I just got back from Ohio (a phrase I’m uttering often these days) and the most significant news in the Mother of All Battleground States is not the prison-abuse scandal or the 9/11 Commission but ball-bearings — specifically the decision (or threat) by a famous old steel company, Timken, to close its nearly century-old manufacturing plants in its hometown of Canton. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that if the company follows through on the plan — which will cut 1,300 high-paying jobs and produce a nasty spin-off effect — it could cost George Bush the presidency.
Here’s why: As Timken goes, so goes Canton (and nearby Massillon). As they go, so goes surrounding Stark County, the bellwether county in the bellwether state. As Stark County goes (history tells us), so goes Ohio and its 20 electoral votes. Stark’s vote in presidential elections has always almost exactly mirrored the statewide totals. And no Republican has won the White House without Ohio.
I spent time in Stark Country recently and here is what I can tell you about the people I met and interviewed there. They are not ideological, they are practical. They are always hopeful, but not starry-eyed. They are religious, without being showy about it. They love football, hard tackling — and winning. But they love the game more for what it says about them — that they are a proud community — and what it reveals about the inner character of the people who play it. They aren’t resentful by nature, or jealous of other people’s wealth. They merely want what is rightfully theirs.
For a long time, that has included a job at Timken, which makes a wide variety of bearing and alloy steel products.
Timken is not just another company, not to the people of Stark County — nor to the Republican Party and the Bush family. The company’s roots go back a hundred years. If you go to the local museum (next door to the mausoleum of Canton’s most famous son, President William McKinley), you see that the Timken family and executives of the firm are woven into the impressive entrepreneurial saga of a place and a state known as a birthplace of industrial tinkerers, with names such as Edison, Wright and Hoover.
Longstanding Republican ties
The Timken Co. has longstanding Republican ties, and its plants in the Canton area have always served as stage sets for GOP presidential visits. As president, Ronald Reagan visited in 1984, touting his tax cuts as an antidote to recession, and, more importantly, establishing a personal link with the steelworkers there. Standing on a stage in the middle of a cavernous shed, Reagan was the centerpiece of a scene straight out of the movies: the working guy who made good, back to connect with the guys he knew as a boy.
Bushes, father and son, have come calling. The current President Bush was at Timken last year, touting his own tax cuts and promising to take special steps to aid the ailing manufacturing sector in the Midwest and elsewhere.
Timken is a successful and, in many ways, thriving company. It’s been expanding by acquisition and innovation, and is a local success story with a global reach at a time when demand for steel (even American steel) is up because of the voracious needs of China. But the company and the United Steelworkers have been butting heads over what to do with the old facilities in Canton. Last week, the company announced plans to close them down within two years, putting 1,300 veteran workers, many of them third or fourth generation Timken employees, on the unemployment line.
No wonder Gov. Bob Taft, a Republican who accompanied the president to Canton, is all over the case, urging the company and the union to cut a deal to save the plants. From his point of view, it’s hard to imagine a worse story. Is the union making unreasonable demands so that the plants will have to close, in the Machiavellian hope that the news will sink Bush in Ohio? Could be, though I doubt it. Does the governor want Timken to cut a deal at any cost? Probably. Is Karl Rove following the details? I’m sure.
Howard Fineman is Newsweek’s chief political correspondent and an NBC News analyst.