Consultant says Mahoning typical of Ohio campaign

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 25, 2005

A new study found that John Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign bullied its way into a traditional Democratic stronghold and ignored local party officials and their knowledge of the area.

The study, prepared for a conference on the election at the University of Akron this month, contends the Kerry campaign brought in outsiders to run the Mahoning County campaign, staged poorly organized events and angered union leaders.

The campaign also suffered from its inability to coordinate activities with outside groups such as America Coming Together and labor unions, the study found. Those relationships are off-limits under federal legislation passed since the 2000 election.

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Still, Kerry (63 percent) did slightly better in Mahoning than 2000 Democratic nominee Al Gore (61 percent). But with neither Ralph Nader or Pat Buchanan on the ballot last year, both parties fared slightly better. President Bush got 35 percent in 2000 and 37 percent last year.

The study credits get-out-the-vote campaigns by unions and outside groups with keeping Kerry 14 points higher in Mahoning County than his statewide percentage.

Mahoning is key to Democrats' hopes in statewide elections. When Bush won Ohio, the victory gave him the electoral votes he needed to hold on to the White House.

The study by political scientists Melanie Blumberg of California (Pa.) University, William Binning of Youngstown State University and John Green of the University of Akron, also found that:

4Democratic Party loyalists and Mahoning County voters were shut out of an appearance by Kerry's wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, with some military wives.

4 Kerry running mate John Edwards made a stop in Warren, instead of in Youngstown as suggested by its Ohio operation. Among those not invited was Mahoning County Prosecutor Paul Gains, the victim of an alleged mob-hit attempt in 1996, and other prominent Democrats. Edwards was four hours behind schedule and some attendees had to be carried out on stretchers because of the heat.

4 Kerry made a stop at the old Youngstown Sheet & Tube steel factory to stress concerns about the area's economy. The Kerry troops didn't know that the factory was shut down during Democrat Jimmy Carter's administration and the locals did nothing to fill them in.

4Kerry held a town-hall style meeting in the Youngstown suburb of Austintown, near the General Motors plant in Lordstown, but the campaign didn't supply the 100 tickets it promised to give unions.

Similar gaffes occurred across the state and were typical of a campaign that didn't know the political territory, said Greg Haas, a consultant who has worked on Democratic campaigns since the 1970s.

4‘‘The national campaign completely discounted what was being said from the state, what they were hearing from the ground up,'' said Haas, who was not part of Kerry's campaign. ‘‘They decided that whatever they thought was best, was best.''

4Jim Ruvolo, a longtime Toledo consultant who was the Kerry campaign's Ohio chairman, said he had not read the study but that the campaign worked well with the state and local parties.

4‘‘I remember Mahoning was a problem, but Mahoning is always a problem. You end up putting your own people in there,'' said Ruvolo, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party from 1983-90. ‘‘Many of the folks there make it hard. They want your money and then they want you to go away. … The Kerry campaign worked with local people there. Did everybody get in? No.''

The study said the local Democratic Party didn't help itself by seeming more interested in certain local races than in the presidential campaign.

Outside groups, known as 527s after the section of the federal tax code that governs their finances, and unions were ‘‘sucking oxygen from the party'' by attracting volunteers that usually do party work, according to Nancy Richardson, a former adviser to 1988 nominee Michael Dukakis.

The campaign began its turnaround in Mahoning in early October when it brought in veterans of former President Clinton's 1996 campaign and Gore's 2000 bid. Hundreds of Kerry volunteers came into the county for the final push.

Haas said Kerry should have done even better.

‘‘Had they been listening to their state director and listening to the local parties, I think they could have won the state comfortably,'' Haas said.

John McCarthy is a correspondent for the Ohio Associated Press' Columbus bureau.