Summer Infestation Descends Upon Canton, Ohio

By Susan Q. Stranahan

In 1996, long before the Clinton-Dole race for the White House shifted into full throttle, New York Times reporter Michael Winerip decided he would cover the campaign at “the pavement level of American politics.” He gathered voting data from previous elections, researched demographics, solicited advice, and then hit the road, looking for a suitable place to best capture what was on the minds of American voters. He wound up in Canton, Ohio.

This wasn’t going to be a parachute jump into the heartland. Winerip moved his family to Canton, rented a house, enrolled his kids in the local schools and even coached a soccer team. Over the course of the next year, Winerip filed dozens of stories in a series called An American Place. He gathered his insights — and his stories — about the gritty, eastern Ohio city in conversations with his barber, his mechanic, other soccer dads, and moms at the Y. “People talked to you from the heart,” said Winerip in a phone conversation a few days ago. “All this stuff builds up in you and helps direct you when you write your stories.”

Winerip’s tenure in Canton, and the favorable impression he made on local residents, who read his Times stories about their lives and thoughts in the local paper, the Repository, was recalled the other day by Repository editor David C. Kaminski in another context — Election 2004.

“We call it the Winerip effect,” said Kaminski. Canton and surrounding Stark County, it seems, have become the place from which to report the election of 2004, courtesy of the Times reporter’s legwork eight years ago. Not just the U.S. press, but reporters from Japan, France, and most recently the Netherlands. (Kaminski is still trying to find somebody to translate the Japanese article.)

There’s one major difference this time, however, and it shows up in much of the out-of-town reporting coming from the old, industrial city. “No one has made a similar effort [to get to know the people and the issues], though scores of reporters have put Canton on their to-do list, or have had it put there by assignment editors,” observes Kaminski. “We don’t take these efforts very seriously. We don’t think the results have been particularly insightful.”

And, sometimes (although Kaminski hates to say it), they have been wrong.

For reporters, the appeal of filing a story from Canton is simple: The town’s a bellwether.

Last Tuesday, readers of the St. Petersburg Times were the most recent to be introduced to the curious aura of Canton and Stark County. According to the paper’s political editor Adam C. Smith, they hold the key to the 2004 election. “If history is any indication,” Smith wrote, “the winner of the Kerry vs. Bush debate in Stark County, Ohio, will be the next president. This is the bellwether county in the bellwether state.”

As Stark County votes, so does Ohio, and Ohio has successfully picked the winning presidential candidate in every election but two since 1900. (Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy won even though they failed to carry the state.) George Bush beat Al Gore by less than two percentage points in Ohio four years ago, the same margin recorded among Stark County voters that year. Spend an hour or two talking to the homemakers, storeowners, teachers, out-of-work machinists and you’ve pretty much got a line on what most Americans are thinking. All manageable in 50 inches or a two-minute segment for the evening news. And you’re back in your own bed the next night.

This time around, according to a new Mason-Dixon poll (registration required), commissioned by the Canton Repository, Bush has a one-point lead over John Kerry (42 percent to 41 percent) among likely voters, with Ralph Nader polling at 3 percent and 14 percent of voters undecided. “It looks like a train wreck in November,” said Kaminski in a phone interview.

And just who has dropped in to write up the impending showdown? A quick LexisNexis search using the terms bellwether and Canton produces more than 50 stories over the last six months, in outlets including the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, and the Associated Press. Like dowsers with their divining rods, the nation’s political writers have flocked to the eastern Ohio city hoping to hit paydirt. Or, at least, a story.

Uppermost on the minds of would-be voters in Stark County, according to the Mason-Dixon poll, is the economy — not surprising given that Ohio has lost more than 200,000 jobs since January 2001, despite a recent small uptick. John Kerry hit the jobs issue hard on a recent campaign stop in neighboring Massillon. It was his first campaign visit to Stark County and his eighth to Ohio. And it didn’t take long for the Democratic challenger to mention a local manufacturing company in a speech before an overflow audience.

The Times’ David Halbfinger described it this way:

In Canton, the Kerry campaign singled out the Timken Company, a maker of steel and bearings, to show that the president’s economic plans were not working. Mr. Bush visited Timken last year to promote his tax cuts as a recipe for job growth, but in May the company said it would close three factories and eliminate 1,300 jobs after failing to renegotiate its contract with the steelworkers union.

As an added bonus for Mr. Kerry, the company’s owner, Tim Timken Jr., is a major backer of President Bush and was co-chairman of a fund-raising effort that reaped $55 million for the presidential library of Mr. Bush’s father.

The Timken Company, a family-owned business that is the largest employer in Stark County with 4,800 workers in various local facilities, has been singled out not only by Kerry but also by the nation’s media as a battleground over the success of the Bush administration’s economic policies and the Kerry campaign’s job-growth proposals. (A search for Timken and bellwether on LexisNexis produces more than two dozen hits in the past half-year.)

One of the first national stories linking Timken and the election was written in mid-May by Newsweek’s Howard Fineman. He confided:

I just got back from Ohio (a phrase I’m uttering often these days) and the most significant news in the Mother of All Battleground States is not the prison-abuse scandal or the 9/11 Commission but tapered roller bearings -specifically the decision (or threat) by a famous old steel company, Timken, to close its nearly century-old manufacturing plants in its hometown of Canton. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that if the company follows through on the plan — which will cut 1,300 high-paying jobs and produce a nasty spin-off effect — it could cost George Bush the presidency.

A short time later, Washington Post reporter Paul Farhi, just back from his own tour de Canton delivered his own assessment of the Timken fallout:

If Timken’s announcement translates into broad voter disaffection locally, nurtured by grass-roots union organizers, it would be very bad news for Bush. No Republican has ever made it to the White House without winning Ohio. “They call us the bellwether county in the bellwether state,” says Stan Jasionowski, president of United Steelworkers Local 1123, which represents Timken’s hourly employees. “Whichever way Stark County goes, Ohio goes.”

Timken’s close ties to the Republican Party, and specifically to Bush, sharpen the stakes further. W.R. “Tim” Timken Jr., the company’s chairman and great-grandson of the founder, has raised more than $200,000 for Bush’s reelection campaign, making him one of the president’s elite “Ranger” fundraisers. In addition, Tim Timken has given nearly $300,000 to GOP candidates and committees during the past four years, according to Federal Election Commission records. His company contributed an additional $400,000 to Republicans, including $100,000 to a dinner for Bush in Ohio in 2001.

As regular readers of Campaign Desk may recall, neither the Fineman piece nor the Fahri article passed muster with our eagle-eyed analyst, who mocked the press for creating a new category: “battleground factory.”

For that matter, very few of the Timken-as-bellwether stories pass muster. Some carry erroneous information and some don’t provide sufficient information, according to the Repository’s Dave Kaminski (who admits he hasn’t read them all). The most egregious flaw, however (from someone who has read them all) is this: Almost without exception, the reporters painted the issue as a juicy bit of political theater, a showdown over jobs, with the Democrats standing tall with workers who are about to be laid off by an uncaring company with long-standing Republican ties. Trouble is, the facts don’t support the script.

Briefly, the facts are these: Discussions about the future of Canton’s bearing-manufacturing operation, one of several Timken operates around the globe, have been ongoing for more than three years. This was not some new pronouncement or issue. The company has yet to make a formal decision about its Canton installation, and is engaged in negotiations over cost-cutting concessions with the United Steelworkers of America, which represents workers there. Without such concessions, most work will be shifted to other U.S. production facilities, with only about 20 percent of the jobs sent overseas. Even if all 1,700 bearing-manufacturing jobs were lost in Canton, Timken would continue to employ 3,500 people and remain the area’s largest employer.

Kaminski says that when the stories linking the Timken plant negotiations first appeared, “we immediately recognized it as having an effect on the election because people would make it so. In our estimation of what has happened, there’s no economic-political cause-and-effect here.”

However, he adds, “it was clear to us that organized labor and the Democrats campaigning against Bush would use it to make the company and the Republicans look bad.” Kaminski is not ready to accuse the press of being a willing accomplice in the process. (He notes, however, that almost no one has written about another recent decision with great economic consequences: The decision to close North Canton’s Hoover Co. and consolidate operations with parent Maytag Corp. in Iowa, with a loss of 500 white-collar jobs. That story lacks the political “juice” of Timken, says Kaminski.)

The Timken story has developed legs, and Kamiski — who is more than reluctant to criticize anyone in the national press corps by name — thinks he understands why. “Every [reporter] works for somebody, and nobody wants to be less than the competitor. Part of the phenomenon of Canton being a bellwether is because nobody wants to miss being here in case this is the real thing. … I have to be sympathetic with that. It would be a little insincere and arrogant to say, well, those competitive drives only consume the national people.”

But Kaminski is troubled by the fact that so much of the reporting emanating from his hometown by the visiting media is superficial. What is missing, he says, is the level of credibility a reporter like Michael Winerip built within the Canton community.

“Of course, no one expects that 30 or 40 news organizations would make that same kind of investment or find us interesting for a year, but at the same time we know the difference between being visited for a quick hit and being studied. … [Canton] is like any place else. There is a lot more texture and complexity here than you can get at a quick glance. Nobody should be surprised at that.”

Texture? Complexity? From the hit-and-run artists of the campaign press? Kaminski seems like a nice guy, but he might as well wish for apples from a cherry tree.

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Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.