Bush's Stumping Grounds

Election '04

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 has 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:

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 has 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 have 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 have 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.

The local Wal-Mart anchors Belden Village, a shopping-mall tract in Canton that is nothing like a village. Rather, it's a shiny, nondescript collection of freeway-close, bustling suburban discount outlets and chain restaurants. Business booms here, even if these are minimum-wage jobs. It's likely that discounts are at a premium if you're one of some 1,000 laid-off Hoover employees. A Rubbermaid plant shed 850 more jobs. And the work at Ansell Healthcare's surgical-glove factory, with 100 jobs, departed nearby Massillon for Malaysia and Sri Lanka. World Kitchen will shift operations overseas in September. That's another 200 jobs.

Meanwhile, it's high times in the Timken corporate suite. In July, the company reported record sales of $1.1 billion for the second quarter. That's up 14 percent over the prior year; first half sales are up 22 percent. Such performance has propelled Timken into the Fortune 500.

But the fun doesn't end there. Tim Timken is a leading fund-raiser for Bush's re-election campaign. He also co-chaired international fund-raising for the George Bush Forty-One Endowment Campaign, hauling in $55 million for the first president Bush's charitable fund – $25 million more than the goal.

To celebrate, Timken took a seat of honor at a June bash in Houston for George H.W. Bush's 80th birthday. Larry King emceed, No. 43 was the family spokesman, and performers included Wynonna Judd, Michael Smith, Tommy Tune, Crystal Gayle and comedian Dennis Miller. Tim Timken also serves as a director of Diebold Incorporated, based in North Canton, whose electronic voting machines have become an election issue. It was Diebold's CEO who famously promised last year to deliver Ohio for George W. Bush. Diebold insists this politicking has nothing to do with the function of its voting machines.

During his Canton swing, Bush hobnobbed graciously with the carefully screened Timken employees on his bus. Other than the driver and two aides, it was just Bush and the workers. What he said to the workers went unreported, except in a small local paper that tracked down two of them. The Weekly separately located Chancelor Wyatt, a Timken marketing manager who was among the privileged 10.

"He kind of mentioned that he knows our company is in a weird situation," said Wyatt, whose own job is not in danger, "but he was reassured that things were going in the right direction."

When asked about how he would help the economy, Bush talked about limiting the power of attorneys to sue, because that was driving up the cost of business. And he talked about keeping taxes low.

Wyatt, 30 and the father of two young boys, considers himself an independent-minded Republican. He already was leaning toward supporting the president, and nothing on that bus changed his mind. "He makes you feel very welcome," Wyatt said. "Whenever he had a chance to laugh, he would. You go from saying Mr. President to almost saying George, like he's your next-door neighbor."

Bush wore a blue dress shirt with no tie. His sleeves were rolled up. He offered the workers coffee. The inside was like a comfy RV – with the presidential seal slapped on the back wall and bulletproof glass.

The bus ride ended at the Canton civic center. Bush's warm-up speakers included Stark County Auditor Brant Luther, who labeled the politics of John Kerry as "radical left wing."

Luther was less worked up, and a little apprehensive, when he spoke to the Weekly this summer at the annual Martin Luther King Jr. parade in Alliance, a town of 24,000 half an hour's drive from Canton. "Voters should make a separation and realize that Timken has very specific issues with their labor contract and Hoover had very specific issues with their stockholders," said Luther, a friendly, husky 30-year-old who is something of a rising political star locally. "It has the potential to be a problem if voters automatically blame the person sitting at the top for what is happening at the local level. Hopefully, people will look a little further than just that."

Just east of here is Youngstown, a steel city whose Black Monday was September 19, 1977, when the Lykes Corporation, parent of Youngstown Sheet and Tube, announced the closing of the Campbell Works. Four other major factories had closed by the end of 1981. One of them, McDonald Mills, had been a company town, with a company-built hospital, school and jail. Some 25,000 jobs in the Youngstown area vanished into history, most of them during the Democratic Carter administration.

Which didn't hurt Ronald Reagan a bit when he asked: Are you better off than you were four years ago?

In the 1980s, the industry and its workers just weren't prepared for modernization, automation and inevitable foreign competition, said steelworker Terry Williams, 40, who has held onto his job at a surviving, smaller plant in Alliance. Williams supports Kerry but allows that no president could have stopped much of what happened here. The reactions of local officials and companies either exacerbated the decline or helped usher in new jobs and industries to cushion the blow.

Both trends are evident in Alliance, site of the King parade, where three- and five-story vintage brick buildings beckon with possibilities but not tenants. A thrift store featuring a "garage sale" hasn't bothered to remove the obsolete Sears nameplate from out front. Scattered antique shops are giving it a try, so too a coffee shop, which also dabbles in wedding cakes. There was scarcely a trickle of street traffic on a recent Saturday afternoon, and no pedestrian in sight entering the handful of bars, the storefront church, or the thrift stores. The big bank building has become low-income housing. Mt. Union Theater opens up on Fridays and Saturdays at 8:15 p.m., where you can watch Bugs Bunny followed by "Pirates of the Caribbean," last year's hot flick, for $3.

But there's also a smattering of upbeat news. A company that makes rail-car undercarriage parts has opened in what was once a larger steel plant, after a steelworkers' local made concessions. Two companies have moved into Alliance's new light-industrial park. And Terry's Tire Town decided to keep its regional headquarters local. The lures were tax-incentive packages crafted and approved by the mayor and by city council members of both major parties.

"It's the local people who make this country work," said Luther, the Stark County auditor. "Government can get in the way or it can get out of the way. I'm a little disturbed at the way I hear John Kerry say that government is going to do this.

"This country was built on ingenuity and entrepreneurship," he added. "If Wal-Mart isn't working for you, start a business. When I was a kid I wanted to earn some money. Mom and Dad didn't have an allowance. They didn't hand me money. So I set out a sign by the curb and said, 'Car wash for a dollar,' and I had them lined up for four cars deep."

Of course, the president's choices do play a role. Pulitzer Prize-winning economist Joseph E. Stiglitz, a Clinton adviser, leveled sharp criticism at some Clinton policies, but he's much more critical of Bush.

"Rather than giving large tax cuts to the rich, there were policies which would have stimulated the economy – more quickly, more surely and providing more bang for the buck," writes Stiglitz in his new book "The Roaring Nineties." "We know how to create a powerful and effective tax stimulus. Give money to those who will spend it, and spend it quickly: the unemployed, the cities and states that are starving for funds, and low-income workers." Bush, he says, "was interested in one thing: a tax cut, one that not only helped those who had already done so well in the Roaring Nineties but [that] was beyond what the country could afford."

The household of Wyatt, the Timken employee, is as divided as the country. His wife supports Kerry, even though she attended the Bush rally for the experience. For his part, Chancelor Wyatt would happily visit the Kerry bus as well. "I would ask him questions," he said. "I feel probably every person is a nice person when you get to know them. I would love to do it, just to get a sense of both sides."

The way things are going in Ohio, he may yet get that chance.

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