Monday, November 06, 2000

Ohio voters hold diverse opinions

By Debra Jasper and Derrick DePledge
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        DAYTON, Ohio — John Drake has watched two presidential debates, read more newspaper articles about this year's campaign than he'd care to count and watched the drama from the campaign fronts unfold each evening on the news.

        As a result, this registered Republican has his doubts about both Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore.

        “Both of them say the same things,” the 44-year-old owner of a downtown gym said. “I guess I'm really not sure who I'm voting for.”

        Mr. Drake, of a Dayton suburb, said it's difficult to know which candidate has the best programs, much less which one would deliver on his promises to implement them.

        “When they start talking numbers and taxes, I think, even if you had time to study this stuff you wouldn't know who to believe,” he said. “I guess in the end it comes down to which guy I will decide to trust.”

        To learn whom voters such as Mr. Drake prefer in this election, the Enquirer traveled to four of Ohio's 19 congressional districts. The swing voters in the 3rd District in Dayton, the suburban Republicans in the 11th District in Columbus, the heavily Democratic 12th District

        in Cleveland and the Republican-leaning 1st District in Cincinnati typify the diversity of the state's electorate.

        Democratic Rep. Tony Hall's 3rd District includes Dayton and its suburbs and is considered a national bellwether because it has a large number of swing voters.

        “This district really epitomizes America,” Mr. Hall said. “There are families that are rich and poor, white and black. It's an exact cross section of the country.”

        President Clinton won the 3rd District by 9 percentage points. Despite polls that show Mr. Bush with a comfortable statewide lead, Mr. Hall predicted that this year's race will be close.

        Jim Ruvolo, a Gore campaign consultant and former chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, said the Gore campaign can still win Ohio by reminding voters — particularly in swing areas such as Dayton — that Ohio was once the “rust belt” and can be again under the wrong policies.

        He said the race could once again be determined by the economy. “When Republicans were in power, it was bad here. And we need to remind people of that and ask them, "Why take that chance?'” he said.

        On a recent sunny day in downtown Dayton's Oregon District, several voters echoed that sentiment.

        Bill Wilson, a 41-year old assistant manager at a record store, fears Mr. Bush will allow big polluters to “trash the environment,” and will bankrupt programs like Social Security.

        “We've had eight years of progress. Why reverse that?” he asked.

        “People love it when Bush talks about less government, until they think, "Hey, my mom's on Medicare and getting Social Security and my kids need Pell grants,” Mr. Wilson said. “Then government doesn't seem so bad.”

        But others, such as Joe Jones, a 35-year-old merchandise buyer from Dayton, aren't worried.

        “I like Bush's ideas on Social Security and private investing,” he said. “Plus, I'm in favor of small government. I want more things handled at a local level.”

        His friend, 40-year-old Chris Jones of Oakwood, said he is also backing Mr. Bush this year, in part because Mr. Bush is pro-business. Plus, he added, “Gore has waffled too much on the issues. He'd say anything to get elected.”

        Dave Reece, a Democrat who was digging a ditch for an electric line downtown, said he isn't voting for Mr. Gore as much as he's voting against Mr. Bush.

        “I'm voting Democrat this year because the other guy is an idiot,” he said bluntly. “One Bush in office was enough.”

1st District different
               Ohio Treasurer Joe Deters likes to tease that you could run a house plant on the west side of Cincinnati and get 45 percent of the Democratic vote. The flip side, though, is the very same plant would sweep the suburbs if you called it Republican.

        Underneath the numbers and assumptions of the political class, public opinion is often a lot more squishy and textured, sort of like the “4-way” at Price Hill Chili.

        “I feel like the last few times, I voted against somebody rather than for somebody,” said Jason Murray, an investment representative from Green Township. “I think a lot of people feel they have been burned by politicians.

        “They're just going to tell you everything you want to hear.”

        Mr. Murray leans toward Mr. Bush. But he isn't exactly enthusiastic about his decision, and neither are many voters in this extraordinarily close election.

        The political lines of the 1st District are well-established. Downtown neighborhoods tend to vote for Democrats. Ethnic, middle-class, Catholic enclaves to the west tilt Republican, but pockets go either way. Western suburbs and rural towns near the Ohio-Indiana border are solidly conservative Republican.

        “When Republicans do well in Ohio, they do well in this district,” said Neil Newhouse, a pollster with Public Opinion Strategies in Alexandria, Va., who has done extensive polling in and around Cincinnati. “This is an ideologically conservative area where bread-and-butter conservative issues do well.”

        But President Clinton won the district handily in 1996 — 50 percent to 43 percent — and tied at 43 percent in 1992, the last time a Bush, George W.'s father, was on the ballot.

        Mr. Deters, a former Hamilton County prosecutor and a player in Republican politics, said the younger Bush has more appeal among minority and independent voters than his father did.

        “I think the Democratic Party takes the African-American community for granted in many ways,” he said. “(Bush) is able to connect with minorities more than anyone I've seen in our party.”

        Some voters will make their selection on one or two issues, rather than faith in a candidate. Some will follow their instincts.

        Marketta Scott, a home tutor from Evanston, said she disagrees with Mr. Bush's proposal to let people invest a portion of their Social Security payroll taxes in the stock market.

        “I wouldn't want that money set aside for something like that,” she said. “What if the market has problems and they lose everything?”

        She also has misgivings about his support for public education, since his school voucher plan would divert federal aid from troubled public schools to parents.

        “It just seems like Gore knows more about things,” said Ricardo Cook, an auto parts supplier also worried about public education. “When Bush answers something, it looks like he got the script right from his advisers.”

        A potential bog for Mr. Gore might be the quiet resentment many still feel against President Clinton for a sex scandal that led to his impeachment.

        Although the episode mostly has been banished from the national campaign, it may bubble up on the west side because Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, was one of 13 House lawmakers who prosecuted the president in the Senate. Mr. Chabot is running for re-election against John Cranley, a Price Hill lawyer who has not made impeachment an issue.

        “I think I'll go for Bush after what we've seen from Clinton,” said Terry Williamson, a chiropractor from Green Township. “The lying, the cheating, the whole Monica Lewinsky thing has really put me off. Family values are important in this community.”

        Patricia Blake, a school administrator from Delhi Township, has heard arguments from all the candidates but is having a difficult time reaching a conclusion. Her life has changed over the past four years — a baby, a house, a job with more responsibility — and so has her outlook about politics.

        “I feel like I have more invested. I take it more seriously now, and I really think my vote counts,” she said. “I lean conservative, but I'm not going to make up my mind until I'm sure. I guess I'm still looking for some clarity.”

Some in 12th District uneasy
               There is something missing from the presidential campaign, Lisa Hrabcak thinks. Some passion, maybe, or a single, defining issue voters can grab hold of and make their own.

        “It is a little strange. You'd think people would have made up their minds by now,” she said as she window-shopped down State Street in Westerville on a warm autumn morning, her son Jared tumbling along behind. “I mean, I haven't made up my mind, either. I think it will come down to which one people think will make a better leader.”

        In this leafy, comfortably Republican suburb of Columbus, many people separate politicians by character and values. A vein of puritanism still thrives here, where, at the birth of the temperance movement around the turn of the century, city fathers praised it as “a village ... socially clean and morally upright.”

        Today, the city of 36,000 is squeezed on all sides by housing and commercial development. Public schools are so crowded that officials are asking voters to approve a $99.5 million bond issue for a new high school, two new elementary schools and several additions.

        Residents are complaining more about traffic congestion and the creep of urban sprawl. Some precincts have even voted over the past few years to allow alcohol in one of the few remaining “dry” places in the state.

        These pressures influence how some voters evaluate the presidential candidates.

        “A lot of people are still undecided,” said Janet Tressler-Davis, president of the Westerville Area Chamber of Commerce. “This looks like it will come right down to the wire.”

        The city is home to Rep. John Kasich, R-Ohio, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, who is leaving Congress after an unsuccessful bid for the Republican presidential nomination.

        Mr. Kasich's congressional district, which covers parts of Columbus and the suburban and rural counties to the north and east, is considered Republican, like much of central Ohio.

        But Mr. Clinton won the district by 1 percentage point in 1996 and lost by 1 percentage point in 1992.

        If there is one issue voters in Columbus and its bustling suburbs can use as a measuring stick on this presidential race, it's education.

        Mr. Gore wants to reduce class sizes in the early grades, hire more teachers and invest in technology and infrastructure.

        Mr. Bush wants to increase proficiency testing for teachers and provide vouchers for parents whose children are in failing schools. The voucher money, which would come from a federal program for poor and disadvantaged schools, could be used for tutoring or tuition at a private school.

        Calloway Robertson, an investment manager involved with the school bond issue, thinks young people need to be better prepared than the last generation to be successful in a global economy.

        “Education has risen to greater heights of understanding and importance,” he said.

        E.B. “Mick” Stringer, an insurance agent from Columbus, said Mr. Bush would make a good leader and would surround himself with conservative advisers.

        “I look for integrity, honesty and family values,” he said. “I just think Gore is very arrogant.”

        Lori Santello, a real estate sales manager from Powell, said she just doesn't see Mr. Bush as right for the job.

        “I'm going to go against the grain of this baloney about character and morality,” she said. “I'm more interested in somebody that when a disaster comes has the intelligence and experience to handle it.

        “I mean, he's run one state, Texas, and I don't think he's done a very good job.”

        Tiffany Krieger, a junior at Otterbein College, said she is a bit disappointed with her choices. She watched some of the debates and felt the candidates were trying to embarrass each other instead of explaining what they would do if elected.

        “It's so stupid sometimes. They're just like kids up there,” she said as she studied one afternoon with a friend at Inniswood Metro Gardens. “I'm not sure yet about my decision. I guess you could say I'm still listening.”

11th heavily Democratic
               Ask a few Democrats in downtown Cleveland which presidential candidate they plan to vote for and most, predictably, will say Al Gore.

        But some will also tell you they aren't all that happy about it.

        “I've always been a Democrat, and Bush is not competent or intelligent enough to be president,” said John Sharpe, a 48-year-old steward at the downtown Ritz-Carlton Hotel.

        Then he sighed and shook his head. “But Gore has the personality of a mud turtle.”

        While not everyone here is satisfied with their choices this election year, most voters in Democratic Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones' 11th Congressional district are still expected to strongly support Mr. Gore on Tuesday.

        “It's an overwhelmingly Democratic district,” said Lance Mason, director of the congresswoman's district office in Cleveland. “People here care a lot about social issues, such as education, health care and prescription drugs.”

        Mr. Mason and others in this predominantly African-American district — which includes east Cleveland and 21 inner-ring suburbs — are critical to Mr. Gore's chances of winning Ohio because voters here are staunchly Democratic and they go to the polls.

        Grace Holley, for example, a 69-year-old retired teacher from Warrensville Heights, said she and many of her neighbors are voting for Mr. Gore this year because they think Mr. Bush and his fellow Republicans favor the rich.

        “I've been doing better in the last eight years under the Democratic administration,” Ms. Holley said. “I feel like with Bush we'd go back to what we had before. Under the Republicans, people with wealth do better than the middle class and the poor.”

        Ms. Holley, whose family has long supported Democratic candidates — her father worked on John F. Kennedy's presidential campaign — said she is surprised by the number of Democrats who are critical of Mr. Gore's demeanor.

        “He may be stiff, but stiffness has nothing to do with it. People have to think about how well they are doing,” she said. “I can't believe people had to wait for three debates to make up their minds about how they would vote. I vote on the issues, not on someone's appearance.”

        Despite the district's Democratic leanings, several voters said they just can't make up their minds.

        “I don't know that one is any worse than the other,” said Naomi Todd, a 51-year-old clerical worker, as she sat in Public Square waiting for a bus home to Cleveland's east side. “Both are being so pushed and prompted by other people that I don't think we're seeing who they really are.”

        Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore can't compare to Mr. Clinton, she said, so she is torn between the two.

        She likes Mr. Gore because he is for abortion rights. “I think a woman's body is her own personal business.”

        On the other hand, Ms. Todd said she likes Mr. Bush's stand in favor of school vouchers. She sent her son to a private school and thinks others should have that same option.

        Taking a break from her shopping in Dillard's department store, 82-year-old Mary Jane Sims, a Catholic and retired lawyer from Cleveland Heights, said the election for her this year boils down to one moral belief: “Abortion is murder.”

        Yet even Ms. Sims wishes she had more choices in this election. She doesn't like Mr. Bush's support for capital punishment. “If there was a candidate against both (abortion and the death penality) I'd vote for him because that's murder, too,” she said.


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