Second in a 5-day series.
COSHOCTON, Ohio — If you walk up a flight of stairs at Coshocton City Hall, housed in an old grammar school erected in 1888, and take a right turn, you end up in Mayor Steve Mercer’s office.
Behind his desk sits a gadget that all politicians covet, especially in this wacky and wild 2016 campaign season — a magic wand.
“When you run into trouble, politicians need a magic wand,” he said, waving the 2-foot bedazzled creation.
IN PICTURES: Coshocton’s residents disenchanted
Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton might soon be giving the three-term mayor a call. In the annals of American politics, few electorates have entered the general election more disenchanted and vexed as 2016.
Count Coshocton’s 11,088 residents among them.
“We’re part of that American landscape that’s angry because we’ve had a lot of industry leave here,” said Mr. Mercer, a Republican, who supported Gov. John Kasich in the presidential primary. “I believe that the economy is the No. 1 issue. We’ve had a great industrial base for years. To have plants like General Electric and Lancaster Colony close, a latex-glove plant close, a paper mill close. It’s hard.”
The city’s industrial base has been hit hard. Thousands of jobs have been lost to plant closings — General Electric, Lancaster Colony, Pretty Products, WestRock paper mill, Shaw-Barton, Edmont. They’re all gone. All that remains are warehouse carcasses. And in many cases, the buildings are gone as well.
Blade reporter Kyle Rowland visited five Ohio cities in recent weeks to take the pulse of voters.
They live in communities that continue to struggle economically, a contrast to the Gov. John Kasich pitch that Ohio is prosperous again.
The towns include:
■ Sunday: Fremont, in Sandusky County.
■ Today: Coshocton, in Coschocton County
■ Tuesday: Marietta, in Washington County
■ Wednesday: Greenville, in Darke County
■ Thursday: Ashtabula, in Ashtabula County
Even Coshocton Town and Country Club, where presidents have slept, has been bulldozed. The dearth of management positions in the city caused money for club memberships to dry up. The site is now a fledgling housing development.
Coshocton’s unemployment rate is 6 percent, above the state and national average of about 5 percent.
“Voters have lost faith in our current system,” said John Larson, 67, who owns the Warehouse Steak n’ Stein restaurant in historic Roscoe Village, a restored Erie Canal town in Coshocton.
The Annin Flagmakers, with one of its plants located in the city, is the world’s largest producer of Old Glory. The flag that draped Abraham Lincoln’s body, the flag on the moon, and the flag raised at Iwo Jima were all Annin flags.
And this election unlike any other has been good for business.
“This is an unusually busy year,” said Dave Rogers, 63, the plant’s director of operations. “They keep asking for more flags.”
Downtown Coshocton, with its stately architecture, could be a stage set for middle America. The vacant storefronts only add to the picture of what small Midwestern cities have become. The loss of manufacturing jobs and stagnant wages have taken their toll.
Twenty-five percent of Coshocton’s residents work in manufacturing — the city is home to one of the country’s largest bacon-manufacturing plants — and half the city earns less than $35,000 per year. It’s one reason why methamphetamine has entered the area and how a region on the fringes of Appalachia resembles the stereotypes of West Virginia.
“We need more stores and more people to move in here,” said Beth Wallace, 58. “Get [downtown] back to the way it used to be. We need more work. You need the income, you need the people working in order for these businesses to survive. You just don’t have the money around here anymore.”
Ms. Wallace, a political independent, worked at Pretty Products before it closed in 2008, wiping out hundreds of good-paying jobs. She can now be found helping a friend who owns Treasure Hunt, a downtown antiques store.
“How do you get another job? Who’s going to hire you at my age? All you know is labor work,” she said. “I feel like I’m too old to go back to school. Everything is so advanced now. Kids know more than I do [about computers]. It’s very hard, and it is very scary.”
With his assault on NAFTA and unfair trade deals, Mr. Trump carried 29 of Ohio’s 32 Appalachian counties in the primary election. The common theme is lost union jobs in manufacturing, mining, and steel. The isolated and economically depressed counties also voted in large numbers for insurgent candidates George Wallace and Ross Perot.
Mr. Trump defeated Mr. Kasich by 128 votes in Coshocton County, though Mr. Kasich won the statewide vote by about 11 percentage points. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton defeated Sen. Bernie Sanders 53 percent to 44 percent in Coshocton County. But she only tallied 1,377 votes compared with Mr. Trump’s 2,806.
“What you hear on the national news about the gridlock of Washington, people here are really jilted toward politics,” Mr. Mercer said. “And when you speak about jobs, and especially blue-collar jobs, those masses are looking for whoever can provide change to bring those jobs back.”
The WestRock closing created a $1.2 million shortfall in annual revenues because the city processed up to 6.3 million gallons of water each day when the mill was operating. That number was cut in half with its closure in November, causing water rates to rise 34 percent.
“It’s quality of life — how can the quality of life be improved?” said Mr. Larson, an independent. “What I mean by that is quality of life could be streets, sidewalks, and lighting; quality of life could be recreation; quality of life could be schools. If we improve the quality of life of people, then the quality of the world will change.”
He said he will support Mr. Trump despite having fears about some of the businessman’s rhetoric. It’s the business experience that steers Mr. Larson in Mr. Trump’s direction.
“People see that he can create jobs. He’s not afraid to protect the country” Mr. Larson said. “Right now, he’s what this country needs.”
Mr. Mercer concurs.
“We are a global economic community, as evidenced by our industry, who owns them, where they are controlled,” he said. “Decisions that are made to close plants are not done down the street by people that we know. They are made in boardrooms that make it very easy to say, ‘Close it.’ Someone who has international business experience absolutely makes him better candidate. That is, hands down, [Mr. Trump’s] strongest point to offer.”
Cord Stottlemire, who after just six months on the job at WestRock, discovered the realities of the work force when he was laid off. The 20-year-old, now a blacksmith in Roscoe Village, stands behind Mr. Trump on gun control, minimum wage, and immigration.
“I’m real big into pro-gun,” said Mr. Stottlemire, a Republican. “Gun control is OK up to a certain limit. But there are always going to be guns. If they outlaw them, people can still get them. And raising the minimum wage is just going to cause inflation and cause a big mess. I like Trump’s idea, not necessarily of the wall, but shipping the illegals back. If they want to get a green card, work, and pay taxes, I’m all for that.”
But for some, the name-calling and perceived racism is too much to overcome.
“I don’t want Trump,” Ms. Wallace said. “The things he says bother me a lot. He’s in the dark ages. He’s very much against women. He’s said one too many things. Like I tell my grandkids, once that fly is out of your mouth, there isn’t any grabbing it and shoving it back in. Anybody and everybody who hears it, isn’t going to forget.”
As an elected official, Mr. Mercer is acutely aware of the complexities officeholders face. He is also mindful of reality and uncompromisingly high expectations.
“It’s not quite as dramatic as it is portrayed,” Mr. Mercer said. “Oh, my gosh, if this person’s elected, the sky will fall, or the clouds will part and the sun will come out. There are a lot of other factors involved.”