YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — On the upper eastern edge of Ohio lies a valley built on the sweat of the working class, where steel mills sit mostly shuttered but a once-struggling Chevy plant endures. It is a place filled with union halls and blue-collar families for whom the auto bailout meant survival, delivered by a president many here see as their savior.
The Mahoning Valley is, without question, Barack Obama country. And native Andre Allie is very much a Barack Obama man: An African-American who “went with history” by voting for him in 2008. A retired auto worker who made air-bag parts. A lifelong Democrat and union member whose wife, brothers, aunt, cousins are all Democrats and union folks, too.
But Allie is also a deeply religious man, an elder deacon at his Baptist church who quotes from the Bible with ease. And he fervently opposes what the president last week decided to publicly support. “It’s wrong. Period. It’s just wrong,” Allie, 54, says of the latest issue to push to the front of the presidential campaign.
Obama’s declaration in support of gay marriage was undoubtedly a milestone in American politics and culture. But six months from an election that will decide whether the president keeps his job, a question hovers over the moment: Was it, somehow, a game-changer?
In three very different regions of a state where the election could be won or lost, voters themselves have been considering that. And their reflections reveal something far more pragmatic than an electorate that shifts its views because of the headline of the day, no matter how historic.
Allie is but one example, a voter as adamant in his opposition to same-sex marriage as he is in his support — still — of Obama. In his words: “The world is bigger than gay marriage.”
And yet something has sprung from the dialogue the president’s words compelled. It may be far more subtle than a changed mind or a changed vote, but it is there all the same.
Among Democrats hungering for inspiration from the man who instilled hope four years ago, you hear talk of newfound respect for a candidate they supported, before this, only halfheartedly. The word “courage” comes up again and again.
“I’m really proud of him,” said Margie DeLong, a retired nurse in northern Lake County who plans now to volunteer for the Obama campaign, as she did in 2008.
The Rev. Courtney Jenkins found something else to celebrate in her Mother’s Day sermon at Euclid Avenue Congregational Church. Jenkins preaches to a mostly black congregation in Cleveland, where high turnout among African-Americans will be one make-or-break factor for Obama in Ohio. She knows there are those who theologically disagree with his position; she heard as much from one colleague last week. Still, that person told her, “This is the president I’ve been waiting on. One who will stand up and say: This is what I believe.”
Said Jenkins: “I think that’s really what voters were looking for. He preached change. We’ve been waiting on change.”
For some Republicans here, the gay marriage comments only reinforced long-held suspicions of, and opposition to, Obama. But more than that, this statement feels like another in-their-face reminder that the country is headed off-track in ways that have nothing to do with job numbers and debt statistics.
“This is the Bible Belt, and we still believe what the Bible says,” said Harty Wallingford, a civil engineer in Ohio’s Appalachian region. “They can change the Bible in the city, but we won’t change it here. We’re not like California. They’ve just gone crazy there.”
Will this renewed debate go so far as to be a decider in the state that itself could determine the election? Probably not. Will it dominate the discussion as the campaign goes on? Not likely. This is a place, like much of America, far more concerned about jobs and foreclosures, but also matters such as student loan costs, collective bargaining rights and fair elections laws.
But has gay marriage entered into the dialogue here on the ground? Absolutely. And what we find in those conversations is what we may already know as Americans: That while our families, our pocketbooks and our communities may drive our choices come Election Day, our hearts — whether motivated or alienated — play a part as well.
Just listen to some of the many people talking now all across this bellwether state.
To the east of Cincinnati, city sprawl turns to rolling hills where farm tractors and cars compete for space on the road. This is rural southern Ohio, the Appalachian region that shares a border with Kentucky and is home to tiny villages dotted with barns and Amish-owned shops. Life really feels a little slower in this place where, to so many, God and family matter more than anything material.
A few days after Obama’s comments, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman campaigned across the region with Brad Wenstrup, a Republican candidate in the congressional House district that Portman formerly represented. Portman, whose name has been bandied about as a possible running mate for presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney, opposes same-sex marriage but doesn’t think Obama’s statement in support of it changes the paramount issues.
“I mean, what people care about is how are we going to turn this economy around and what do you do with these record debts and deficits.”
That’s still mostly true in a part of Ohio that can sometimes swing in election years. There are strong Democratic roots in the region but of the “Reagan Democrat” variety, because of views that can lean conservative on both fiscal and cultural issues. Democrat Bill Clinton carried this predominantly white and blue-collar swath of the state both times he ran. But then it became George W. Bush country, and Republican John McCain won over Obama here in 2008.
Paul Hall is the GOP chairman in Brown County, where the double-digit unemployment rate hovers above the national average. He said that while the economy ranks way above gay marriage as an issue, Obama’s support of the matter won’t help attract votes. “That won’t play well here,” he said.
Wallingford, the engineer who also serves as head of the Adams County Republican Party, echoes that remark. When Portman and Wenstrup made a stop at the Olde Wayside Inn in West Union, 62-year-old Wallingford wanted to know Wenstrup’s views on gay marriage, abortion and guns. (The response: Against, pro-life and all for.)
Wallingford does put such social issues above even the economy in this election, and the gay marriage debate has only bolstered his views and his support of Romney, who opposes same-sex marriage.
“No. 1 for me is the morals of this country,” said Wallingford, who believes his friends and neighbors will feel the same. “He (Obama) just lost this county. There’s no way.”
The bustling campus of Ohio State University in Columbus is where Obama, little more than a week ago, decided to officially kick off his campaign for re-election. It was a nod to the role young voters played in helping him win Ohio in 2008, but also to the importance of getting that vote out again in 2012.
With a robust gay and lesbian community, Columbus last year was recognized as an “up-and-coming gay city” by readers of the website GayCities.com, while OSU was ranked by Newsweek as one of the top 10 most gay-friendly colleges in the United States.
If Obama’s evolution on gay marriage was meant, at least in part, to invigorate both young and gay voters, he may have succeeded at least with some.
Student David Achille, 25, last year went to New York to marry his partner, Edward, after Ohio in 2004 passed a referendum banning same-sex marriage. One day last week, Achille was standing inside a jail-like cage on the grassy “Oval” where students hang out, dressed in a firefighter costume to raise “bail” money for the gay men’s fraternity Sigma Phi Beta.
He heard about Obama’s statement on Facebook, then watched for himself on YouTube. He said it “kind of made me rethink everything.”
“I was already an Obama supporter, but then that just kind of sealed the deal. We want the equality. We always want to fight for the gay rights. … And now we have the president behind our backs.”
Alyssa Price, 20, a bisexual woman studying neuroscience and psychology, had a slightly different take. She called Obama’s comments “reaffirming,” ”sweet,” ”touchy-feely,” even said she hopes it does turn out more gay voters, especially Log Cabin Republicans. “I think that would be cool.” But she was already an Obama supporter and felt no more or less motivated to work on his behalf.
Even Michael Flannagan, a gay student who is the Obama campaign’s campus leader at Ohio State, cautioned that students, no matter their sexual orientation, are hardly single-issue voters. “We care about our jobs and our future. We care about the world that’s going to be left to us when we take over.”
The northern Rust Belt region that includes the Mahoning Valley is as blue as blue can get on the Ohio electoral map. Mahoning County, with Youngstown as the county seat, went almost 63 percent for Obama in 2008. To win Ohio again, Obama needs this slice of the state to turn out strong as much as Romney needs the south. Yet the president’s comments left some of the Valley’s Democratic faithful wondering if he’d lose the blue-collar voters who comprise the base here.
“It’s the kind of town that votes Democrat but probably is not in support of gay marriage,” says Matt Bins-Castronovo, 38, a workers’compensation lawyer who was born and still lives in Youngstown. He completely agrees with the president’s position but was annoyed by the timing, calling it “a silly thing to do at this point.”
“I guess I’m looking at it through my isolated Youngstown, Ohio, shell. … Who am I to judge how people will vote and why, what they deem to be more important than other things? But I do think it’ll hurt him somewhat. Maybe not enough to lose, but I don’t know.”
Down the road in Lordstown, Glenn Johnson is president-elect of United Auto Workers Local 1112, representing employees at the General Motors plant that proudly advertises itself nowadays as “Home of the Cruze.” Gay marriage, he said, simply can’t trump what matters most to his members: Being able to provide for their families.
The union credits the Obama administration’s bailout of the auto industry for revitalizing the Lordstown plant. Workers once laid off were rehired after the plant in 2010 began manufacturing the Chevy Cruze, and today some 4,500 people are employed there.
“If you are what I consider the three Gs — gays, God or guns — this may change your opinion of President Obama,” Johnson said. “But if you look at the big picture of what he’s done for our industry and for working families of this valley …. then you will do the right thing. The majority of our members are more concerned that they have a job.”
The Obama campaign office in downtown Youngstown is papered with signs reflecting that sentiment: “This Valley Runs on Obama Power” and “Autoworkers Can’t Trust Romney.”
Just north of Youngstown, in one of the few swing counties in northeastern Ohio, a group of friends convened at week’s end at a wine bar in a place called Painesville in Lake County.
At one table were four Republicans, at another four Democrats. All had plenty to say about the gay marriage debate, a subject on which they — perhaps surprisingly — found more unity than dissent. These friends, all in their late 60s or 70s, wholeheartedly agreed that gay couples should have the same rights as heterosexual couples.
For them, the issue itself wasn’t the issue.
Did it recharge some of the Democrats? Margie DeLong, the retired nurse who plans to now campaign harder for Obama, was part of this group. The answer for her was a clear yes. But also for Candace Forest, a Painesville native who lives now in San Francisco and promised: “I will engage more.”
The Republicans were instead dismayed by what they considered a political ploy and worried it would move the conversation away from more pressing concerns.
“For now I think there’s a whole bloc of people who are going to side with (the president’s) ‘from the heart decision,’” business owner Don Pomfrey said.
In the end, though, these Democrats and Republicans in a swing county of a swing state found one more point of agreement. As glasses were drained and dinner plans made, they had a final chance to reflect on what they all thought would, in the end, make the difference on Election Day. To them. To Ohio. And, maybe even, to the nation.
They offered up a two-word response, and it had nothing to do with the news of the past week but rather the issue of the times.
Almost in unison they said: “The economy.”
Associated Press writers Dan Sewell in southern Ohio and Ann Sanner in Columbus, Ohio, contributed to this report.