Is Anybody Really Listening: Pizza with Perez in Youngstown


Ohio has long been seen as a battleground state, up for grabs in most Presidential elections. The state supported winning candidates of both parties for decades. But as the state shifted back and forth, the Mahoning Valley (Mahoning and Trumbull Counties) in Northeastern Ohio remained a Democratic stronghold. If Democratic candidates could garner more than 62% of the vote in this region – as they often did -- they would win the state. In years when Republicans won, the Mahoning Valley still voted for the Democrats, but with less enthusiasm.

Not this time. In the 2016 primaries, a number of Mahoning Valley Democrats changed their party affiliation to vote for Donald J. Trump. Last year’s big shift came from people who had sat out the past few elections but showed up to vote this year. In November, Hillary Clinton won Mahoning County but received less than 50% of the vote. She actually lost in neighboring Trumbull County. She lost Ohio by more than 8 points, the biggest loss of any candidate in the state since Michael Dukakis gave up the state to George H.W. Bush in 1988.

That’s why political operatives and journalists are now paying even more attention to the Youngstown area. Even the Ohio Democratic Party (ODP), which has long counted on the Mahoning Valley, is taking notice of a region they didn’t think they needed to worry about.

In what has become a familiar practice following a series of defeats in recent state-wide elections, the ODP sponsored a “Listening Tour.” On June 12, 2017, the tour came to Youngstown with National Democratic Party Chairperson Tom Perez, who reiterated that Youngstown was a political “bellwether.”

The event was held at a local pizzeria, Wedgewood Pizza, and billed as “Pizza with Perez.” Approximately 75 attendees, mostly loyal Democratic Party supporters, including a number of local and state politicians, paid $25 to attend the midday event. I paid my $25 to find out whether Party leaders were seriously listening to the concerns of voters and to see how they would react.

What I saw was a typical campaign event, with the audience doing the listening while Democratic operatives touted their positions. After brief introductions by state and local Party chairs David Peppers and David Betras, Perez explained his commitment to Democratic politics by recalling his father’s experience of moving to Buffalo from the Dominican Republic. Perez talked about how the community and especially the labor movement helped his family make a home there. He promised that Democrats could be counted on to speak to hopes and fears of the working class and to fight for working people.

When someone asked about why Democrats had lost the election, Perez criticized Republican social and economic policy, but he also acknowledged several mistakes that the Democratic Party had made during the last campaign. “We could have done a better job of speaking more directly to the pocketbook issues that bring people to the ballot,” he said. Among other things, the Party should have recognized that NAFTA hurt working people and acknowledged its role in that trade bill.

Perez noted that the Party’s “message got muddled,” but he quickly turned to typical campaign trail rhetoric: “I’m here to say very clearly that the Democratic Party is the party that’s fighting for the labor movement. The Democratic Party is the party fighting for quality public education and access to health care and the issues that matter most to the people in the Valley.” But there were very few questions and much of the time devoted to meet and greet. Clearly, no one identified themselves as crossover voters or first time Republican registrants. So much for this being a listening tour.

The ODP’s misstep of charging admission for a fake listening tour was not lost on local Mahoning County Republican Party Chairman, Mark Munroe, who called it a “strange” event and organized a parallel gathering where he invited crossover voters to explain their positions. As Munroe commented, “If they want to find out why Democrats have become Republicans they need to talk to Republicans because the Dems who have crossed over are not going to be inclined to pay $25 contribution to a Democrat party event." One of the speakers, Geno DiFabio, explained his party switch: "Every 2 years, every 4 years, locally they'd come around and say, ‘oh, we'll fight for you and take care of you,’ and then they'd disappear. It was like an abusive relationship."

Despite what the invitation promised, the ODP’s tour didn’t involve listening to local voters or even to their leaders, but that’s a familiar pattern for Mahoning Valley Democrats. Voters here remember how the national Party leaders dismissed former Congressman James Traficant when he bitterly criticized the Democratic Party for contributing to deindustrialization, making false promises, and prophetically warned that NAFTA would harm working people. But nobody listened.

In 2015, Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan told a reporter that “a lot of bad things happened” in 2010 and 2014, and the Party needed “a new approach—a more grounded approach—to turning out voters.” Nobody listened.

A year ago, after the Ohio primaries, local Party leaders wrote a widely publicized letter to the Clinton campaign and the ODP warning that they should pay more attention to working-class issues. Once again, nobody listened.

A tone-deaf, let-us-tell-you-how-much-we-care faux listening tour won’t accomplish anything, But the ODP and the DNC should pay more attention to Northeastern Ohio Democrats. They might start by heeding Ryan’s recent critique that the Democratic Party brand has become “toxic.” He has called for a wholesale change, starting with the Party’s leadership in the House of Representatives.

The Democrats should also pay attention to Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, who is the only statewide Democratic office holder and one of very few national Party leaders with a consistent pro-worker economic vision.

If they don’t start actually listening to voters in places like Youngstown, the Democratic Party may well end out talking to itself.

John Russo is the former co-director of the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University and currently a visiting scholar at Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor.

Photo by Lonnie Tague for the United States Department of Justice [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons