The Youngstown Effect

Youngstown is not only a focal point for the presidential candidates, but also for journalists.



YOUNGSTOWN — Like the Democratic presidential candidates, journalists from throughout the United States — and even those from other countries — have made the Youngstown area a destination in recent weeks.

They didn’t only come to report on visits by the Democratic presidential candidates.

Some focused on the economic plight of this “Rust Belt” area, critical to the presidential success of Democrats.

How important is the Mahoning Valley to the Democratic presidential campaigns of U.S. Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and Barack Obama, D-Ill.?

According to The New York Times: “Both campaigns are aware that winning the affection of Youngstown’s lunch-bucket voters and the party faithful can make all the difference in taking Ohio, a swing state whose delegates almost always wind up in the pocket of the candidate who takes the White House.”

It’s the Youngstown Effect.

Mahoning and Trumbull are two of the most Democratic counties in Ohio, long considered a bellwether state for the presidency. Historically, Democratic candidates do considerably better in the two counties in terms of voter percentage compared to the state.

For example, U.S. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, received 48.7 percent of the Ohio vote. In Mahoning, it was 62.6 percent and 61.7 percent in Trumbull. Kerry’s campaign was seeking 65 percent or better in the two counties.

“For as long as anyone here can remember, presidential hopefuls have made this scrappy, blue-collar stronghold an obligatory pit stop on the Democratic stump,” the Times article reads.

Richard Sisk, a Daily News of New York reporter based in Washington, D.C., said while visiting the Mahoning Valley, that the area is “indicative of what’s going on in the country. It’s the loss of jobs, the changing economy and everyone’s scared of health-care issues. Warren and Youngstown are a microcosm of what’s wrong with the country.”

Haynes Johnson, a Pulitzer Prize winning author of 14 books, is working on his 15th — co-authored by Dan Balz of the Washington Post — about the 2008 presidential election. He calls it “the most important election I can remember.”

Johnson, who worked for the Post and the former Washington Star covering every president since Dwight D. Eisenhower, picked one location in Ohio for the book — here.

Johnson, who’s been to the Valley before, said choosing Youngstown was easy.

While Michelle Obama was speaking in Warren, Johnson was talking to Valley residents about the primary and the region’s struggles.

“This area is a great American story,” he said. “The rise and fall of the steel industry. It’s an interesting tapestry of the country. It’s a great place to look at as an old manufacturing area and how it can come back. Overwhelmingly the country feels things are broken. There’s a hunger for change now. Youngstown is definitely part of that story.”

The book is to be published next year by Viking Penguin, he said.

Many of the newspaper articles and television pieces on the Mahoning Valley highlight the area’s struggling economy, particularly in Youngstown, its largest city.

Few are complimentary of the city’s appearance.

“The rusted carcass of the Republic Steel mill still stands watch over the Mahoning River, its skin faded by rain and snow, a winter wind blowing through long-shattered windows” is how a Chicago Tribune article about the area begins.

“Presidential candidates come to stand in its shadow in this once-humming capital of the steel industry to criticize outsourcing, attack trade deals and court the working-class voters of a city that doesn’t work nearly as much as it used to.”

Jim Tankersley, the Tribune reporter who wrote the article, came to Youngstown because the city “symbolizes what the candidates” say is wrong with the country’s economy.

That includes job declines brought on by trade deals, most notably the North American Free Trade Agreement, and outsourcing, particularly to China.

“The area is flush with the voters [the two Democratic presidential candidates] need: working class, lower class, lower-educated people,” said Tankersley, who’s familiar with the Valley. He was here in 2006 as a reporter covering statewide races for The (Toledo) Blade.

In the article, Tankersley wrote that the candidates don’t provide solutions for problems in this area, including “a lack of education, investment and marketable ideas.”

As Beth Gorham, a reporter for the Canadian Press, that country’s equivalent of the United State’s Associated Press, wrote of Youngstown: “If ever there was an American town where NAFTA elicits a four-letter word, this is it.”

In a piece for “Real Time With Bill Maher,” Matt Taibbi, a contributor to the HBO television show as well as contributing editor at Rolling Stone magazine, said of Youngstown: “This city is one of the most economically devastated in the country.”

Like others, Taibbi said those in the Valley are focused on trade issues. But he wasn’t terribly kind to locals who attended a Clinton rally.

“In a place where you’d think people would be more critical of anyone who’s ever supported a free trade agreement, Hillary Clinton comes in here tonight and she campaigns against the same agreements she’s voted for consistently ever since she’s been senator, and the crowd ate it up,” he said.

“So what does that tell you about presidential campaigning in this country? It really doesn’t matter what your record is. All that really matters is what you say on your stump speech.”

Today’s primary and Youngstown’s affect on the outcome has international interest as well.

ZDF German Television (German public TV) sent a crew, and the Norwegian Broadcasting Corp. recently sent its U.S. correspondent to Youngstown. Both have bureaus in Washington, D.C.

ZDF wanted to find a city in Ohio that was “hit hard by the economy,” said Dorothea von Trotha, a news producer.

“We have to show an area impacted by it,” she said. “We looked for areas that are neglected.”

When traveling through the city with a local reporter, a ZDF cameraman became excited when driving past abandoned industrial buildings.

ZDF had initially chosen Cleveland for its piece on Ohio.

Because the candidates and their surrogates had come to Youngstown and because the size of the city was “more manageable” compared to Cleveland, ZDF decided to come here, von Trotha said.

Tove Bjorgaas, Norwegian Broadcasting Corp.’s U.S. correspondent, came to Youngstown for the same reasons.

“It’s in the heart of the steel area,” she said. “It’s a very [economically] depressed place. ... Ohio is a magnified glass of the U.S., and Youngstown is one of its best examples. You can see what’s going on nationwide here.”

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