Ohio County Portends Political Shift Ahead of 2022 Midterms

By Michael Sakal
Michael Sakal
Michael Sakal
Michael Sakal is an Epoch Times reporter who covers the state of Ohio.
February 22, 2022 Updated: February 23, 2022

When rock’n’roll star Bruce Springsteen belted out the phrase “Down in Youngstown” in one of his hit songs nearly 30 years ago, it referred to the struggles of Americans in a steel-mill town in northeast Ohio’s Mahoning County.

The 1995 song title was “Youngstown,” and it pointed to the importance of the industrial anchor for the city’s economic success and national security. The decline resulted in a depressed region for decades, following the collapse of the American steel industry, the diminished blue-collar worker, and the fading American Dream.

The lyrics still ring true in Youngstown today. That’s because not much has changed there since the song was written, or even since the late 1970s, when after the loss of tens of thousands of jobs there was an exodus of families from the area.

Today, locals express a mixture of despair, faith, and hope. They don’t mince words when asked for their views on the issues that have been brewing for decades.

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A mailbox for ballots for the May 3 midterm election primaries at the Mahoning County Board of Elections Office in Youngstown, Ohio. (Michael Sakal/The Epoch Times)

As the 2022 midterm elections in Ohio on May 3 draw closer, Democrats are formulating a message amid inflation, high gas prices, chain supply issues, workforce shortages, and chaos at the southern border. These are issues that mostly came about in 2021, causing many to believe the Democrats are facing an uphill battle in maintaining control of the House and Senate.

The U.S. Senate seat that belongs to Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) is up for grabs as he will not be seeking re-election.

There are seven Republicans running for Portman’s seat in the primaries: Matt Dolan, Mike Gibbons, Josh Mandel, Neil Patel, Mark Pukita, Jane Timken, and J.D. Vance.

The Democrats on the ticket vying for Portman’s seat are: Morgan Harper, Traci Johnson, and Tim Ryan, who has been serving in Congress for the last 2o years, or 10 consecutive terms.

The top post in Ohio also is in play.

Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, is running for re-election and facing Republicans Joe Blystone, Jim Renacci, and Ron Hood in the primary. On the Democrats’ ticket are John Cranley and former Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley.

Youngstown, population 82,000, has been described as a Democratic island surrounded by smaller cities such as Austintown and Boardman which have turned Republican, signaling change in the Heartland’s rustbelt.

In the 2020 Presidential Election, then-President Donald Trump flipped Mahoning County, defeating Joe Biden by 59,902 to 57,635 votes. That marked the first time a Republican won the county in nearly 50 years, since Richard Nixon won in 1972, Mahoning County Board of Elections IT Manager Chris Rakacy told The Epoch Times.

In the 2016 presidential election, Democrat Hilary Clinton had defeated Trump, 57,281 to 53,616 votes, Rakacy said.

Of the 162,598 registered voters in Mahoning County, 36,154 are Democrats, 17,546 are Republicans and 108,800 are Independents, Rakacy told The Epoch Times.

People in this rough-and-tumble, gritty, and ethnically diverse working-class region mixed with rural areas along the Ohio Turnpike and I-480 East, have become more concerned about skyrocketing inflation, the high price of gas, national security, the need for jobs, the state of the public education system, healthcare and the instability around the world.

A precinct committee worker at the GOP office in Mahoning County, who didn’t want to be named, was pretty candid about the condition of the region.

“Youngstown has turned to (expletive),” he told The Epoch Times. “It’s gotten that way because of years of the same politics.”

Remnants of what used to be can be seen in the remaining mills that once produced steel from raw materials to finished products. They no longer operate at full capacity.

Grass or weeds cover railroad tracks that once carried iron ore pellets to the mills along the Mahoning River. The overgrowth cover empty parking lots where crowds of workers, known as the lunch bucket brigade, marched into the mills wearing hard hats to begin their shift.

Church buildings where thriving ethnic communities worshipped and prayed sit empty and boarded up with for-sale signs boasting “Prime Land.”

One political party official, when asked about what is needed to tackle the issues at hand in the upcoming election, just rolled her eyes and shook her head.

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Former Mahoning County Board of Elections Deputy Director Joyce Kale-Pesta retired at the end of 2021 in Youngstown, Ohio, but continues to serve on its board of directors. (Courtesy of Joyce Kale-Pesta)

“Oh, there needs to be change, and I’m a Democrat,” Joyce Kale-Pesta told the Epoch Times before stepping into a meeting with the Mahoning County Board of Elections’ board of directors which she serves on. Kale-Pesta was the director of the county’s Board of Elections but retired at the end of last year. She continues to serve on its board.

Melissa Wasko, a former Mahoning County Jobs and Family Services worker, replaced Kale-Pesta in January.

Kale-Pesta offered no further comment.

Tom McCabe, director of the Mahoning County Board of Elections and the Chairman of the Mahoning County Republican Party, did not return phone calls to The Epoch Times the second and third week of February, and was out of the office part of that time.

Youngstown Mayor Jamael Tito Brown did not return phone calls seeking comment.

As if the county’s largest city couldn’t get a break, one of its popular downtown nightspots, Soso’s Lounge was destroyed by an arsonist’s fire on February 12, according to investigators. The watering hole near Youngstown State University was known for its live music and was there for at least 40 years.

“We’ve lost a lot here,” said a woman who works for the Mahoning County Job and Family Services, but didn’t want to be named. She said she votes Democratic because that’s the way she’s always voted, but has become more concerned about healthcare.

Her mother died at the age of 91 at the hospital in downtown Youngstown in early February, but the daughter was trying to get her transferred to another healthcare facility, preferably Cleveland Clinic. She wasn’t able to.

“Whenever you try to move someone to another hospital here, you run into a bunch of political (expletive),” the woman told The Epoch Times. “We need more choices here in healthcare. “I just think it’s harder for older people to be in the hospitals. They seem to be letting them die. We need more healthcare options here.”

Another woman, a caseworker for Mahoning County Jobs and Family Services for the last 27 years, was picking up her dinner from Charlie Staples Bar-B-Que near Valleurec Steel on Feb. 17.

She said jobs are an important issue.

“I’ve always voted Democratic because I believe that’s the party that supports workers the most,” she told The Epoch Times.

In the late 1990s, when the county hit a low point, the caseworker said she was handling as many as 500 cases of people looking for work. Now, it’s not as many, but it’s still a lot, she said.

“When the steel mills kept laying off and Northside Hospital closed in downtown, it was just tough,” the woman told The Epoch Times.

Why the political change now?

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When lifelong Youngstown, Ohio resident Lori Demiduk was 18, she registered to vote as a Democrat. However, the retired schoolteacher said she voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 and 2020 Presidential elections because of the continued deterioration in the Democratic stronghold region and on a national level. (Michael Sakal/The Epoch Times)

Lori Demiduk, who has lived in Youngstown all her life, remembers when things were better. The way things are now have influenced her voting, she said.

Demiduk is a retired school teacher who taught computer skills to children from Pre-K to eighth grade at two parochial schools that closed. She later worked as an armed security guard until she was injured. When she was 18, she registered to vote as a Democrat because of her ethnic and working-class background.

Demiduk said she voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 Presidential Election and again in 2020.

She said that she also would vote for Trump if he runs again in 2024 or would consider voting for the Republican who the party might nominate.

“I just saw how things kept going downhill under the party my grandparents and parents voted for for years,” Demiduk told The Epoch Times as she was waiting on a receipt for gas at Jordan’s Market on the edge of downtown Youngstown. “It just isn’t the same party anymore. Everything they are doing is leaning toward socialism.

“Everything seemed to be going better under Trump,” Demiduk added. “The economy was going well, gas prices were lower and things were more stable on a worldwide level. When he got elected, he upset the establishment’s apple cart. They underestimated him, but I think he kept the country safe. I felt safer when he was in office. Now, with everything going on? Uh-Uh. I don’t think so.”

Demiduk’s father, Michael Demiduk, worked as a machinist and for several years also owned a local miniature golf course.

Demiduk’s parents and grandparents were Russian immigrants who first emigrated to Montreal from Belarus. They were lifelong Democrats. Her great grandfather, Stephan, was killed by the Bolsheviks in the early part of the 20th Century, and her grandfather was a cavalry officer in the Tsar’s Russian Army. He saw the revolution coming and he didn’t want to live under that kind of government, so they decided to leave the country, Demiduk said.

Demiduk said when she talks to the younger generation about the current state of the United States, they believe things are going great.

“They should talk to people who are working in China’s slave shops or on those collective farms in Communist countries,” Demiduk said. “Tell me one thing that’s better than it was a year ago. There isn’t. We’re apathetic in our voting. People here aren’t researching the candidates. They are just looking at the names.

“Our schools are falling apart,” Demiduk went on.  “Kids need to learn how to make decisions on their own. They need to learn how to read, write and do basic math so they can make change—and write in cursive. Have you ever shopped where you need a young cashier to make change? It’s painful. We concentrate on the wrong things. We need to take care of what’s here.”

According to the 2020 Census, of Mahoning County’s 228,683 residents, nearly half, or 104,974 are listed as self-employed. The median household income is $46,042, and the median property value is $105,406, according to information from the county.

The county’s poverty rate level is 17.5 percent, still well below southeastern Ohio’s Athens County, the poorest county in Ohio, where the poverty rate is 30.6 percent and the median household is $34,000, according to the county.

Gerald Little, 41, of Youngstown, also was at Jordan’s Market on Feb. 17. He is a self-employed landscaper and cuts down trees. He used to work at Youngstown Fence for $10-15 an hour, but decided to go into business for himself to make more money.

He said that he always voted Democratic, but isn’t happy about how things have turned out after the last presidential election. Little said he voted for Joe Biden, but would vote for Donald Trump if he runs in 2024.

“Everyone needs their ass kicked,” Little said. “If people got their ass kicked, they wouldn’t be behaving in the way they are. Everything is in such a mess.”

On a local level, he believes that there should be more funding put into substance abuse and addiction programs for counseling and rehabilitation.

On a national level, Little believes the government is failing everyone and should be doing more.

“I like Trump, and I like the job he did while he was in office,” Little said. “He got a lot done in a short amount  of time. What he did in office will leave a good impression on a lot of people for a long time.”

To what extent things will change in Mahoning County is hard to say, but the scars of jobs lost decades ago can still be seen.

There were the three major mills in the region. Now there are none, said Martha Bishop, an archive library assistant in the Special Collections of the Youngstown Historical Center of Labor and Industry in Youngstown.

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Still Standing: Vallourec Star is one of the few remaining steel mills in the Mahoning Valley. This plant in Youngstown, Ohio produces seamless pipes for the fracking industry. (Michael Sakal/The Epoch Times)

Vallourec Star, which produces seamless pipes for the fracking industry, remains in operation on a portion of the former Briar Hill Works along Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway.

The downhill slide of Youngstown’s steel industry is well remembered even after nearly 45 years.

On September 17, 1977, the Campbell Works of Youngstown Sheet and Tube announced it was abruptly furloughing 5,000 of its workers. That dark day still is referred to as “Black Monday.” Of those, 5000 workers, 4,000 jobs were eliminated.

In the months that followed, U.S. Steel announced that the nation’s largest steel producer also was shutting down 16 plants, including its Ohio Works in Youngstown, eliminating 4,000 workers. That announcement came one day before Jones and Laughlin Steel Corp. said they were cutting thousands of jobs at their facilities in the Mahoning Valley, too.

With increased foreign steel coming into the United States with competitive prices, American steel quickly was losing its edge, Bishop said.

McDonald Steel was formed in 1981 from what was left of U.S. Steel’s Mahoning Valley operations, but it was never the same.

Over the next decade, 40,000 jobs were gone from the Mahoning Valley region that stretched from Trumbull and Mahoning counties and up into Pittsburgh, Pa.

Also during that time, 100,000 people left the region over the next 20 years, beginning in 1977 through the late 1990s, Bishop said. The 22 miles of booming steel mills and their smokestacks that once roared with large flames that could be seen for miles—and the support industries that once lined the Mahoning River—have mostly disappeared.

It looked like the bleeding of jobs would never stop.

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The Youngstown Historical Center for Industry and Labor showcases in its museum what a world power in steel and auto manufacturing the Mahoning Valley and Youngstown, Ohio used to be. (Courtesy of Youngstown Historical Center of Industry and Labor)

But from her view at the Museum of Labor and Industry, Bishop has a different outlook on the future.

The region now is focusing on technology and growing its 3-D imaging industry as part of America Makes, the federal government initiative that Youngstown was named a partner in 2008 under President Barack Obama’s administration, Bishop said.

“The area is looking forward,” Bishop told The Epoch Times. “There’s a lot of partnerships on a lot of levels in America Makes. It also includes Youngstown State University’s engineering department and Eastern Gateway College.”

There also appears to be hope with some of the other industries and plants that have worked out deals in cities near Youngstown.

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The Lordstown Motors factory where GM once operated, in Lordstown, Ohio, on October 16, 2020. (MEGAN JELINGER/AFP via Getty Images)

One of them involves the former General Motors plant in Lordstown where GM ceased production on the Chevy Cruze in 2018.

In late 2021, electric truck manufacturer Lordstown Motors Corp. in neighboring Trumbull County, reached an agreement to sell its Ohio factory to Taiwan’s Foxconn Technology Group, the companies announced in press releases at that time.

Lordstown Motors had purchased the sprawling facility from General Motors Co. in late 2019 for $40 million, about a year after GM announced it would cease production on its Chevy Cruz vehicle and shutter the 53-year-old plant.

Under the deal, Foxconn purchased the 6.2 million-square-foot Lordstown facility, except for Lordstown Motors’ hub motor assembly line, battery module, and packing line assets for $230 million, according to the press release.

Under the agreement, Foxconn will manufacture Lordstown Motors’ Endurance, a full-size battery-electric pickup truck at the plant near Youngstown. Orders are expected to begin being filled sometime later this year.

The sale brought much-needed funds and potentially will help Lordstown Motors realize the benefits of large-scale manufacturing faster by building multiple models in the same facility along with Foxconn.

Foxconn is the biggest assembler of Apple Inc.’s iPhone, and the auto plant would establish the company’s auto manufacturing footprint in the U.S. as the Biden administration promotes the production of electric vehicles.

Hope remains and lies with the voters.

“Is there hope?” Demiduk said. “There’s always hope. We can always hope and pray a lot. The country can’t go through another two years of what we’re going through now. We’re a God-fearing nation, and we can pray that things will get better.”

Michael Sakal is an Epoch Times reporter who covers the state of Ohio.