First in a 5-day series
FREMONT — Josh Smith stood behind a barber chair and trimmed a customer’s beard.
The discussion centered on two popular topics: sports and politics.
In this northwest Ohio city of 16,301, nearly everyone has an opinion about the 2016 presidential election. Donald Trump is evil. Hillary Clinton is a liar. Donald Trump will bring change. Hillary Clinton is more qualified.
Welcome to Middle America, where sharp divisions on trade, homeland security, education, and entitlements reside.
The bellwether county of Sandusky and city of Fremont — home of the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center — rest in the epicenter of the nation’s political struggle.
“I don’t like either [candidate],” said Mr. Smith, 36, who’s owned A Cut Above Barber Shop for eight years.
That viewpoint is common.
PHOTO GALLERY: Our Hometowns Left Behind - Fremont
“I would vote for someone in a third party if they had a third party,” said Jim Swartz, 69, a retired Army sergeant. “I’m not very happy with the Democrats and I’m not real happy with the Republicans. It’s the same old story. They promise you everything and they never deliver.”
Anger has permeated from sea to shining sea throughout the 2016 election cycle. Many voters gravitated to U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and Mr. Trump — insurgent candidates who appealed to the anti-establishment — and a surge of support thrust Mr. Trump to take the reins of the Republican Party. This week in Cleveland, the combative businessman is expected to officially become the party’s nominee for president.
Mr. Smith, an independent, and Mr. Swartz, a Democrat, said they will support former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in November, but their anger and frustration is similar to the wave of discontent that’s swept the nation.
In some struggling Ohio towns like Fremont, the anger is even greater as they’re told — even by Ohio Gov. John Kasich — that the state is prosperous again, when they don’t see it.
Education and debt
Danny Sanchez heard it on the local level. Fremont’s youngest and first Hispanic mayor was elected in November with 58 percent of the vote, becoming the first Republican-elected mayor of Fremont since 1984. Economic development was central to his campaign.
“Being born and raised here in Fremont, I just didn’t feel like the city was heading in the direction that it needed to be,” said Mr. Sanchez, 33, who supported Gov. John Kasich in the primary. He is undecided on which candidate he will support in November.
Opinions on impactful issues are wide-ranging among Fremont residents. Mr. Sanchez, echoing Mr. Sanders’ rallying cry, is astonished at the plight of college students nationwide.
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:
■ Today: Fremont, in Sandusky County.
■ Monday: Coshocton, in Coschocton County
■ Tuesday: Marietta, in Washington County
■ Wednesday: Greenville, in Darke County
■ Thursday: Ashtabula, in Ashtabula County
“The biggest issue inside our country right now is education,” he said. “We’ve done a piss-poor job in our country of setting up all of these middle- to low income-class kids to fail. We’ve allowed middle-age America and Millennials, including myself, to get upside down in college debt. The job market isn’t supportive of people getting out of college. It isn’t fair that a 25- or 26- or a 30-year-old man or woman can’t buy a house because they’re $50,000 in debt. When the housing market crashed, you could go file bankruptcy and it was off your credit. They let corporate America control that. What about us? You can’t file bankruptcy on student debt.”
One-third of Fremont residents work in manufacturing. The H.J. Heinz Co. operates what is considered to be the world’s largest ketchup plant, which produces the equivalent of 4.1 million 14-ounce bottles every day. The city is also home to the Christy Co., Clauss Cutlery Co., Quikut, B.A.P. Manufacturing, and the Ginsu Cutlery Line and Herbrand tools.
In 1997, Pioneer Sugar closed its processing plant in Fremont. Hundreds of jobs went with it.
“The biggest problem is Fremont has lost a lot of industry and good-paying jobs,” said Justin Smith, who heads the Sandusky County GOP. “A lot of people have multiple jobs to make ends meet. We’ve lost those good-paying, industrial jobs that the middle class relied on. The big thing that attracts Donald Trump is NAFTA. The unions have opposed NAFTA and trade for years, and Hillary Clinton has supported it for years. Her husband signed it into law. When the unions and middle class look into Trump, he appeals to them.”
At the height of the recession, Fremont’s unemployment rate ballooned to nearly 12 percent. It’s since plummeted to 4.2 percent, below the state and national average. But residents insist that it hasn’t translated into growing bank accounts.
“It’s hard on senior citizens who are living on Social Security only. It’s rough,” said Norma Mowry, 72. “When you get this age, you shouldn’t have to work so hard to stay up with the economy.”
She retired from Whirlpool well into her 60s after the job became too difficult to perform. Ms. Mowry, a Trump supporter, worries her Social Security and other entitlements will be taken away. In Mr. Trump, she believes she’s found a Christian who will fight for average Americans.
“This country needs a lot of help,” said Ms. Mowry, a Republican. “Even though I think Trump has some faults, he’s got a backbone to him. What are you going to do for me, for Social Security, and for the older people? Instead of trying to take everything away from Social Security, it seems like they want the elderly people to get in a corner and pass away. I’m not saying give everything to them, but help them out.”
In a June poll conducted by Axiom Strategies, Mr. Trump is leading Mrs. Clinton among Sandusky County voters 39 percent to 34 percent, with Libertarian Gary Johnson polling at 8 percent. Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton are also battling unfavorable ratings in the county — 54 percent have a negative opinion of Mrs. Clinton and 46 percent have an unfavorable opinion of Mr. Trump.
“I know a lot of people don’t want Trump just because of his racism,” Josh Smith said. “He’s a loose cannon. He reminds me of Kim Jong Un. Once he gets power, it’s going to go to his head. He isn’t capable of running a country.”
In the primary, Mr. Trump had 4,204 votes compared with Mrs. Clinton’s 2,907 in Sandusky County, which has voted for the winning candidate in the past five elections.
“Every four years we hear the same thing from the candidates. Yet, the things they promise and the things they do always change,” Justin Smith said. “People are sick of that, and I think that’s why people like Donald Trump. He’s new and different. Hillary is someone who’s been around for 25 years.”
Hunter Andres, an 18-year-old college freshman, derides Mrs. Clinton’s trustworthiness, which contributes to her backing of Mr. Trump.
“You wouldn’t want your president to be sneaky about anything,” said Miss Andres, who’s attending the University of Akron to be a nurse. “You’d want to know what’s going on. Trump seems like he’s blunt about his intentions with anything and everything. He’s open about his goals and what he wants to do, and he has some valid points. But I don’t know if his tactics are right. He’s not very proper.”
Election season doubles as a tour de force of insults, and Mr. Trump has taken it to unprecedented levels. Even with his supporters, the attacks have missed their mark.
“There for a while it got so bad between all of them that it was like, ‘OK, when are you going to talk about what you can do for this country?’ ” Ms. Mowry said. “Quit mudslinging back and forth. I didn’t even want to listen to it.”
Mr. Trump has seized the platform afforded to him by his outsider rank.
The candidates are faced with an anxious and unrelenting electorate, with a majority of Americans believing the country is veering the wrong direction down a one-way street.
The displeasure began in Iowa and New Hampshire and has journeyed to the doorstep of Fremont.
As Josh Smith stood silent, trimming a Trump supporter’s sideburns, he couldn’t help but sneak in one last thought.
“[Politicians] have everything preplanned,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what regular people think. It has nothing to do with us.”
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