Economy Threatens Ohio Democrat's Re-Election
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
In the run-up to this fall's elections, Republicans are pushing a national storyline: They're trying to link Democrats to President Obama, to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and to the struggling economy. Democrats counter that they inherited a mess, and that it's going to take time to turn things around.
Well, both arguments are in full swing in northwest Ohio's 16th District, where NPR's Don Gonyea found freshman Congressman John Boccieri and his Republican challenger both at the Stark County Fair.
DON GONYEA: For so many Americans this time of year, the county fair is the place to be. That's certainly the case in Stark County, Ohio. A tradition for 161 years, there are pies to be judged and poultry...
Unidentified Man #1: Okay, all of our first-place people, bring them out and let's go.
GONYEA: There are rides to turn you and that corndog you just ate upside-down.
(Soundbite of roller coaster)
GONYEA: And there's the exhibit on the edge of the midway promising, for $2, a glimpse of a headless woman.
Unidentified Man #2: A real, live girl, but where is her head?
GONYEA: Another key element of the Stark County Fair: Politics.
Representative JOHN BOCCIERI (Democrat, Ohio): How are you doing, ladies? You staying cool?
Unidentified Woman: What are you running for? Or running from?
Rep. BOCCIERI: Hot, tired and a seven-month pregnant wife at home.
GONYEA: That's Democratic Congressman John Boccieri, a father of four with one more on the way, an opponent of abortion rights and a former Air Force pilot, who did tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. That moderate profile allowed him to carry a district that for more than 50 years had been solidly Republican.
At the fair, Boccieri gets question after question from voters on the economy. He says he understands the frustration.
Rep. BOCCIERI: We tell voters that we tell constituents who may be upset about the pace of which we're moving is that do we really want to hand the keys back over to the folks who drove us into this? Do we really want to give them back the opportunity to drive us into another ditch?
GONYEA: But it's that worry about the economy in a district with a jobless rate topping 11 percent that makes Boccieri very vulnerable in his first bid for reelection. Polls show the district leaning Republican.
GOP challenger Jim Renacci was at the fair this week, too. He's an entrepreneur, a self-made millionaire, who made his money in nursing homes and other investments, including an arena football team. He was also mayor of the small town of Wadsworth, Ohio.
Mr. JIM RENACCI (Republican Congressional Candidate, Ohio): The people here are not happy. I'm running because I'm not happy. I'm running because John Boccieri has voted lockstep with Nancy Pelosi in a district that is nowhere comparable to Nancy Pelosi's values.
GONYEA: Congressman Boccieri's record actually makes him one of those Democrats most likely to vote against Speaker Pelosi. But on some of the highest profile votes, he did side with Democratic leadership. He was for the economic stimulus bill. On health care, Boccieri first voted no but switched to yes in the final bill in March.
This summer has been quiet compared to last year when people angry about health care legislation shouted down members of Congress at town halls all across the country. But Republican Renacci insists it's still a big issue.
Mr. RENACCI: Well, I think what you'll find out in this district are people are scared to death of the health care bill. They don't know what it is.
GONYEA: Count 41-year-old Todd Truax(ph) of Canton among them. He runs a medical supply company. A Republican, he says he was encouraged when Boccieri first opposed the health care bill, but then came the freshman Democrat's vote in support of the final bill.
Mr. TODD TRUAX: I felt like he threw us under the bus - us being the American people, you know, the constituents of Ohio.
GONYEA: Also at the fair this week, 51-year-old John Willis(ph), who says he's lost a good job and gone bankrupt in the past eight years. Now, he says he does maintenance earning less than $20,000 a year. He says he mostly votes for Democrats, and he still backs Congressman Boccieri.
Mr. JOHN WILLIS: You know, there's too many people that have no form of health care. I've got family members that don't any health care. And if they would get sick, they would be devastated.
GONYEA: With that, Willis headed to the grandstand where a high school battle of the marching bands was underway.
(Soundbite of marching band)
GONYEA: The Stark County Fair continues this weekend with both congressional candidates continuing to shake hands and make their case as their own battle heats up even as this summer tradition winds down.
Don Gonyea, NPR News.