For group of undecided voters from Valley, presidential race is all about the economy

Undecided Voters - Week 1

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The Undecideds: 5 Mahoning Valley Residents discuss their uncertainties of which future President they want in the White House; Democratic Senator Barack Obama or Republican Senator John McCain.

Brandi Williams

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The Undecideds

Larry Tropepe

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The Undecideds

Bill Sutherin

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The Undecideds

Mary Lou Hoon

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The Undecideds

By David Skolnick

BOARDMAN — They’re undecided, but they’re quite informed.

They’re five Mahoning Valley residents ranging from a college senior to a retiree. One recently lost his job while another is searching for a second job to make ends meet.

While they have differences, they agree on one thing: They don’t know who’ll get their vote in the presidential election.

Brought together by The Vindicator, five members of “The Undecideds” are meeting once a week this month. They met for the first time earlier this week at a round table munching on finger foods at the Youngstown Sports Grille in Boardman.

They’re discussing the issues important to them — and to many voters — that will ultimately lead to decisions on voting for Democrat Barack Obama or Republican John McCain.

When it comes to their issue of greatest concern, the five all had the same answer: the economy.

The nation’s troubled economy affects The Undecideds in different ways.

“We’ve been in a tailspin since Sept. 11, 2001; we haven’t recovered,” said Larry Tropepe, a 49-year-old Austintown resident who took a buyout from his job at a bank that is reducing employees because of economic problems. “It’s gotten worse.”

The current economic climate is worse than Black Monday, he said.

On Sept. 19, 1977, known as Black Monday, Youngstown Sheet and Tube closed a large portion of its mills, laying off thousands of workers and signaling the beginning of the end of the steel industry in the Mahoning Valley.

Mary Lou Hoon, a 66-year-old Struthers woman who works for a law firm, is worried about her pension.

“It’s in the stock market,” she said of her pension. “When that goes down so does my pension. That’s a big concern of mine.”

Brandi Williams, a 26-year-old Boardman woman who works as an administrative assistant, is struggling to make ends meet. Williams wonders how she’ll pay her mortgage.

She’s searching for a second job and says others in the 18-to-30 age bracket are doing the same.

“I can’t even find a second job,” Williams said. “That’s kind of scary to me.”

Bill Sutherin, 61, of East Palestine, a retired Ohio Department of Transportation employee, recently paid off his mortgage. While personally financially stable, Sutherin marvels that his gas bill is sometimes as much as his mortgage payments used to be.

“How do people find the money to pay their bills?” he asked.

Greg Mook, a 21-year-old Youngstown State University senior who wants to work in youth ministry after graduating, said he wants to hear more details from the two major party candidates on their economic plans.

The five said the war in Iraq is a solid No. 2 when it comes to the most important issue in this election. While opinions vary on the war, they agree that it is time to bring the troops home.

“I believe we were there for the right reasons at first, to make the Iraqis free,” Mook said. “I also agree we’ve overstayed. It’s time to stop spending our money there in a cause that should have been over long ago.”

The United States needs to have some presence in Iraq, but most of the troops need to come home, Hoon said.

Tropepe, who served seven years in the Army, said there’s no “clear-cut goal for our troops,” and they need to leave Iraq.

Williams joined the military shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Williams, who never served in Iraq, said the country’s military accomplished a lot there.

“It’s time to come home,” she said. “We’ve kind of overstayed our welcome there. With our economy failing, we now need to go home.”

The five also said they’re concerned about health-care coverage.

It’s directly affected at least three of the group’s members.

Tropepe lost his wife to brain cancer. Thankfully, he said, they had a good health-care plan because in just five months, her costs were $500,000. A 30-day supply of one pill she took cost $6,400, he said.

Without insurance, “financially, I would have been gone,” Tropepe said.

Williams’ sister has cancer and doesn’t have health insurance.

“I have family members who don’t have health care,” she said. “I want a clear picture of health care [plans from the candidates] and how am I going to take care of my family.”

Hoon’s brother died four or five years ago from heart failure.

“He couldn’t afford to buy his prescriptions,” she said. “It got to the point where he was trying to keep food on the table for his children and grandchildren. He waited too long and he didn’t have enough money to buy his medications. He waited too long and, as a result of not taking his medication, he developed other serious problems and eventually died.”

With the economy so important to the group, social issues such as abortion are of little importance to its members when voting for a president. The five say there is no one issue they’d consider a “deal killer” for their vote.

“One issue isn’t a factor,” Mook said.

“I used to think that if someone was pro-abortion that would be a deal killer for me,” Williams said. “I’m learning with this election that there’s so much more than one issue.”

Added Sutherin: “I might agree with Republicans on cultural issues more than I might agree with the Democrats. But what good are the culture issues if all of these other issues affect us? Maybe if this was a prosperous economy I might go with the cultural issues.”

The group also isn’t concerned about the level of experience of either candidate.

“Experience of the candidates isn’t a real issue to me,” Hoon said.

All remain undecided with less than a month from Election Day.

So whom are they leaning toward?

For Mook, it’s Obama, who impressed him in the first presidential debate, but not enough for him to no longer be undecided.

Tropepe is impressed with Obama’s grasp of foreign issues. Because McCain is a veteran, like him, Tropepe is leaning slightly toward the Republican.

After the first presidential debate, Hoon was leaning toward Obama. After the vice presidential debate between Democrat Joe Biden and Republican Sarah Palin, Hoon was leaning toward McCain. Now she’s “back in the middle.”

Williams also leaned toward McCain after the vice presidential debate, though she can’t say why.

“But I’m back in the middle,” she said.

Sutherin isn’t leaning in either direction.

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