Miller Brothers Construction colleagues Dennie Hines, left, Larry Winkleman, center, and Terry Moore, right, talk while they wait to pay for their lunches at Ickey's restaurant in downtown Archbold.
The Blade/Amy E. Voigt
First in a series
ARCHBOLD, Ohio — Archbold is and always has been a conservative community with a manufacturing base that belies its small town feel.
Storefronts line the town’s main strip, a family-owned motel on the north edge of town has a buzzing neon sign that welcomes weary travelers, and old farmers still regularly gather at their usual haunts to sip coffee and chew the fat over the topic of the day.
But factories such as Sauder Woodworking, ConAgra Foods, and Frozen Specialties employ thousands. And with about 4,300 residents, Archbold is one of the rare places where jobs outnumber people, though that’s less true than it used to be. Village officials figure the downturn cost Archbold 2,500 jobs, though they still count 5,000 to 6,000 jobs in the village.
Between its business background and strong church base, conservative values are nearly universal here.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney will probably carry this town and surrounding Fulton County. But he may not do it with much enthusiasm.
Teresa Baker has a Romney campaign sign stuck in her yard, but even she’s not completely sold on the former Massachusetts governor.
“I don’t totally trust Romney. I’m voting against Obama,” she said. “Obama scares me. I think you’re going find a lot of that in this town.”
Ms. Baker, who moved back to Archbold for a more conservative place to raise her children after living in California for 27 years, considers herself more of a Constitutionalist than a Republican. She dings President Obama for his argument that wealthy taxpayers should pay a little more, doesn’t like his stance on abortion, thinks he’s purposely creating a dependent nation, feels he’s weak on foreign policy, and is in her words a Muslim sympathizer who is apologizing for America’s positions.
In spite of all that, she doesn’t see a Romney presidency as much of an improvement.
“I think we’re going to get pretty much the same thing, with maybe a few more conservative values out of Romney,” she said.
Many voters — some willing to share their names, some not — echoed that. Mr. Romney might be the guy they vote for, but he didn’t seem to be the guy they wanted.
Chad Kern, another conservative voter who displays a Romney sign but also admits he isn’t a huge supporter of the man, believes a good government is a limited government: “Pave the roads, have good schools, have a good military, and get out,” he said.
One of his biggest concerns is the deficit, which he readily acknowledges has been run up by both parties. And he’s not happy with the lack of talk in this campaign about how to reduce it.
“No one’s said anything about the deficit, in both parties. I’m conservative more than Republican. I like Romney. I think he’s a good man, I think he’s probably a good father, which I think is a good backbone for president. And Obama probably is too, but I don’t agree with his beliefs on how things should be run.”
In 2008, Archbold voters favored Republican presidential candidate John McCain over Mr. Obama by more than a 2-1 margin, with Mr. McCain getting 1,484 votes to Mr. Obama's 729. Mr. McCain carried Fulton County 11,692 to 9,990.
David Pugh is the news editor of the Archbold Buckeye, a weekly paper published here since 1905. The area, he said, has always been conservative and probably always will be. Dislike of Obama — of which there’s plenty — ranges from people who see him as a bad president to people who just downright don’t like him and think his policy decisions stem from sinister motivations.
ABOUT THE VILLAGE
Founded in: 1866
Average age: 41
Major employers: ConAgra, Sauder Woodworking, Sanoh America Inc., Frozen Specialties Inc.
Unemployment rate: 6.8 percent
Registered Democrats: 114
Registered Republicans: 1,074
Registered Independents: 1, 901
Median household income: $46,280
How it voted: In 2008, Republican presidential candidate John McCain beat Democrat Barack Obama 1,484 to 729.
But mostly, Archbold’s voters are focused on business and the economy.
“We’ve always been a fiscally conservative area out here,” Mr. Pugh said. “I think people out here, a lot of them are farmers, ergo, they deal with business. There’s a lot of merchants in town. I think bottom line issues are going to be important out here.”
At Ickey’s restaurant, a popular hangout to get a burger or a beer, regular Chris Peterson is known as the guy to go to if you want to talk politics. So what does he think of the coming election?
“I don’t think much of it,” he said as he settled into his regular chair and reached for a pitcher of Miller Light being slid his way.
Mr. Peterson is strongly conservative and comes from a small business background. Like many people here, he believes he would be better off if government would get the heck out of the way. He has strong opinions, but he doesn’t let that overtake his sense of humor.
“I’ve known all along who I’m going to vote for. My mind is made up, so don’t confuse me with facts,” he said slyly with a smile.
Mr. Peterson, 75, is retired, but remains a partner at Stryker Steel Tube LLC, a company he started years ago in nearby Stryker, Ohio. As he sees it, the high cost of energy is what’s holding back the economy. He thinks the answer is not solar or wind, but domestically produced natural gas.
“We’re literally floating on lakes of natural gas,” Mr. Peterson said. “We’ve got pipelines that are not being put into place to a friendly country, Canada. That’s really ridiculous.”
About 15 percent of his company’s business comes from the automotive sector, but he’s no supporter of the bail out. He rattles off a long list of American car companies that didn’t survive: the REO Motor Car Company. Packard. American Motors. Studebaker.
“I’m a free enterpriser. We shouldn’t be picking businesses who live and who die,” he said.
Mr. Peterson is joined by longtime friend Ray Fruchey, a maintenance supervisor at Frozen Specialities Inc, a frozen pizza manufacturer on the east side of town. A self-identified independent, Mr. Fruchey voted for Mr. Obama in 2008 and said he’ll probably vote for Mr. Obama again.
He said he took offense to Mr. Romney’s characterization that nearly half the country is looking for a government handout.
“They’re on welfare for a reason: because there’s no jobs,” Mr. Fruchey said. “You’ve gotta have jobs to get people off welfare. There’s jobs out there, but if you’re going to make $7 an hour, you can’t hardly support yourself on $7 an hour.”
Though Archbold remains the job hub of Fulton County, the workers there took a hit just like most American workers did.
Mayor Jim Wyse said he uses receipts from the village’s 1.5 percent income tax as a barometer of how well the economy is moving. From 2008 to 2010, that fell more than 30 percent, he said. Though the recovery is moving slower than the downturn, things are turning around. Some employers are hiring again, albeit slowly. The Ohio Department of Job and Family Services said Fulton County’s unemployment rate fell to 6.7 percent in August, down from 7.8 percent in July and 8.1 percent in August, 2011
Joe Rocha, a 57-year-old union electrician who has lived in Archbold for the last 15 years, was one of those hit by the recession. He was out of work for a year and a half, and his wife Diana was forced to sell her struggling 13-year-old catering business.
"Just trying to keep ahead I was pulling money out of my retirement to keep her afloat," he said. "Times were hard, it affected everybody. A lot of [fellow union members], they had to pull money out of their retirement. But I think we’re on the right track.”
Mr. Rocha is back to work now, and he credits Mr. Obama for helping to move the economy in the right direction. He intends to vote for him again come November.
“You can see the Obama plan, the stimulus package, it’s helping a lot of roads in our county," he said. "They’re rebuilding a lot of roads that were pretty messed up.”
ProPublica reports Fulton County received more than $8 million for transportation projects from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
There are plenty of opinions around Archbold about Mr. Romney's now famous comments about 47 percent of Americans being reliant on government. Democrats saw it as proof that Mr. Romney doesn't understand - or care about - anyone but the upper class. Some conservatives say he was speaking the truth, and shouldn't be castigated for it. Others can appreciate the point, but said the delivery was poor.
There’s some up-from-the-bootstraps sentiment around, though many conservative voters wouldn’t dispute that there’s a share of people who could use some help to get back on their feet. What many do dispute is that government should have a big role in that.
Archbold has a homeless shelter, food pantries, and other privately funded outreach programs. The Zion Mennonite Church on Short-Buehrer Road has a free community dinner every Tuesday night.
Mr. Wyse said residents here take seriously the responsibility of helping the less fortunate. But they want it done outside of government.
“The best solution is hands-on, one-on-one attention,” he said. “Things being taken care of individually in local communities.”
Local businessman Ron Rupp comes at it the same way — he feels government should reign in spending, work to shrink entitlement programs, and default to churches and charity to care for the less fortunate.
“That’s one of the beefs I would step on the churches toes,” Mr. Rupp said. “They haven’t been doing the job they’re supposed to be doing.”
He feels too many churches in the U.S. put a greater emphasis on mission trips to faraway countries than to helping in their own communities. He praised the Cherry Street Mission in Toledo as one organization that’s doing it right.
Mr. Rupp also said he looks at candidates first based on moral issues. From a Christian perspective, he said there’s no way he could vote for Mr. Obama.
“Romney, for me as a Christian, he stands for the unborn child and he stands for traditional marriage,” he said. “Those are two important issues. Moral issues are going to be the first thing. If you’re off morally, the rest of it’s not going to matter.”
If you want to get the pulse of what’s going on in small town America, the local barber shop is a pretty good bet. One of those barbers is Lynn Seiler, who has been cutting hair for 29 years and splits her time between Archbold and Napoleon.
“We hear everything from cancer, to divorce, to politics, to what happened to their kids,” she said.
With the election looming, she hears plenty of gripes about Obama. But Ms. Seiler said there aren’t a lot of people singing the praises of Romney.
“I think there’s honestly a lot of people who are going to vote for [Obama] again because they don’t know what to do. But they’re probably not going to come out and tell you they’re Obama fans. It’s very Republican in this area,” she said.
Ms. Seiler isn’t a Democrat, nor is she any fan of Obama’s. She feels the president has made it more difficult on military members and agrees with charges that he’s on his way to creating an entitlement society. She says he has no business getting a second term. But she also thinks he’s going to win.
“I think honestly people are afraid of Romney,” she said.
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