believed in Canton Ohio. Its Palace Theater hosts statues of gods and goddesses in the balcony boxes. Its Canton Tower has deco details like a mini-Rockefeller center. But now it’s mostly boarded up.

In the last decades, large employers have, one by one, pulled up stakes and left Canton, nestled where the cornfields begin to meet the Appalachian foothills. “Ford Company. Bliss Company. Hercules. Canton Stamping. Canton Provisions.” Alice Prestier, who worked at Hoover’s Vacuum (also gone) for 30 years, ticks off names. “There were a lot of companies around here. We lost them all. Everything is gone.”

Alice Prestier: "Where's the Change?"

Prestier is standing in the Walmart SuperCenter parking lot in Canton, after putting away her groceries. “People are just desperate. They want to eat. They want to feed their children. They want to take care of their families. It’s gotten to that place,” Prestier told me, recounting a story she’d just heard on the radio warning people to lock their cars when they bought groceries because people were roving the parking lots, looking for ways to feed their families.

Canton’s in Stark County, Ohio, a classic swing district. This county voted for Obama in 2008, Bush in 2000. In 2008, Democrat John Boccieri, a former state legislator and Air Force Major, won an open Congressional seat, after 18-term Republican Ralph Regula retired. Now Boccieri is struggling to retain his seat, in an environment where thinking for the long term seems next to impossible.

(Related story, on the Takeaway, with audio of interviews of Congressional candidates here.)

In Ohio, President Obama’s proposal to spend $50 billion on infrastructure seems almost quaint, from another era, like the Palace Theater. Tina Sherman, a laborer who still has a job – twelve hours a day, plus mothering three kids – tells me she doesn’t much believe in that kind of spending. “Nah. I don’t think we need the roads, ‘cause what good is a road gonna do if you don’t got a job to go to?”

But – what about the argument that good roads lure business? Does she believe that?

“Not really, I don’t think big companies care a damn about the roads. They care about their bottom line. That’s what they care about. That’s why they’re moving all the companies overseas, ‘cause labor is cheaper over there than it is here.”

And she’s a Democrat, voting for Boccieri.

John Boccieri, elected to Congress in 2008, backs infrastructure spending

Boccieri isn’t having it. He believes in infrastructure. In a debate, he mentioned the sexy subject of wastewater treatment several times. “There are some things the private sector won’t do,” he said. Building wastewater treatment plants is one of them. He believes in the stimulus bill, and ticks off some examples of how Ohio is benefiting from it. Photo-voltaic batteries, and biofuels. This is one of Boccieri’s favorite subject – clean energy jobs, lured to Ohio, that can’t be outsourced, as he says. That’s where the future of places like Canton lies, he says.

But a look at recovery.gov shows the problem. While some larger clean energy grants have come to Ohio — as has high speed rail — the area has mostly gotten a bunch of small grants, for schools, and city governments, and things that make the stimulus almost invisible.

Still, Boccieri argues: “we can’t afford not to” spend on infrastructure. After a small get-out-the-vote rally in Canton this week, Boccieri told me: “The Chinese in the next two years are investing $600 billion. We’re talking about an infrastructure plan over the next five to six years that invests about $500 billion back into crumbling roads and bridges. For every billion dollars that the government spends on these infrastructure projects…we can create up to 30,000 jobs. Plus, you know, we’re putting people to work, building roads and bridges and schools, that’s good for the economy.”

Why are people so cynical about that?

“I just think the climate and the mood in Washington have led people to this sojourn. You know, folks are upset and angry about their economic decisions. They’re making daily decisions, they’re using every last penny that they have to put bread on the table, and they see the fighting and the bickering that is happening in Washington, mostly from a party that has completely rejected any opportunity for bi-partisanship and working together. And they reject that.”

Pretty much.

A retired couple, who wouldn’t give their names, eating “coney island” hot dogs for lunch in the plaza in Canton just kind of snorted when I asked them about infrastructure spending. “You can’t hardly answer that with one answer,” said the gentleman of the couple. “You know, they should have been taking care of that all along. They sucked all the money out of it. They were supposed to be taking care of that in the first place. The roads were good when they gave them to them. Now they come running and say we need money to fix up what we were supposed to be taking care of..."

His wife interjected, “The high-speed train. You’re not for that, are you?”

“You’re thinking in slow motion,” he tells her.

What does she think? “I think it’s too slow.” Might be for it if it were faster.

But even that’s a hard sell. Mike Magill, a used car-lot owner, said he’s managing to eke out a living, but feels pretty strongly there should be less government.

What then, should government spend less on? Schools? Roads? Well, he believes in education. But as for roads: “I think there’s probably a lot of waste there. We need roads, but I see a lot of things, when they’re building roads, I don’t understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. I think they could probably do it for a lot less.”

So does Jim Renacci, the Republican businessman running against Boccieri.

“Let’s face it, he told me, in an interview in his office in a long low building just off a strip mall. “Infrastructure is something that is always needed and as I’ve talked to many road contractors, bridge contractors they say it’s there anyway. That’s always going to be a job, so it’s not job creating dollars. Those dollars are always required, we’re always going to need infrastructure.”

“I do believe in maintaining our infrastructure, but the problem is we can’t continue to spend and spend and spend. This now appears to be a new idea but quite frankly it's really the same idea:  let’s continue to spend money we don’t have, continue to borrow more money we don’t have, let’s continue to borrow money from China because we don’t have it, at some point in time we have to bring fiscal responsibility back to the federal government.”

Reel it back, is Renacci’s argument. Repeal health care, stop borrowing, have less regulation. Undo the past two years.

How will you govern, I ask Renacci, given the general hatred towards anyone in office? Is it enough just to say “No.”?

“A no vote is not an obstructionary vote,” Renacci says “It’s a vote for the American people right now. So when people are voting no, they’re not comfortable, and the American people aren’t comfortable with our direction.”

Magill didn’t vote for the Democrats in 2008, and he’s not ready to vote for Renacci now. But his parting words to me are such a turnaround from what voters told me in 2008, my head spins. “I think if we have a Democratic president and Republican congress, hopefully nothing will get done and that’s probably better than what’s getting done.”

The Palace Theater, by the way, was saved. With the wrecking ball poised to slam into it in 1980, the Canton Jaycees stepped in for a renovation. It now hosts old films, ballet, and the occasional political debate, like this week's face-off between Boccieri and the Libertarian candidate, Jim Blevins. Renacci, believing this particular event was stacked against him, chose not to attend.

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