Stanley Greene spends the last week before the 2012 presidential election in the key swing state of Ohio, with essay by Andrew Meier.
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Photographer Stanley Greene
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October 29, 2012: Cock-N-Bull bar, Toledo, Ohio. “What are you looking at?”
“FOUR DEAD IN O-HI-O,” sang Neil Young in 1971, when the memory of Kent State was still fresh. “Four Dead in Ben-gha-zi,” chanted the Tea Partiers who stalked the President across the state as the 2012 campaign sputtered to a long overdue end. Ohio. Even in an off-election year, the state stands apart. But when it comes to picking presidents, Ohio holds the record. Since 1 ...
“FOUR DEAD IN O-HI-O,” sang Neil Young in 1971, when the memory of Kent State was still fresh. “Four Dead in Ben-gha-zi,” chanted the Tea Partiers who stalked the President across the state as the 2012 campaign sputtered to a long overdue end. Ohio. Even in an off-election year, the state stands apart. But when it comes to picking presidents, Ohio holds the record. Since 1900, the state has predicted the winner in twenty-seven of twenty-nine presidential elections. No Republican has ever won the White House without winning Ohio, and few Democrats have either–Jimmy Carter carried it by one-third of one percent in 1976. Since then much has changed, above all, the population has shrunk, and its political muscle slackened, down to 18 electoral votes from a high of 26. But in the race between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, the longest and most expensive in the history of the republic, the state with only 7.7 million registered voters, came to be seen as the linchpin. To David Axelrod, Ohio was “the firewall,” and to Paul Ryan, “the battleground of all battlegrounds.”
There are, as the strategists and demographers say, five Ohio’s. The northeast is the Democratic stronghold—a war-torn assemblage of unions and minority enclaves in post-industrial Cleveland, Akron and Youngstown—that includes Cuyahoga County, the state’s most populous. (Last time around, Cuyahoga gave Obama one of every six votes that he won in Ohio.) The southeast, running from the unglaciated edge of Appalachia to the West Virginia border, is coal country—rural, white and treacherous for silver-tongued outsiders. (Clinton managed to win here twice, as did Bush père in 2000.) In the southwest, the suburban counties that hug Cincinnati are the Republicans’ answer to Cuyahoga: unfailing conservatives. The northwest is the farm belt, where fields of soybean and corn still cover the distance between rural half-towns and small cities, and the traditions remain defiantly Midwestern. In central Ohio, Columbus is the political fulcrum. The capital has weathered the Great Recession better than many of Ohio’s six big cities. It boasts an undaunted, and popular, African American Mayor, a surfeit of state jobs, and the safety net of Ohio State—at 64,077 students, one of the fattest universities in the country.
Both candidates began the final sprint here. Obama made his eighteenth visit, as Romney held the largest rally of his campaign in the southwest, in West Chester Township, John Boehner’s hometown. The Speaker of the House was there, among the GOP all-stars: Texas Governor Rick Perry, ex-Senator Rick Santorum, Rudy Giuliani, and Senators Marco Rubio and John McCain. The candidate followed Kid Rock to the stage, where he stood, hands clasped before him, to preach the coming of “real change.” He promised to revisit coal legislation, crack the whip on China, and raise Ohio from its knees. Others that night spoke of the dead in Libya. Not Romney. He offered a humble plea. “Walk with me,” he said.
October 29, 2012: Early voting polling station in Northeast Toledo.
TENT CITY is an annual event, a gathering of the homeless for three days at the end of October to stir the conscience of Toledo. This year, it was bigger than ever. Under steel-gray skies that unleashed more water than they threatened to, nearly a thousand souls–women, men, and children—filled the plastic tents on the Civic Center Mall in the center of Toledo, just across from the fire and police stations. Tent City had none of the mandatory gaiety of the political carousel, the extravaganzas in airport hangars and supersized gymnasiums. There was a rope line—to keep the “guests” in order as they waited for food—but none of the glad-handing, shoulder-clenching, or baby-smooching. Life has brightened a bit in Toledo, since 2008, when the last Census revealed it the eighth-poorest city in the nation, with nearly one of four residents surviving below the poverty line. The city, though, once a blue-collar bastion of autoworkers, remains numbed.
Ken Leslie runs Tent City, and has each year since its founding in 1990. He is, he says, a “uniter,” a Toledo son who strayed—“drugs and alcohol, what else?”—and ended up on the streets. Leslie was not homeless, as he likes to say, just “unhoused.” In the early 1980s, for years—he cannot remember how many; he never knew—Leslie lived out of his car. He cannot remember, either, what kind of car. (“It was yellow,” he says.) Then came a resurrection, a short-lived career in stand-up, a run of comedy clubs from Cleveland to Kansas City to Los Angeles and back. Since then, Leslie has tried out a few careers—producing documentaries, running a headhunting company, among them. But at fifty-two, he is no longer adrift. Tent City is his lifeline.
Each year more and more “guests,” as Leslie calls them, fill the tents. This year 1Matters, the volunteer outfit that runs the event, fed more than a thousand people. Toledo has seen its share of recent returnees, veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the corps sleeping rough were Vietnam veterans, some in black leather, some without legs, and many with nothing left to fight for–or worse, nothing left of the world they fought for. Tent City gave them square meals, medical checks, and perhaps most important, the paperwork for the state’s new SAFE IDs. (In 2013, the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles, in effort to root out terrorists, will begin to issue the new identity cards.) Leslie speaks the native tongue of the President, the language of the community organizer. One phrase–“community collaboration leverage”—sums up his vision of the horizon beyond the tents. Many who crowded Toledo’s main square, including the veterans, appreciated the leverage. In a state where the presidential campaigns invested more than $197 million—the most of any state in the nation—none of the folks under the plastic reaped an election-year bonus.
Many of Leslie’s constituents come from the North End, the boarded-up edge of Toledo where the unmoored drift. “It’s the rough end of town,” he said. “But it’s getting so, east side, west side, north side, south side–it’s all becoming rough, wherever you look in the cities here. Because America’s rough. Because when you look at the politicians, and really listen, there’s absolutely no regard for the people they should serve.” Leslie, like many across Ohio, was once a believer. “Last time around,” he said of the 2008 election, “I personally took 235 people from shelters to vote. One by one, I made sure they each got there.” He believed in political change. “And what did we get for it?” For a moment, he let the question hang in the air, before answering it. “We got fucked by both parties.”
October 28, 2012: Northeast Toledo.
IN OHIO, the Obama campaign debuted television ads with a new kicker: “Mitt Romney. Not one of us.” Gone was the “one America,” of the mesmerizing convention speech for John Kerry in 2004. (“We are one people,” Obama had said in Boston, “all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.”) “Not one of us.” The echo resounded with the old Segregationists’ cry. But Obama’s operatives intended a different line, not of the skin, but in the blood. Bermuda, the Caymans, Swiss vaults—this is not a man that families once dependent on car plants and corn fields could trust. Romney, the undercurrent held, is not like you and me. As Ohio’s popular former governor, Ted Strickland, quipped: “It’s a long way from Steubenville, Ohio, to Geneva, Switzerland.”
There are those who look at the ads and decry desperation. Obama, they say, has lost his essential art, his storytelling craft. If so, he needed only to remember Franklin D. Roosevelt, as he started out on the campaign trail in Columbus. To defeat Hoover, even in the darkness of 1932, Roosevelt had to go negative. “I regret that necessity,” the governor from New York said in his first road address, “for destructive criticism is never justified for its own sake. And yet, to build we must first clear the ground. We must find out why the Republican leadership…..built so unwisely. We must determine the causes that made the whole structure collapse.” In Columbus, Roosevelt spoke in the modern vernacular of Occupy:
We find two-thirds of American industry concentrated in a few hundred corporations, and actually managed by not more than five human individuals. We find more than half of the savings of the country invested in corporate stocks and bonds, and made the sport of the American stock market. We find fewer than three dozen private banking houses, and stock-selling adjuncts of commercial banks, directing the flow of American capital. We find a great part of our working population with no chance of earning a living except by grace of this concentrated industrial machine; and we find that millions and millions of Americans are out of work, throwing upon the already burdened Government the necessity of relief.
“It is no wonder,” Roosevelt concluded, “that stagnation has resulted–a stagnation born of fear. But this is a distrust not of ourselves, not in our fundamental soundness, not in our innate ability to work out our future. It is a distrust in our leaders, in the things they say and the things they do.”
Lela Schnorf remembers the 1932 campaign well. She was Lela O’Callaghan then, “an Irish girl,” and now a widow who can claim one of the deepest memory-pools in the state. Lela will soon be 107 years old. Born and raised in Toledo, she is a registered Republican, but she voted for FDR—“all four times.” At twenty, and unwed, she went to work as a secretary for the top man at a brokerage firm downtown. She worked until she was married, raised two sons, both lawyers—the elder, now eighty-one—and she still lives in the family home in Old Orchard, the opposite end of Toledo, in every register, to the North End. The house is a big old Tudor, built in 1929, with a surrounding acre of green. “It’s still a lovely neighborhood, all Caucasian,” she said. “We’ve got doctors, and doctors’ widows. Engineers, bankers. Started off that way, and still remains that way.”
Nothing disturbs Lela much these days—except the phone calls. “Every half hour,” she said, “they call.” Across Ohio, it is a common complaint. The robocalls, billboards, television and radio ads—the carpet bombing has been unceasing. And both men, in the campaign’s final hours, returned to haunt the beleaguered. The last time around, Lela voted for Obama. But not again. It’s not the auto bailout, the Chinese, or Benghazi. It is the campaign, she said, that made her angriest. “The worst I’ve ever seen,” she said. “Such bitterness and bickering.” All the same, on Election Day she will get a ride over to the library–her son took the car away when she turned 100–and add her vote to the box. She will do so with an abiding hope in the promise of Ohio, a recognition that so much once taken for granted is gone, and a prayer that “one of these fellows will sort it out.”
PHOTOGRAPHS by Stanley Greene
TEXT by Andrew Meier
With support from Leica Camera
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Excellent write-up. I absolutely love this site. Stick with it!
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Great story, very interesting and as well something to learn inside. Never heard so much about Ohio as a European. It’s the old people that have seen so many things during their lifes and they’ve got so many stories to tell. Thank you for this article and vote intelligent America! Great Photography!
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