US Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton took a bus tour across the US “rust belt” region last weekend in a quest to win over white, working class voters who tend to support Republican US candidate Donald Trump.
With her husband, former US president Bill Clinton, in tow, the former senator, first lady and US secretary of state took her seat on a blue bus that meandered more than 1,000km from Philadelphia to Columbus, Ohio.
Here on this green and hilly landscap, steel mills have been closing since the late 1970s, and many factories have shuttered since the 1990s.
The 2008 to 2009 recession further aggravated despair, and the following economic recovery has produced only a fraction of jobs that pay as much as the lost industrial ones.
“I understand that there are people who feel like the economy is not working well for them,” Hillary Clinton said at a rally in Harrisburg on Friday. “But I understand that. Because I’m not satisfied with the ‘status quo,’ are you?”
She was joined by Bill Clinton and her running mate, US Senator Tim Kain.
If elected, Clinton promises to implement what she says is the biggest jobs program since World War II, focused on manufacturing and infrastructure.
Nevertheless “there’s a lot of mistrust of Hillary Clinton, and it comes from Bill,” who signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), said John Russo, a labor expert from the region currently at Georgetown University.
“The working class has been pretty angry on trade issues given the many manufacturing-related jobs that have been lost because of NAFTA,” Russo said.
Few anticipated the massive loss of US manufacturing jobs — mostly to lower waged Mexico — after Bill Clinton signed NAFTA into law in December 1993. In time many of those same jobs moved to even lower wage countries in Asia.
US manufacturing jobs continued to hemorrhage in the following years.
In Pittsburgh, a historic steel city that has largely shifted to being a medical and educational center, Clinton slammed Trump for doing nothing for working class Americans.
She even quipped that his Trump brand ties are made in China.
“So Donald Trump says he wants to make America great again. He can start by actually making things in America again,” Hillary Clinton said at a rally in Johnstown.
Trump has broken with the Republican Party’s age-old free-market orthodoxy and gone protectionist, cashing in politically on this region’s malaise over lost industrial jobs.
Trump blames the losses on Bill Clinton and his trade deals, and claims that it will be the same under Hillary Clinton.
Ohio and Pennsylvania are key “swing states” in November’s presidential race. Winning one or the other, or both, could be crucial to a Republican or Democratic White House victory.
By increasing white voter turnout, Trump could counter Clinton’s lead in large cities such as Philadelphia or Cleveland, where African-American voters who tend to vote Democratic are concentrated.
Near Pittsburgh, which Hillary Clinton visited on Saturday, lies Monessen, population 7,500 — a shadow of what the town was when two huge steel plants were open, employing about 22,000 people.
In 1962, then-US president John F. Kennedy made the trip in this Democratic stronghold to praise its industrial strength. In June, it was Trump’s turn — and he came to declare “US economic independence” in a vitriolic speech decrying globalization.
From his office overlooking the Monongahela River, Monessen Mayor Louis Mavrakis, 79, tries to stay positive as he mentions that about 400 vacant homes are set to be razed.
Mavrakis is a Democrat who has never voted Republican. However, he refused to say whether he would vote for Trump in November.
“I’m disgusted with both sides, with our government with the way they give the foreign countries that hate us,” Mavrakis said. “You’re giving them billions of dollars, and they hate us, and you can’t even take care of your own people? That’s stupidity.”
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