The Battle For The Suburbs
A Status Quo Place Lends Clinton Status
Lawrence C. Levy
Wednesday October 2, 1996
PARMA, Ohio - This is a city of swingers.
No, there's nothing especially kinky going down in sight of the onion-shaped gold domes of St. John the Baptist Byzantine-Catholic Church, one of more than 60 houses of worship that dominate this red-white-and-blue-collar Cleve-land suburb. Hardly.
This is a quiet, conservative city of 90,000 where only the banners of the beloved baseball Indians outnumber madonnas and other religious shrines that dignify the neat green lawns of small $100,000 capes. Despite paying taxes to one of the state's finest public school systems, the auto assemblers, tool-and-dye makers and other smokestack-industrial workers send a third of their children to parochial schools.
"This is a status quo sort of place," said Parma Mayor Gerald Boldt, who presides over the city's Democratic ma-chine. "People don't like to change too much, too fast."
Except politically. Enrollment may be heavily Democratic, but in presidential and now congressional races, Parma and other northern suburbs - places where you can smell the acrid fumes from the foundry and smelters - can break the hearts of either major party.
Not for 20 years has Parma voted for a loser in a presidential race. In a state big for Democrats but essential to Re-publicans, "Parma is the swingingest swing city in Ohio," said Tony Cuda, who runs the Clinton campaign here. "It's the weather vane that tells which way the wind is blowing." It's going Bill Clinton's way. Like the gusts off Lake Erie that chill the late-summer crowds at Jacobs Field, Cleveland's new downtown jewel, the wind is blowing Bob Dole and other Republicans right out of Ohio. And, as in other suburbs I've visited - representative of the key bloc in national elections - that wind is blowing cold for the GOP in much of the country.
The Reagan Democrats are coming home.
The implications for this year's presidential race are obvious. Even if Republicans recoup somewhat in upscale sub-urbs, they are not likely to do well enough to overcome huge margins in the cities, as they must in any year. So support for Clinton in beer-and-shot suburbs of swing states such as California, Pennsylvania and Ohio (which no Republican has lost and still gone on to be president) is likely to be decisive at the top of the ticket. And nearer to the bottom: If places such as Parma go heavily Democratic this year, the GOP could see the loss of Congress and some legislative majorities.
Forces and fears that have driven conservative ethnic Protestant and Catholic Parmans back to the Democrats are largely the same that have made the once-swing suburbs of high-tech Silicon Valley a booster club for Clinton and have left the former GOP strongholds of greater Philadelphia's leafy enclaves up for grabs. It may play out differently in each, but in the end it's a shared reaction to ideological excess and, of course, "the economy, stupid."
For instance, for the "soccer moms" of Philly's Main Line - career women who have temporarily taken up child rearing - there's the fear that the Gingrich Revolution would cut funds for day care and schools and criminalize abortion. For their prospering husbands, the status quo is acceptable while the alternative is suspect.
In Parma, where the more traditional wives of auto workers either don't work or are too busy holding two jobs to have time to drive their kids anywhere, much less to soccer, the reaction to the Republicans is much the same. They talk about the Republican Party's attempts to cut the growth of Medicare by $270 billion, which (with the help of a $30-million campaign by Big Labor) frightened more Americans than anything else. But in Parma, Reagan Democrats are especially angry over what they see as Republican efforts to erode union rights, and they've also grown wary of GOP attacks on programs that make nursing care and college possible for many middle-class families.
In just two years, the Gingrich Congress succeeded in throwing away a generation of Republican progress among working-class Democrats who ultimately elected the first Republican Congress in 40 years. Its excesses confirmed the stereotypes, heard in interview after interview, that "Republicans are for the rich, Democrats are for the working man." As long as the GOP was bashing the poor, minorities and other bogeymen for middle America, it could hold places like Parma, where Democratic positions on abortion, affirmative action, welfare, defense spending and others were a turnoff. But once Republicans were seen as messing with middle-class entitlements and workers' rights, they were asking for trouble.
"The Republicans played to their stereotypes," said Dennis Kucinich, a former Cleveland mayor who is favored to unseat two-term Republican Rep. Martin Hoke. "They drove the Reagan Democrats back home. Now we have a chance to show we've learned something."
For better and worse, Bill Clinton has. By moving shrewdly (and cynically) away from hard-left positions - sup-porting welfare reform, proposing to "mend, not end" affirmative action and rapping black rappers for racist lyrics - he made it easier for Parma to return to the fold. "People here have developed a comfort level with Clinton they didn't have at first," said Parma's mayor, Boldt. "When he went for gays in the military, right away they thought, Uh-oh, he's jump-ing off the deep end,' but he's back in the middle where he should be."
It helps Democrats that the Rust Belt is shining as it hasn't for years. The Republican Chicken Little take on the economy just doesn't resonate. In Parma, people now look to the city of Cleveland, with its new professional sports pal-aces, museums like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and a waterfront that is smoking not from chemical fires (like the one that ignited the Cuyahoga River two decades ago) but with night clubs and pleasure boats. Instead of fleeing, subur-banites are flocking downtown. Republicans, thus, can't run against the city if people outside it don't hate or fear it.
The original Reagan Democrats were members of Richard Nixon's Silent Majority. Nixon carried Parma in 1972, with the "wedge" issues of race, crime and patriotism. Race played especially well: Even now, despite a 20-year-old federal court order and new antibias laws, Parma is dragging its feet on public housing. In July, a black family had a cross burned on its lawn.
In 1976, in the wake of Watergate, Jimmy Carter did well. Four years later, Ronald Reagan replayed Nixonian themes through a softer focus and exploited frustrations over the economy and the hostage-taking in Iran. Parma loved him and his attacks on pushy liberal federal judges. Union workers who never voted for a Republican in their lives abandoned the Democratic Party. It was too flaky, too feminist, too quick to spend their tax dollars on others. In 1988, Parma went for a country club Republican, George Bush, as a vote for the Gipper - and against Willie Horton.
But not in 1992. Without Ross Perot in the race, Clinton, with a plurality of slightly more than 40 percent, probably would not have carried Parma. Perot got more than 20 percent. And when Clinton failed to walk the walk of a moderate New Democrat, they punished him in absentia in 1994. Two of Cleveland's suburban congressional seats went Republi-can.
This year, here as elsewhere, Perot is not expected to be a factor. Most of his supporters will go for Clinton or stay home. "Dole hasn't given them a reason to vote for him, and Clinton, really Gingrich, gave them lots of reasons not to," said Jim Trakas, 31, the Republican leader of Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland and Parma. "They see us as harsh, insensitive, out of touch with them."
The Reagan Democrats may be coming in from the cold but not running. Clinton's reputation as a philanderer and draft dodger, as well as his ideological inconstancy, still makes many voters uncomfortable with him. I talked to many men in union halls, bowling alleys and on the street who used phrases such as "lying dog" or "draft-dodging dirt bag" - not to mention the more unprintable epithets - to describe the president.
But almost in the next breath they would tell me they're voting for him. "When I look at the overall, I see the Re-publicans against me on the job," said Michael Ridgeway, an assembler at the huge Ford plant just outside Parma. "I see them backing scabs if we strike. I see them letting the bosses bust us. I see them making it more dangerous on the line."
The GOP's poor prospects in the bluecollar suburbs show how much ground the party has lost with conservative Democrats. Dole is not giving up Ohio; he made yet another campaign stop there yesterday, and his wife visited Parma's Ukrainian Cathedral three weeks ago. But Republicans need to retake it if they're ever to create the nation's majority party, as the Democrats were for much of the last two generations. Democrats, who sent Hillary Clinton to the area last week, also can't afford to surrender its blue-collar base again. And, this year, places like Parma are theirs to lose.