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'Here in Youngstown': Divisions on Display in Ohio's Steel Country

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Youngstown, Ohio - PAUL HEINTZ
  • Paul Heintz
  • Youngstown, Ohio

On the site of a demolished steel mill by the banks of the Mahoning River, Joe Ciavarella gestured toward the hulking skyline of Youngstown, Ohio, and bemoaned the state of his hometown.

"Economically, this region is in shambles," the 29-year-old said Monday morning. "We're losing jobs after jobs. Our steel factories are going away. You take a look at it: We got buildings falling apart right down here. It's sad."

A bulky, bearded man with slicked-back brown hair, Ciavarella said he'd been trying to support his wife and two children on workers' compensation since injuring himself on the job last year at Tastykake.

"Every penny is accounted for," he said. "It's all accounted for. We budget $70 a week for groceries, and we make it work. We buy for our 7-year-old, and whatever we find to eat, we find to eat."

Later that day at Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport, Brian Gargano considered how much had changed since the city's steel mills helped build the skyscrapers that defined America and the armored tanks that protected it.

"Where I used to work, you could support a family," the 49-year-old millwright said. "Now you can't find a job to do that."

Vallourec Star, one of the last remaining steel mills in the region, laid off Gargano for the first time in 2009 and then again in 2014. Last year, he lost another job, at Transco.

"Seem like every five years I get laid off," Gargano said. "You know, my dad and my uncle, they worked at the tire [factory] all their lives. Never got laid off once."

Buffeted by the forces of globalization and automation, Youngstown has suffered the fate of many a Rust Belt burg, as Bruce Springsteen noted in his 1995 ballad named for the city and chronicling its decline.

"From the Monongahela Valley to the Mesabi Iron Range to the coal mines of Appalachia, the story's always the same," he sang. "Seven hundred tons of metal a day. Now, sir, you tell me the world's changed. Once I made you rich enough — rich enough to forget my name."

In the days before Tuesday's presidential primary in Ohio, a parade of politicians paid visits to the city to show they hadn't forgotten Youngstown's name. As a local newspaper, the Vindicator, pointed out, it was home-state Gov. John Kasich's first trip to the Mahoning Valley in 16 months.

Ciavarella and Gargano took advantage of the attention to hear from two presidential candidates who, though worlds apart on most issues, delivered strikingly similar assessments of what had prompted Youngstown's economic malaise.

On Monday morning at the Covelli Centre, an arena erected on the site of a long-shuttered Republic Steel mill, Ciavarella listened as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) blamed the loss of more than 300,000 Ohio manufacturing jobs on the nation's "disastrous trade policies." While Democratic rival Hillary Clinton had once embraced the North American Free Trade Agreement and the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, Sanders said, he had "helped lead the opposition" to the pacts.

"When it came down to whether to stand with corporate America — the people who wrote these agreements — or whether to stand with the working people of this country, I proudly stood with the workers," Sanders told his supporters. "Secretary Clinton stood with the big-money interests."

That evening, Gargano stood inside a hangar at the airport north of town and watched as Republican real estate mogul Donald Trump analyzed Youngstown's woes, using starker language than Sanders.

"You're losing your jobs. You're losing your income. You're losing your factories. They're going to China. They're going to Mexico. Japan is killing us with the cars. Now it's Vietnam. It's India. It's everybody!" he shouted. "We don't make good deals anymore. We don't win anymore!"

Like Sanders, Trump was quick to blame a primary-election opponent — in his case, Kasich — for the ills of globalization.

"Remember: When he was a congressman, he signed NAFTA. NAFTA destroyed Ohio. It destroyed Ohio!" Trump said, drawing boos from the crowd. "And now he wants to sign TPP. That is going to be worse. I have studied it so carefully. That is going to be worse for Ohio!"

Much — perhaps too much — has been made of the similarities between Sanders and Trump: Written off at first as long-shot loonies, the Brooklyn- and Queens-born populists have found success in the 2016 election by taking on the establishment in a decidedly anti-establishment year.

Their supporters, too, have a few things in common: They are more likely to be white, working class and unaligned with a political party. And they often explain their devotion by pointing to their candidate's supposed authenticity and incorruptibility — Sanders because he has financed his campaign with small contributions and Trump because he has paid for his campaign with his own money.

But here in Youngstown, the sentiments expressed by their respective supporters illustrated the vast gulf between the Sanders and Trump movements.

At the Covelli Centre, Youngstown State University senior Salam Farhan explained that Sanders appealed to her because he put those on the fringes of society before those at the center of it.

"It is refreshing that he has bold views about changing our system," said Farhan, who wore a white hijab over her hair.

James Rogers, a maintenance worker at the city library, said he believed Sanders has "a heart that's fit for the job." He said he was struck by the way the senator had defined "family values" in the speech he'd just heard.

"No one's any worse or better than anybody else. We're all in this together," he said, summing up what he'd gleaned from Sanders. "I think we should be more compassionate. And I don't see that from the Republican side at all."

Rogers, who is African American, said he worried about the heated rhetoric coming from Trump and his supporters, but he expressed optimism that it would not provoke widespread physical violence.

"I have faith in the American people that it wouldn't come to that," he said. "I might sound naïve, but I think our country is stronger than that."

As Sanders himself put it earlier that morning, "The American people understand what every religion in this world has always taught us — whether it is Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, whatever religion — and that is that, at the end of the day, love always trumps hatred."

Ten miles north of the Covelli Centre, at the Youngstown-Warren airport, that didn't seem to be the case. Anger, fear and intolerance seemed, in fact, to be trumping love.

As Gargano exited the hangar from which he'd watched Trump pound the podium and insult his opponents, the unemployed millwright mimicked his candidate's language, calling Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) "a liar" and Clinton "a little whacked-out." Asked if he had any concerns about Trump's tone, the Leavittsburg man let loose a tirade that might make even his candidate blush.

"We gotta go back to America again," he began. "We can't be a bunch of pussyfooting around. You've gotta fucking be a man and take it. There's drugs in there. As soon as they took the prayer out of schools, that's when everything went downhill. Look at it: They took the prayer out of schools, and everything went to wacko. You got drugs. And that's another thing: You've gotta be a tough man to live in this country. This is a man's world, not a woman's world. I don't give a shit."

While Sanders' supporters seemed to blame the powerful few for the economic dislocation plaguing Youngstown, Trump's pointed a finger at the powerless many: immigrants and minorities, in particular.

David Hanshaw, a blacktop repair contractor from Hubbard, said that all his policy priorities, from protecting the nation's security to rebuilding its economy, depended upon building a wall along the Mexican border and "gettin' the illegals outta here."

"We know for a fact that terrorists from anywhere in the world can get into these South American countries and just walk right across the border," said Hanshaw, a hefty man in an orange polo shirt who supported himself with a cane. "And they could easily attack us from within before we even knew they were here."

It wasn't Trump's rhetoric that threatened to tear the nation apart, Hanshaw said, but rather the actions of the activist left. The Occupy Wall Street movement, he alleged, had engaged in "public defamation, public urination, rape, drugs, child abuse."

And as for those who protested in Ferguson, Mo., after Darren Wilson, a white police officer, fatally shot Michael Brown, an African American civilian?

"Those people burned down businesses, personal property, destroyed police cars, attacked police stations, attacked police, all kinds of lawlessness," Hanshaw said. "What did Obama do? He supported them."

As Hanshaw turned his attention to last year's protests in Baltimore, Trump's Boeing 757 took flight from the airport and buzzed the crowd, drowning out Hanshaw's voice.

"God bless that man," he said, marveling for a moment at the flying edifice of money and power, before regaining his train of thought: Black Lives Matter protesters were, Hanshaw said, "young domestic terrorists."

Here in Youngstown, it appeared, opposing factions in the nation's political system had grown further apart than at any time in recent memory — their worldviews virtually unrecognizable to each other.

But here in Youngstown, there were also signs that civility might find a way.

Outside Trump's rally, Zoe Jurenko-Figueroa and Jesse Cook-Huffmon held signs that read, "My penis is bigger than yours" and "Donald Drumpf" — a reference to HBO talk show host John Oliver's viral Trump takedown. The Sanders supporters said they'd driven more than an hour from Allegheny College to stage a lighthearted protest of the Republican candidate.

As they explained their motivations to a reporter, 17-year-old James Reardon approached the two to thank them for airing their opinions peacefully and quietly during Trump's speech.

"We tried to just be silly," Jurenko-Figueroa said.

"I liked what you guys did," said Reardon, a high school senior from nearby Springfield. "You didn't mess with anyone. I respect you guys."

"Thank you," Jurenko-Figueroa said. "Thank you."

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