Walking down Paint Street in Chillicothe is a time warp. Brick buildings date from the 1800s. Pay phones are readily available. Plaques and cornerstones remind visitors Chillicothe is Ohio’s first capital. Recently, the city has also been pegged as a political bellwether. Mike Smith, longtime news director for a group of Chillicothe radio stations, says he’s not surprised by Romney’s visit.
“Mr. Obama was here as a candidate in ‘08. Sarah Palin came through. John Kerry came to a mass at a Catholic church here in Chillicothe, but he held a rally down in Pike County. We also had Bill Clinton, he came through here twice,” says Smith.
In past presidential elections, Chillicothe results closely reflect national outcomes. But, in 2008 the city voted for John McCain over Barack Obama making it the first time since 1960 Chillicothe did not pick the national winner. It takes just a few sidewalk conversations to realize Chillicothe residents pay close attention to politics. Don and Johnie Baker moved to Chillicothe seven months ago. He works for a local papermaker. She’s a working mom.
“I wish to vote for Romney, I know there’s a lot of people that are undecided. But if Romney comes out strong and he says what he’s going to stand for and stands behind that. Then people are going to stand with him and he’ll see the vote in Ohio,” says Johnie Baker.
“I think it’s still up for grabs. I really do. It’s a diversified little community here. And I think not everyone’s solid on making up their minds yet,” says Don Baker.
Chillicothe’s history and demographics is political tell-tale. Census data shows Chillicothe gained population during the early 2000s. And, although some area residents commute to Columbus or Piketon for work, Chillicothe’s daytime population grows by 3,800 as workers arrive for jobs at the local paper plant and other manufacturers. Library technician Bruce Landis adds that a mix of town and country interests make Chillicothe a political stew.
“I’d say we have an awful lot of people who are really oriented toward self-sufficiency,” said Bruce Landis. “We also have an awful lot of people who are oriented towards public service and towards the idea that society guarantees a certain level of livability in our community.”
Conservative or progressive self-interests play out during elections. Retiree and lifelong Chillicothe resident Dave Hoylman personifies part of the local electorate.
“I’m an independent myself,” Hoylman said.
But when asked about Mr. Romney’s pending visit, Hoylman says he doesn’t trust the Republican challenger.
“I voted for John McCain the last time that he run. I like John McCain but I don’t like him,” said Hoylman as he laughed. “So, then I guess the follow-up question is will you sit out this election or will you cast a ballot? I’ll cast a ballot; I’ll have to go the other way.”
Both Hoylman and his wife, Sue, cite the economy as decisive in this fall’s race. Hoylman fears Social Security cuts if voters put Romney in the White House. Sue Hoylman expresses worry for the couple’s adult children.
“Look at the economy. Look at the people. People are going without. The young people don’t have a chance,” says Sue Hoylman.
On WBEX.com, New Beginnings church at 375 South Watt Street in Chillicothe is hosting the Mid-Ohio Pantry this morning they have free groceries for those who qualify.
While a story about free groceries begins a top of the hour newscast on local radio, Chillicothe has recovered from the depths of the Great Recession. Jobless figures have declined since peaking in 2009. WBEX News Director Mike Smith says though, that Mr. Romney will be coming to a city still anxious about jobs after a truck maker recently laid off hundreds of workers.
“So it kind of has folks on pins and needles, I guess,” said Smith. “They want to believe that things are getting better for the most part but then you have something like that that kind of says, hmm, reality check. It’s not quite there yet.”
Chillicothe is the last stop on Mitt Romney’s campaign tour of several states. Organizers predict a crowd of 5,000 or more. Local attorney Gary Fleshman and working mother Johnie Baker are on opposite sides of the political fence. Fleshman backs Obama, Baker likes Romney. But, both are quick to offer some advice to Mr. Romney.
“I think people would really appreciate hearing some sort of specific agenda from him about what he proposes to accomplish, other than the general proposition of I’m going to make things better, because that’s all I ever hear him say,” said Fleshman.
“Chillicothe is the heartbeat of Ohio and if you don’t come here and understand what the people need you’re not going to get the Ohio vote,” adds Baker.