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DECISION: OHIO

Fatalism, cynicism in once-bustling foothills

To many here, no candidate offers solution

By Scott Helman
Globe Staff / October 16, 2008

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SHAWNEE, Ohio - "It ain't gonna change nothing."

Robert Peyton, 62, was perched in a worn purple chair in his garage, on a hill overlooking what's left of Shawnee, a once-bustling coal town in the Appalachian foothills of southeastern Ohio. He dragged on his cigarette and explained why he saw no point in voting in the presidential election.

"The poor man's getting poorer," Peyton said, his old Ford pickup parked behind him with the hood open. "And the rich man's getting richer."

Once, there were jobs in these hills, not just in the coal mines, but at steel companies in nearby New Lexington. At the brickyard in New Straitsville, the next town over. At a local fiberglass plant, which employed more than 100 in its heyday. Peyton, born and raised here, used to work in area oil fields, back when those jobs were plentiful.

"Hell, there's nothing here anymore," he said yesterday. "Welfare and Social Security, and that's about it."

He went on, "Nothing's coming back. You live in China or Mexico, you got a job."

Peyton's already retired; his 22-year-old son, who lives with him, has it worse. He had been doing concrete work, Peyton said, but hasn't had a job in a year, because the construction industry is slow.

"This country is pretty much shot," Peyton said.

A lot of folks in the Shawnee area seem to feel the same way. It's a mixture of fatalism about their station in life and cynicism that a new president will make any meaningful difference in their lives. Things are pretty bad, and they have no hope that Barack Obama or John McCain will do a darn thing about it.

Shawnee and its fellow coal towns are known as the Little Cities of Black Diamonds. Fires are said to still burn in the old underground mines, but above ground the cities' spark has long been extinguished. There's still a mine or two operating in the area, but what's left largely are the industry's remnants, both human and environmental. A milky, acidic substance flows out of an old mine entrance near New Straitsville; the signs warn not to touch it.

Shawnee's Main Street is dotted with empty storefronts and dilapidated buildings, save for the Shawnee Village Restaurant, the Desperado bar, and a few other scattered businesses. We caught up with Debbie Manring and Amy Ellis, who both live in town. Manring, 50, used to work as a nursing assistant at a nursing home, but is now on disability. Ellis runs the local video store.

"I don't think I'd vote for either one of them," Manring said of Obama and McCain.

"That's exactly what I would say," added Ellis, as her 4-year-old son, Justin, rode a pink bicycle up and down the empty sidewalk.

They are both Democrats, feeling like they have two bad choices, wishing Hillary Clinton were still in the race. McCain, to them, would be an extension of President Bush. "He's going to make things worse," Ellis said.

When we asked about Obama, they made clear they felt a cultural disconnect. They do not trust him, do not see him as one of their own. Manring worries he is a Muslim (he is not); Ellis said she believes Obama would put other countries before the United States, and was bothered by his decision in the past to not always affix a flag pin to his lapel. (He does now.)

"He wouldn't even wear it," she said.

They say all this even though their views on helping the middle class and on the war in Iraq align more closely with Obama's. Manring said her nephew had served in Iraq, and returned with stories about "kids over there who are doing without."

"And you know what?" Manring said. "We've got that here."

Obama might have put it that way himself, but these are precisely the kinds of white, rural voters he has not won over. He likely won't before Nov. 4.

Not everyone around here expressed such apathy about the election. As we explored an old mine entrance yesterday, Cory Six pulled up in his red Ford Mustang. He is 20 years old, from New Straitsville, and training to drive heavy equipment. A year ago, he helped haul 300 tons of gravel to fill an old mine on the other side of the hill where we were standing.

"I haven't figured out who I'm going to vote for yet," Six said when we asked him about the election. "Do I want a black guy or a Republican?"

But to Six, Obama's race is merely an unremarkable fact. It is not a factor.

"Everyone should have the equal opportunity to run for president," he said. "It don't matter what color you are."

Scott Helman can be reached at shelman@globe.com. Dina Rudick can be reached at drudick@globe.com