Saturday, Jun 23, 2018
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Blue Ashtabula turns Republican red

Coal’s decline helps swell rolls of GOP

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    The coal and iron ore industry in Ashtabula has fallen on hard times. Voters appear to be drawn to GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump’s tough stance on trade.

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    City Manager Jim Timonere says he once could predict the winner of Ashtabula County. This year he says he’s not so sure as Republican Donald Trump attracts angry voters.

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    Tim Bucci and Bob DiDonato talk politics at the counter as Gordon Schupska watches Fox News at the Lunch Box in Ashtabula, Ohio. Mr. DiDonato had nothing good to say about any of the candidates, while Mr. Schupska stood up for Democrat Hillary Clinton.

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Last in a 5-day series.

ASHTABULA, Ohio — Saddled up at the bar of the Lunch Box breakfast diner, Gordon Schupska, Bob DiDonato, and Tim Bucci fixated on the television.

Pundits on Fox News Channel were discussing Hillary Clinton’s email case and how a nonindictment would affect her presidential campaign. It took all of three seconds for Mr. Schupska, 62, and Mr. DiDonato, 79, to begin a colorful conversation with raised voices.

“I’m a Democrat all the way,” Mr. Schupska said.

“I hate everyone from both parties,” Mr. DiDonato fired back.

PHOTO GALLERY: Ohio Hometowns Left Behind: Ashtabula

On this day, the conversation came to a peaceful resolution. In a campaign season where insults are in vogue, civil discourse has gone the way of the ivory-billed woodpecker: It’s extinct.


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

■ Monday: Coshocton, in Coshocton County

■ Tuesday: Marietta, in Washington County

■ Wednesday: Greenville, in Darke County

■ Today: Ashtabula, in Ashtabula County

“What Donald Trump has said is wrong,” said Mr. Schupska, who now works at a Walmart after retiring from a state job. “Do we need a man like that in office? When Bill [Clinton] was president, the economy was up and the deficit was down.”

Ashtabula, a classic Rust Belt city on the shores of Lake Erie, is home to coal and iron production, and the Port of Ashtabula became a major shipping and commercial center in the 20th century. The union town is shaded dark blue — the last Republican to win Ashtabula County was Ronald Reagan in 1984.

But the times they are a changin’. The blue-collar Mahoning Valley, which encompasses part of Ashtabula County, was ground zero of what politicos call the “Trump Effect.” Statistics from the Ohio Secretary of State’s Office show that more than a quarter of GOP voters in Ashtabula, Mahoning, and Jefferson Counties had been Democrats. The crossover votes gave Mr. Trump resounding victories.

The Mahoning County Democratic Party removed 18 of its precinct committee members for voting Republican in the last primary.

Some voters took Republican ballots to block Mr. Trump, but a wide majority support the businessman. He defeated Ohio Gov. John Kasich by nearly 1,000 votes, or 6 percentage points, in Ashtabula County. Mr. Trump recorded about 800 more votes than Mrs. Clinton.

Republican voting rolls swelled by nearly a million statewide. There are 2.2 million registered Republicans in Ohio compared to 1.4 million Democrats. About 115,000 Republicans had been Democrats.

Mr. Trump’s tough stance on trade appeals to manufacturing towns in the Mahoning Valley and Appalachia, whereas his rhetoric could turn away Republican voters in suburban communities.

“It’s going to be up to the parties to see who gets their base energized to vote on election day,” said City Manager Jim Timonere, 39. “We hear here, ‘Are we picking between the lesser of two evils?’ In years past, I could tell you definitely who would win [the county]. I can’t do that this year.”

Norfolk Southern closed its Ashtabula coal pier three days before Christmas in 2015, shifting operations to Sandusky. It’s caused a $100,000 hit to the city’s general fund. Norfolk Southern says they’re idling, not closing the Ashtabula pier. But Mr. Timonere doesn’t expect it to reopen.

FirstEnergy also closed a coal-fired power plant in Ashtabula last year. Altogether, the area has lost hundreds of jobs since the recession. Fingers are often pointed at the Environmental Protection Agency, which designated the Ashtabula River and harbor as a Superfund site, cleaning up toxic waste and dredging the river in 2012 through 2014.

“Unfortunately, with new federal regulations regarding coal and Canada’s decrease in demand, the market has been impacted severely,” Mr. Timonere said.

Ashtabula County’s unemployment rate is 5.6 percent, down from 16.2 percent in January, 2010.

“When I go out and talk to manufacturers, yeah, they’re hiring, but they’re not taking that leap,” Mr. Timonere said. “Yeah, they want to expand, but they want to test that market a little bit longer. We’re on the cusp.”

Mr. Timonere, a Democrat, remains undecided, though he said he’s leaning toward Mrs. Clinton.

The decision has been made by Dan Hrabak, who runs a charter boat company at Ashtabula Yacht Club.

“I don’t like our President right now,” the 60-year-old Republican said. “I think he’s messed up a lot of things. I support Trump more than Hillary. Hillary would be in prison if she was you or me.”

Mr. Hrabak’s wife, Judy, also 60, has opposing views on Mr. Trump.

“I don’t like what he says about women,” said Mrs. Hrabak, a Democrat. “He needs to tone it down a whole lot. This election is going to be a tough one. Hillary is always scary.”

“It’s the worst election I can remember,” Mr. Hrabak added.

A psychologist, Brenda Ellner, may be one of the few people who can decipher all the madness. Ms. Ellner, an independent, wants someone in the White House with wisdom and generosity. The antipathy and name-calling of the primary season wore down on her, and according to polls, most of the country agrees.

“We need to figure out a way to have a country come together again and understand that we’re all in this together. I care about the issues, not statements,” said Ms. Ellner, 70.

She believes President Obama is leaving the country in a good place and shares many of the same concerns as Mrs. Hrabak regarding Mr. Trump.

“Donald Trump is not an authentic person,” Ms. Ellner said. “He has no plan. He’s unkind, he’s rude, and he’s certainly racist, not just against men, blacks, and Hispanics, but also women. I can’t see why any woman in the country would want him to be president.

“There’s just no question that Hillary Clinton will bring our country to a new place. It’s time to have a woman. We’ve never had a woman, and this is the most experienced woman we could ever find. I can’t wait to have her as president.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Daniel Anderson. The 28-year-old independent is a proponent of legalized marijuana — “DUIs are way worse, yet America supports alcohol. It’s backwards” — and a strong critic of U.S.-led wars. He’s also a supporter of Mr. Trump.

“America needs a change. It could be really good or really bad,” Mr. Anderson said. “The war on terror is a never-ending struggle. We’ve spent billions of dollars and haven’t gotten anywhere. You’re never going to win.”

The divide, lack of professionalism, and Twitter rants are a side of Mr. Trump that makes Mr. Timonere shake his head. In that same discussion, he allows that his wariness of all politicians has become evident.

“The buzzwords in every election at any level are health care, education, and jobs,” Mr. Timonere said. “Yet, with all the people who have been elected, health care, education, and jobs have never been fixed.”

The patrons at the Lunch Box might have the answers.

Contact Kyle Rowland at:, 419-724-6282, or on Twitter @KyleRowland.

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