By Martin Wolk Executive business editor
updated 10/6/2004 1:39:46 PM ET 2004-10-06T17:39:46

In just 25 miles of northwest Ohio, you can cover a lot of territory, from the shuttered factories of struggling inner city Toledo to the edge of a vast corn belt that stretches for hundreds of miles south and east.

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An easy 40-minute drive from the General Motors Powertrain plant in north Toledo to Dan Wilson’s corn farm in southwestern Wood County reveals the contours of a deeply divided nation. It also uncovers surprising similarities in concerns expressed by supporters of both President Bush and Sen. John Kerry, who are fighting for every vote in this crucial battleground state.

With its historically strong labor unions, Toledo is a mostly Democratic city, and political analysts expect its voters to go for Kerry by a wide margin Nov. 2.  Lucas County, which includes Toledo, supported Al Gore over Bush by 19 percentage points, or 35,000 votes, four years ago, a Democratic margin that ranked second only to far larger Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland.

Bush spending big in Kerry country
Kerry is spending heavily to make sure it stays that way, but Bush is pouring money into the region as well, hoping to chip away at the Democrat’s advantage. Over the spring and summer Toledo ranked as the single biggest target for presidential advertising among about 100 major media markets, according to Nielsen Monitor-Plus and The University of Wisconsin Advertising Project. Other Ohio markets also ranked near the top of the list, but Toledo enjoys special attention, at least partly because of relatively low ad rates and its proximity to Michigan, another important battleground state.

Oscar Bunch is the type of veteran union leader Kerry and other Democrats are counting on to get out the vote come Election Day. Bunch, 74, has been running United Auto Workers Local 14 for the past 25 years, and he helps lead an innovative program of union-management cooperation at one of Toledo’s biggest and most successful manufacturing plants.

Bunch began working at General Motors’ Powertrain transmission plant virtually when it started operations in 1957 and is proud of his record as a union chief, which includes an unbroken 25-year stretch without permanent layoffs at the plant. That is an anomaly in the auto industry and certainly in Toledo, which has lost 8,000 manufacturing jobs just in the past four years.

Worries about the economy
Yet Bunch is worried about the prospects for the economy if Bush is re-elected. And in a joint interview, plant managers and union leaders agreed that the soaring cost of health care insurance is an issue that needs to be addressed by whoever wins the election.

“I worry about the whole thing — our nation as a whole,” Bunch said. “We can’t afford to stay the course. … Who is going to buy the products after a while if we keep outsourcing the jobs?”

The giant Powertrain plant, just two blocks from the Michigan border, employs 3,800 men and women, including 3,500 union members, who begin with molten metal at one end of the plant and churn out a new automatic transmission every 10 seconds at the other. That’s nearly 8,000 units a day, compared with about 1,000 a day at a sister GM transmission plant, said plant manager Joe Choate.

He said he had worked with unions at other GM plants “but not to the degree that we’ve done here. It’s extremely open — there are no sacred issues.”

Inside the plant, shiny aluminum transmission cases move along a conveyer belt and past assemblers who operate automated bolt guns, manually install parts or inspect the work of robotic machines. Earnest industrial engineers roam the floor, studying for opportunities to improve efficiency. Virtually every job is done between belt and chest height for improved ergonomics.  At one team station a chart tracks improvements in processing speed to the hundredth of a second. A subassembly that took 14 minutes in 2002 takes less than 12 minutes today.

The struggle to keep manufacturing jobs
“The question we are constantly putting to the people of Toledo is: How can you handle the volume more efficiently?” said union shop chairman Burt Wagner. The increasing efficiency allows plant and union managers to lobby GM for more work.

Despite countless plant closings, Toledo has managed to hang onto two of its marquee names — Powertrain and Jeep, which agreed to remain in Toledo and expand its facility in 2001 after winning a $280 million state tax incentive package. Toledo and the surrounding area are still dotted with manufacturing plants large and small, and its location at the intersection of two major interstate highways makes it a major trucking center.

It is easy to see why Rob Horvath believes Toledo will always be a blue-collar town.

“The current (city) administration is trying to shift from manufacturing to technology, but with our close proximity to Detroit it’ll never happen,” said Horvath, co-owner of Tony Packo’s restaurant, a local institution since 1932. “We’re blue collar and we’re going to stay blue. As long as there is metal to be fabricated, we’ll fabricate it.”

Horvath described himself as "deeply Republican" and a supporter of Bush. He said he generally supports Republican candidates on economic issues, "but 9/11 changed that. Now I'm more concerned with national security."

At lunchtime Packo’s does a brisk business, attracting a crowd of business people, construction workers, government officials and tourists who detour off the Ohio Turnpike for the chili-smothered Hungarian hot dogs made famous by local favorite Jamie Farr in the television series “M*A*S*H.”

High hopes for Toledo
Business has never been better, said Horvath and his cousin Tony Packo III, who are getting ready to open their fifth restaurant near the sparkling new minor league baseball stadium downtown.

“There are some bright spots in the economy,” Packo said. “There’s a lot to do, no question about it, but things are getting done. I think the overall mindset in Toledo is improving.”

Despite his upbeat assessment, now that the Mudhens’ baseball season is over, downtown Toledo is a ghost town by 5 p.m. And truth be told, the streets are none too lively during the workday, either. Classic industrial brick factories and warehouses line the avenues, most of them empty and posted with “For Lease” signs.

Home to the suburbs
It’s an easy 15-minute drive to comfortable suburbs like Sylvania and Perrysburg, and that is where people head when the downtown workday is over. When the shift ends at the GM Powertrain plant, workers scatter, with many of them heading to suburbs of Detroit or elsewhere in Michigan.

On a recent evening the only sign of life downtown was a reception for 200 people hosted by HCR Manor Care at the recently restored Valentine Theatre. From its Toledo headquarters, the company operates a growing chain of more than 500 nursing homes, assisted living facilities and home health care centers in 32 states. It employs 61,000 people, including about 700 at the office in Toledo, said Joyce Smith, a vice president.

She said she had been apprehensive about moving to Toledo from Florida but has come to enjoy the city’s amenities, including the symphony orchestra and “stellar” art museum. “And there’s no traffic,” she said. “I love this town.”

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