In Ashtabula, Ohio, Young People Fight For The County's Political Future

Originally published on August 4, 2020 2:27 pm

With less than 100 days until the 2020 presidential election, Ohio's 18 electoral votes are in play.

The state went for President Trump in 2016, and Ashtabula County is one reason why.

A Rust Belt county that was once home to a booming coal port, Ashtabula voters supported Democrats in every presidential election from 1988 to 2012. But Trump carried 57% of the vote there four years ago.

The electorate in this county may be older than the rest of Ohio, but a new crop of political leaders on both sides of the aisle hopes a younger generation will help decide the 2020 presidential election — and Ashtabula's future.

"A lot of people just want change so much"

Longtime residents of Ashtabula have seen the county change a lot in recent decades. Christine Seuffert, 70, says she has even experienced a change in her community since Trump won, especially "in the way that people treat each other. The things that they say out loud that they perhaps were always thinking. Maybe it's good to know where people stand."

Old friends who meet at Ashtabula's Harbor Perk coffee shop but avoid talking politics because they are divided. From left, Donna Rullo, Valerie Rich, Christine Seuffert, Jolene Salo and Kaye Lind.
Steve Inskeep/NPR

For the past 10 years, Seuffert has met up with a group of friends on many weekday mornings for coffee at the Harbor Perk coffee shop in Ashtabula.

Seuffert and her friends have a lot in common but don't all agree on who to support for president. She and Donna Rullo, 74, a retired nurse, both grew up in union families and identified as "John F. Kennedy Democrats." But as the coal business declined in Ashtabula, so did unions that backed Democrats.

While Seuffert remains a Democrat, Rullo voted for Trump in 2016 and plans to do so again in 2020.

"Whenever Trump talked about getting rid of the alligators in the swamp, that's what sold me," Rullo says. She acknowledges Trump has his flaws: "Trump's a jackass most of the time. I can see why people don't like it. Doesn't mean he can't do the job."

For Seuffert, Hillary Clinton's loss in Ashtabula County was something of a self-inflicted wound.

"I felt the Democrats in the county kind of fell asleep at the wheel or took for granted the influence that they had," she says.

When Ashtabula County Democratic Party Chair Eli Kalil, 23, assumed the role in early June of 2020, there were 56 vacant Democratic precinct chair positions in the county. Now there are none.
Da'Shaunae Marisa for NPR

But in 2020, that could change. Eli Kalil is the 23-year-old Ashtabula County chairman of the Democratic Party. When he assumed the role in early June of 2020, there were 56 vacant Democratic precinct chair positions in the county. Now there are none. Kalil was able to fill the positions mostly with people in their 20s, 30s and 40s.

He's been busy trying to help the Democratic Party energize its traditional electorate and mobilize new young voters. When Wisdom Davis, one of Kalil's classmates from junior high school, decided to organize a rally for racial justice in Ashtabula, he supported the effort.

Davis, 23, says George Floyd's killing by Minneapolis police officers resonated with Ashtabula's Black residents. Black people make up just 3.8% of the county's population of roughly 100,000.

Davis hesitated at first to join the nationwide protest movement, unsure of whether the protests would be peaceful.

"I said, these protests I feel are going to go really bad. It's gonna turn into something that it shouldn't," she says. But after a few weeks, Davis decided it was time. Though she'd never organized an event like it before, she put together a rally at Lance Corporal Kevin Cornelius Memorial Park in Ashtabula on June 6. Hundreds of people — of diverse ages and races — attended. They counted down together the nearly nine minutes that police knelt on Floyd's neck while he died. There was music, food, drinks and a voter registration table.

Cyclists camp outside a local cafe on Bridge Street in Ashtabula, Ohio.
Da'Shaunae Marisa for NPR

The presidential election of 2016 was Davis' first as a registered voter. She cast a ballot, but not for Clinton or Trump. She says she doesn't yet know how she feels about Joe Biden. But she sees voting in local elections as a key to Ashtabula's future.

"A lot of people just want change so much," she says. But, she says, "they don't know how to take the steps."

"They're motivated"

Republicans in Ashtabula County are also looking to a younger generation of leaders to retain the progress the party made in 2016.

David Thomas, a 27-year-old Republican, is Ashtabula County's auditor. He first won elected office at 22. Thomas says county politics have been revitalized by the participation of people in their 20s and 30s.

David Thomas, Ashtabula County's auditor, first won elected office at 22. Thomas says county politics have been revitalized by the participation of people in their 20s and 30s.
Da'Shaunae Marisa for NPR

"We've got about 10 elected officials in the county who are 35 and under. Just in the past 10 years or so, [there's been] a whole new wave of leaders coming up in the county," Thomas says.

Thomas credits the strength of the Republican Party in Ashtabula County in part to the relative decline of the urban electorate there.

"Prior to 2016, essentially, the votes were in the cities where our population centers were. You had to win them in order to win the county," he says. "Myself, as an example, I lost all three of our cities, but won outside of the cities in some of the suburban areas, but mainly in some of our rural areas, too, that have grown not only in population, but also in voter participation."

And Republicans in Ashtabula County are excited about 2020.

"They're registering their friends. They've never voted before," Thomas says. "They're starting to learn about that process. And they're motivated."

Motivated, according to Thomas, to keep the government out of their lives.

Though their philosophies about the role of government in their community are different, Thomas and Kalil say they see a common goal in their efforts to engage voters.

About six months ago, the two ran into each other while getting coffee at the Harbor Perk coffee shop. A woman approached them and said she was proud of them.

"She told us we reminded her of her son," Kalil says. Thomas notes these kinds of interactions are common. And while some of the county's young people do leave Ashtabula County looking for work elsewhere, Kalil believes, "the folks who do stick around are the ones who are the leaders here. A lot of young folks are leaving, but the ones who are sticking around are making a big difference."

: 7/29/20

A previous version of this story misspelled Donna Rullo's last name as Rulla.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

A County in northeast Ohio made this dramatic swing in 2016. Ashtabula County voted big for President Trump. Previously, it voted big for President Obama and many Democrats before him. The flip is one reason Trump won a battleground state. So what happens in 2020? Well, in this old industrial part of the Rust Belt, new leaders hope a younger generation takes charge. Steve spoke with voters, one of whom, we should say, used some colorful language about the president. This story begins in the main population center Ashtabula city, which touches one of the Great Lakes.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This city, Ashtabula, is here because of Lake Erie, the blue water just on the other side of these rainbow umbrellas here on a city beach. Once upon a time, a lot of trade came through Ashtabula from across the Great Lakes. A lot of that trade has dried up, but now people come here to spend time by the shore.

Ships once carried coal out of Ashtabula's harbor. It was bound across the lake to Canada. As the coal industry fades, boats more often carry recreational fishermen.

CINDY OFFENBERG: Lake Shore Bait & Tackle, may I help you?

INSKEEP: Cindy Offenberg (ph) works in a shop by an Ashtabula boat ramp, which is busy. She says the pandemic gives people extra time to drive here with boats on trailers.

OFFENBERG: People seem to be happier this year. And I don't know if it's because they're getting the unemployment and the other money that's coming in. But the average person that's coming through now actually has a better attitude.

INSKEEP: When we interview voters, we ask open-ended questions, like what concerns do you have? What came to Offenberg's mind were the pandemic and also protests over the police killing of George Floyd.

OFFENBERG: You standing and saying that Black lives matter doesn't change anything just because you're stating that fact, you know? And people who have come to me and said Black lives matter - yeah, so you're saying mine doesn't?

INSKEEP: Black Lives Matter activists say their slogan means no such thing, but that's what Offenberg hears. She has also followed the effort to take down Confederate monuments and disapproves. Like about 57% of voters in this county, she backed President Trump in 2016, which is not the way this county used to vote. Open the door of an old brick building downtown and you glimpse a place in transition - a long narrow store that once supplied departing ships is now the Harbor Perk coffee shop, which grinds beans for arriving tourists. A number of local women regularly meet around a table here.

CHRISTINE SEUFFERT: Well, this gathering has been taking place for over 10 years.

INSKEEP: Christine Seuffert is wearing a red shirt with the logo of Ashtabula's annual Wine & Walleye Festival.

SEUFFERT: We've enjoyed the growth that has occurred down here on Bridge Street, kind of had a nice resurgence of tourism.

INSKEEP: Although as a member of the school board, Seuffert knows many Ashtabula kids come from poor families.

SEUFFERT: We are a struggling community, for sure, struggling for basics, struggling for housing, struggling for food.

INSKEEP: She says she is a John F. Kennedy Democrat, devoted to the party since JFK's time, a phrase that could have described this county's politics for decades.

What changed?

SEUFFERT: Well, I think industry left the area, huge depression hit this area.

INSKEEP: As the coal business declined, so did unions that backed Democrats. Seuffert feels the local party took voters for granted and then Donald Trump campaigned in Ashtabula County in October 2016.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I'll tell you what. I love the people of Ohio.

(CHEERING)

INSKEEP: He captured this county and this state, which is older and whiter than the country as a whole. Seuffert soon felt a change.

SEUFFERT: In the way that people treat each other, the things that they say out loud that they perhaps were always thinking. Maybe it's good to know where people stand.

INSKEEP: And the six women at the Harbor Perk try not to talk about politics because they're divided. Republicans appeal to Donna Rullo, a retired nurse who says she was a John F. Kennedy Democrat until 2016.

DONNA RULLO: Whenever Trump talked about getting rid of some of the alligators in the swamp, that's what sold me.

INSKEEP: Did you vote for Obama?

RULLO: I did. I did. And I did like him both times.

INSKEEP: Now she's embraced President Trump's exaggerated claims about Democratic plans to fight climate change.

RULLO: Trump, he's such a jackass most of the time. I can see why people don't like him, but don't like him doesn't mean he can't do the job.

INSKEEP: Now, people who follow political news have heard this kind of polarized debate before, but Christine Seuffert, the Democratic school board member, senses something new.

SEUFFERT: I see a lot of young people becoming involved in politics here and nationwide. I think that's a great thing. I think we still have to have some respect for our elders, which would be me. But that's OK. I admire them for stepping into the fray.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL RINGING)

INSKEEP: Down the street from Harbor Perk is a symbol of Ashtabula's industrial past. It's a drawbridge. The steel frame holds a giant concrete counterweight, which goes down as the bridge goes up. Beside that bridge, we met the new chairman of the county Democratic Party. Eli Kalil is 23 years old.

ELI KALIL: Cultivating that next generation of leadership's very important.

INSKEEP: Important because Democrats need a counterweight to this county's Republican majority.

KALIL: In taking just a sheer guess here, I think there's that maybe 1% and probably even smaller than that that voted for Trump who won't vote for him this upcoming election. So, yeah, we need to find another - a different demographic of voters who, you know, maybe they're not always enthused. Maybe they don't get to the polls all the time. You know, we need to figure out how we get them to the polls because we think that's where our base is going to be.

INSKEEP: Who are you aiming at?

KALIL: Well, we ran a search yesterday of the 18 to 25-year-olds here in the county.

INSKEEP: He found about 15,000 young people, hardly any of whom voted in Ohio's pandemic-disrupted primary. To find them, you'd have to look elsewhere, like Ashtabula's recent rally against police violence. Wisdom Davis organized that. She is also 23 and says George Floyd's death resonated in Ashtabula's Black community where police shot a young man three years ago.

WISDOM DAVIS: His house had gotten broken into, and he had to call the police. And somehow there was, you know, just miscommunication, and he ended up being shot, and he is now paralyzed.

INSKEEP: Even with that personal experience, Davis hesitated to join this summer's nationwide protests.

DAVIS: When I knew they were starting, I told people - I said, you know, these protests I feel are going to go really bad. You know, it's going to turn into something that it shouldn't.

INSKEEP: She waited two weeks to be sure that her protest would stay calm and her patience paid off. Local businesses supported the peaceful gathering and even gave employees time off to attend.

DAVIS: We had a DJ who played music, just put everybody in a good mood, and we had several speakers. And then we just had, like, food and just drink - like, tried to make it feel more like a family dynamic cookout but then also we had, like, the voters' registration table.

INSKEEP: What was the importance of having that voter registration table and having speakers talk about voting at this protest about racial injustice?

DAVIS: Because a lot of people just want change so much, but then they're like - they just want it, but they don't want to - they don't know how to take the steps.

INSKEEP: Davis voted in 2016, her first presidential election, though she says she favored a third-party candidate.

Did Hillary Clinton not appeal to you?

DAVIS: No. I just wasn't into her.

INSKEEP: What did you think of Donald Trump at that time?

DAVIS: Yeah, no.

INSKEEP: So far, she has no strong view of Joe Biden, though local Democrats hope he is a better fit for Northeast Ohio. Ashtabula County resembles much of Biden's native Pennsylvania - old, blue-collar cities surrounded by conservative countryside.

We've only driven about 10 miles, but it's like we're in a different world. We were in industrial America and downtown Ashtabula, and now we're driving into this little rural hamlet past wood-frame houses and farms and cemeteries.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Turn left onto East Jefferson Street. Then your destination will be on the right.

INSKEEP: The destination is a historic site connected to the Republican Party.

It's a tiny white wood-frame building in the town of Jefferson, which is the place we met David Thomas, the Republican county auditor.

DAVID THOMAS: So this is the Giddings Law Office. So Joshua Giddings, born and raised here in Jefferson, he was actually one of the founders of the Republican Party - huge abolitionist that kind of led the way here in our county and then the nation, too.

INSKEEP: Do you learn about him in school if you go to school around here?

THOMAS: They do now.

INSKEEP: Ashtabula County promotes itself as a historic stop on the Underground Railroad. Enslaved people passed through while escaping to Canada. In recent generations, the Republican Party faded in this county, but now it's surging thanks to new local officials like Thomas, who is 27.

THOMAS: We've got about 10 elected officials in the county who are 35 and under; just in the past 10 years or so, a whole new wave of leaders coming up in the county, starting with our current county commissioner, who was a state rep. He was elected at 22 as well.

INSKEEP: The new generation of Republicans relies on an overwhelming vote from little towns like this one.

THOMAS: Prior to 2016, essentially, the votes were in the cities where our population centers were. You had to win them in order to win the county. Myself, as an example, I lost all three of our cities but won outside of the cities in some of the suburban areas but mainly in some of our rural areas, too, that have grown not only in population but also just in voter participation.

INSKEEP: What you're saying is the president's base is fired up, there are extra votes coming out of rural areas and that overwhelm the urban voter.

THOMAS: Yeah. We're seeing, at least in our county, you know, the voters are excited, and they're motivated.

INSKEEP: Motivated, he says, to keep government out of their lives. Of course, the president is also polarizing. A younger, more diverse generation can be turned off by his open appeals to race.

THOMAS: So I don't know if we can really see inside. I don't know if I could call him a racist based on his own personal beliefs.

INSKEEP: I mean, I can quote Paul Ryan who said that he said racist things. There's no doubt that he's used racist language, whatever's in his heart.

THOMAS: Right. We can disagree with a lot of some of the things that national people say.

INSKEEP: After going door to door with other candidates, David Thomas expects the president to hold on to his voters in this county.

THOMAS: Still the support there, still the enthusiasm, yeah. All the promises been kept - absolutely not. Unfortunately, folks don't seem to expect that anymore.

INSKEEP: He expects a harder fight than in 2016. Ashtabula County, Ohio, has many layers of its past. This fall, a new generation of its citizens decides the next step forward.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE HALIFAX PIER'S "STRANGE NEWS FROM ANOTHER STAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.