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Youngstown: Four Decades Of Service As A Political Backdrop

Presidential candidates have been coming to Youngstown, Ohio, for nearly four decades to call attention to job losses. President Jimmy Carter campaigns there in 1980.

As a Youngstown native, I have come to expect this.

Every presidential election year, candidates flock to Youngstown, Ohio, to use my hometown as a political backdrop.

It's a great place to talk about job losses. Steel mills used to line the Mahoning River for miles, churning out tens of thousands of jobs. Those jobs drove the city's population from 33,000 in 1890 to 170,000 in 1930. My grandparents came from Poland and Hungary to join in that boom.

In the mid-20th century, Youngstown became known for its union jobs and high levels of home ownership.

But that all changed on Black Monday, Sept. 19, 1977, when the Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. announced its massive shutdown.

I remember hearing the news on the radio, and thinking: huh? What does that even mean — "shutdown?" Where will the men work?

I asked my father. I asked the men at our church. What is going to happen?

They couldn't explain it because the whole concept was so new. Deindustrialization was just starting.

We'd soon find out what would happen. One mill after another would shut down. Within five years, the industry was effectively gone from the "Steel Valley."

Soon most of the people would be gone too. The population now stands at about 65,000. Zillow's most recent estimate of median home values is about $31,000. Our church shut down because almost no one was left to attend Mass.

Over nearly four decades, the abandoned mills and homes have been used again and again as political props. In the 1980 election cycle, GOP candidate Ronald Reagan came to Youngstown to blame the administration of President Jimmy Carter, his Democratic opponent, for Youngstown's troubles.

"These [closings] would not have happened if I were president," Reagan said of the obsolete mills.

Carter came too and declared: "We have also proposed a revitalization program for the steel industry, which will be very helpful."

Despite political promises, nothing worked. In 1983, The Wall Street Journal ran a story about the "silent, empty steel mills" of the "necropolis," aka my hometown.

Since then, each presidential cycle has brought another round of campaigning.

In recent days, Republican candidates Donald Trump and John Kasich have visited Youngstown. So have Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Each has used the struggling city to make points.

For example, on Tuesday's Today show, Trump mentioned his Youngstown visit and said: "NAFTA destroyed Ohio, took the businesses out of Ohio."

Sanders told a Youngstown audience that he opposed the "disastrous" North American Free Trade Agreement.

Candidates have a habit of forgetting that while Youngstown's steel jobs disappeared between 1977 and 1982, NAFTA didn't take effect until 1994.

Since then, a French company, Vallourec, has opened a pipe mill, which did well until the oil and gas industry stalled out last year.

And some brave entrepreneurs are working hard to rebuild small businesses around advanced manufacturing innovation.

But overall, Youngstown continues to struggle. BuzzFeed lists it as one of a dozen "Bleakest Places on Earth." Youngstown turns up on a lot of "worst places" lists.

Such rankings help ensure that candidates keep coming back. In 2003, two former Youngstown State professors, Sherry Lee Linkon and John Russo, wrote that it's now a well-established media pattern to use "Youngstown as a national 'poster child' for deindustrialization."

After nearly 40 years of campaign cycles, it would be great if political leaders could stop using Youngstown as a backdrop — and start moving it into the foreground of progress.

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