ELYRIA, Ohio — You’ll find the regulars gathered in the mornings at Donna’s Diner in downtown Elyria.
They sit at a long table in the front of the restaurant, chatting over coffee, eggs, and pancakes, and several copies of the Elyria Chronicle-Telegram. With this mix of retirees, lawyers, salesmen, small business owners, and the occasional city councilman, the discussion sometimes turns to politics.
“I’m behind [Mitt] Romney, there’s no doubt about it,” said Peter Aldrich, 52, who said he is concerned with government spending and President Obama’s health-care law.
Another regular at Donna’s, Grove Rorick Amos, 86, a World War II veteran known to his friends as “Speedy,” also said the Republican has his vote. Mr. Amos considers himself a lifelong Republican and said this election won’t be any different.
Jack Baird, 64, an Elyria city councilman who stopped by to join the group later, said he believes President Obama’s policies have been harmful.
“We’re still spending money like we have it, and all we’re doing is borrowing it,” Mr. Baird said.
Judging by the morning crowd at Donna’s, you might think Elyria is a Republican town, but Mr. Romney’s supporters are in the minority here. Mr. Baird is one of only two Republicans on the 11-member Elyria City Council. The community hasn’t elected a Republican mayor since the 1970s.
In this city of just over 54,000 people in Lorain County, about 30 miles west of Cleveland, voters historically tend to support Democrats. Elyria residents supported Mr. Obama over John McCain by an almost 2-1 margin in 2008. The Democratic-leaning community also supported former Gov. Ted Strickland over challenger Republican John Kasich in 2010, though by a narrower margin.
Herb Delaporte, another regular at Donna’s, who runs an ambulance service in Lorain County, said Elyria and Toledo are similar cities.
“I think Elyria is a lot like Toledo,” he said. “We’ve lost tremendous amounts of brainpower over the years,” Mr. Delaporte said. “We’ve lost tremendous amounts of industry … the same problems that you have in Toledo, you would see in Elyria.”
Elyria’s challenges mirror those of many communities, Mayor Holly Brinda said. She characterizes her city as one that is transitioning from manufacturing to advanced manufacturing. Federal education and training funds being available for work-force development is key, Mrs. Brinda said.
“In Elyria, in all of Lorain County, where you’ve got a formerly very strong manufacturing base that is trying to transform itself into more of a strong advanced manufacturing base that is more high-tech, our community college plays a huge role in that. Work-force development and retraining are very important to our community’s ability to make that transformation,” the mayor said.
Major manufacturers in Elyria include chemical company BASF; manufacturer Ridge Tool; Invacare, which makes home and long-term-care medical products such as wheelchairs, and Diamond Products, which manufactures specialty saws and diamond blades.
“President Obama has made Lorain County a priority,” Mayor Brinda said, referencing Mr. Obama’s visit to Lorain County Community College in Elyria in April, as well as a stop at the school in January, 2010. Mr. Obama was also in Lorain County for a brief stop at Ziggy’s Pub in Amherst during a bus tour of northern Ohio in July.
Mr. Romney also made a campaign stop in Lorain in April. He visited the shuttered National Gypsum Co. factory, charging that the economy has not made a strong enough comeback under President Obama. The plant closed in June, 2008, because of the decline in the housing industry — six months before Mr. Obama took office.
“The one thing that came through very clear to me is the impact he [Mr. Obama] has had on funds being streamed into work-force development and retraining of a mature work force,” Mrs. Brinda said. “Lorain County Community College benefits from those programs that I believe will be at risk if he is not re-elected. That is a major concern here. We need the work-force development dollars here in the community to be able to make that transformation. He is the candidate that has assured us that that would happen.”
Mr. Obama’s visit to the community college earlier this year highlighted federal job-training funding for unemployed workers; a White House statement about the trip said the school and affiliated worker-retraining programs there benefited from $4.5 million in federal work-force investment funds in 2012.
During his 2010 visit, Mr. Obama also toured EMC Precision Machining, an 85-year-old company that produces complex precision components for machinery. He talked with workers and examined some of the products the firm produces.
Between 2001 and 2010, Lorain County lost 11,500 jobs overall, with the vast majority of those — more than 10,000 — being in the manufacturing field. The county still has a handful of large manufacturers — Ford Motor Co.’s Ohio Assembly Plant in Avon Lake makes the E-series van (formerly the Econoline) and in nearby Lorain, the steel industry still employs hundreds of workers.
Elyria also has benefited from federal stimulus funds, Mayor Brinda said; about one-third of the city’s fire department is currently being funded by a stimulus grant, though this will end in 24 months.
View of students
Over on the community college campus, several students said the President has their support.
Said student Brigette Jones: “If Romney wins, then it’s coming out of our pocket. [School] will be more money. People wouldn’t graduate on time.”
“I don’t like Romney,” said Tiffany Gonzalez, who works as a hotel clerk and is a former LCCC student who is hoping to re-enroll. “He wants to take Pell Grants away and that is very important to me.”
Without the federal Pell Grant, “How can I afford to go to college? My family can’t afford to send me. I can’t afford to send myself,” she said.
The college is critical to the community’s vision of its own future, said Andy Young, editor of Elyria’s local newspaper, the Chronicle-Telegram. Mr. Young’s family has been involved in running the paper for several generations; his grandfather bought an interest in the business in the early 1920s.
“[Lorain County Community College] has made an effort to find the next generation of jobs,” Mr. Young said. “It has made an effort to incubate tech companies. It has a tech park that it has established on the campus with companies it is nurturing. The hope long term is that this will provide the kind of decent middle-class employment [that] manufacturing used to provide so much of.”
‘Jobs are key’
What is the primary concern of Elyria residents and how will that be reflected in the election?
It all comes down to jobs — good-paying jobs, Mr. Young said.
“Jobs are key. A lot of people, if they still have a job, aren’t making as much as they used to. Even if they haven’t had a direct pay cut, they probably have experienced higher costs for health insurance. They are looking for who is the guy who is going to bring us out of this and help us establish a middle-class life here like we used to have, at least until the 1970s. Or is that something that’s ever coming back?”
That’s a question on many people’s minds.
Gail Cifranic-Mills, a retired nurse playing with her granddaughters in the children’s area at the Elyria Public Library’s West River ranch on a recent afternoon, said her biggest concern is unemployment. Her son was unemployed for about a year and it was difficult for him to find work, she said.
Ms. Cifranic-Mills said she’s torn as to how she will cast her ballot, however. On the one hand, as a Mormon, she says, “I know our values. I’m sure Mitt Romney is a very honest politician,” though she is quick to point out she would not vote for Mr. Romney simply because they share the same faith.
On the other hand, of Mr. Obama, she said, “I think he’s done a good job with what he’s had. I think he’s gotten a bum rap.”
Back at Donna’s, some of the diner’s other patrons echo concerns that typically favor Democratic candidates.
Retiree Johnny Carmello said he will likely support the President.
“I worry about other people more than myself,” he said. “The health-insurance issue is way out of hand. I feel sorry for people who have to pay for their own insurance and don’t have the money, people that have to pay for their own pharmaceuticals and don’t have the money.”
Health care and education issues are also key for Carmen Nagy.
“There’s so many people that don’t have health care in this country, that get turned down, that get turned away,” said Ms. Nagy, who does not work because of a disability. She intends to support Mr. Obama; she volunteered for his campaign in 2008. Giving everyone access to health care is the right thing to do, she said. “I believe to have a great country, people need to help each other.”
She also sees support for higher education as critical, as her daughter uses grants to attend college.
“Without an education, what can these young people do? Around here, there’s no jobs,” she said.
Contact Kate Giammarise at: email@example.com or 419-724-6091 or on Twitter @KateGiammarise.