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Valley of discontent

Steelworkers, environmental activists say they feel betrayed by Clinton, Gore

Tuesday, September 19, 2000



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  • WEIRTON, W.Va. - Bill Clinton and Al Gore arrived like rock stars on July 19, 1992.

    To the beat of Fleetwood Mac, their bus crept up recession-scarred Main St. Hundreds of people jammed Thomas E. Millsop Community Center, where John F. Kennedy spoke in 1960. A few thousand more waited outside. "People were ecstatic," said Wendy Harrick, who brought her two children to see the Democratic ticket that bright Sunday morning.

    Eight years later, the reception might be a lot chillier. The head of Weirton's largest union says he would personally "throw him [Gore] out of town." Environmentalists in the area picket Gore every chance they get. All because of two comments that day at the Millsop Center:

    Clinton praised workers at Weirton Steel Co., West Virginia's largest industrial employer, for reviving a firm that had nearly died in the early 1980s. "People who work hard and play by the rules," Clinton said in a favorite refrain of that campaign, deserve help from Washington. He promised to help by slamming the door on bargain-basement foreign steel.

    Gore raged about the hazardous waste incinerator nearing completion 25 miles up the river at East Liverpool, Ohio, despite opposition from environmentalists, the state of West Virginia and the city of Pittsburgh. "Unbelievable," he called it. Come Election Day, Gore pledged, "We'll be on your side for a change."

    But now the Von Roll Waste Technologies Industries incinerator pumps smoke into the air 1,100 feet from East Elementary School and its 400 pupils.

    The future of Weirton Steel and other domestic producers remain precarious, in part because below-cost foreign steel has flooded U.S. markets.

    And that angers some in this traditionally Democratic stretch of the Ohio River Valley.

    "They had all the right answers," said Dean Harris, a third-generation steelworker who has been mayor of Weirton since 1994. "Then they went on to the next town and turned their backs on us. I think people feel like politics was played here, not truthfulness, and it hurt a lot."

    Harris’ union is so livid that after backing Clinton in 1992 and 1996, it has endorsed Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan, who has made Weirton workers the poster children for his war on free trade. Independent Steelworkers Union president Mark Glyptis, who represents Weirton’s 3,600 hourly workers,took Clinton’s picture off the wall in his office and ripped it to shreds.

    Gore not welcome "Al Gore’s not welcome in the Valley," Glyptis said. "If he were to come to Weirton, I would personally throw him out of town. We cannot support political candidates who come to our town and make promises they do not keep."

    Corporate officials are less bombastic, but clearly disappointed. Only after steel imports soared from 24 million tons in 1994 to 41 million in 1998 and led to the layoff of 10,000 U.S. steelworkers did the administration move to limit "dumping" by from exporters such as Russia, Brazil and Japan.

    In July, meeting in Cleveland with United Steelworkers leaders from around the Midwest, Gore conceded the administration had reacted too slowly to warnings from both companies and unions that they were being overwhelmed. With imports this year again headed for near-record levels, he pledged to do better.

    That may placate some here. John Saunders, who runs the Steelworkers local at Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel’s Martin’s Ferry plant, thinks "some of the edge is off" resentment toward Gore.

    "But Mark had a thousand of his guys on the street last year," explained Saunders. "They vote strictly on trade."

    Certainly John Bodonski, who has logged 29 years in Weirton’s 7 million square foot plant, puts little stock in Gore’s assurances.

    "Politicians are good ’til they get in office," he said, as he hurried out Gate No. 5 after his shift. "Then everything changes. Doesn’t matter if they’re Republicans or Democrats."

    He plans to vote for Buchanan, slated to appear across the river in Steubenville tomorrow, though with little enthusiasm. "If he got in there, he’d probably be like all the others," Bodonski said.

    Terri Swearingen was sure Al Gore would be different. Having already battled the proposed incinerator for more than a decade by 1992, the Chester, W.Va., nurse was ecstatic that someone with Gore’s environmental credentials was going to be Clinton’s running mate. Her joy increased as Gore continued to rail against the incinerator throughout the campaign and flatly pledged that December to block its opening.

    So she was crestfallen when the incinerator started up in 1993. Gore’s explanation that the plant was green-lighted by outgoing Bush officials carries little weight with critics such as Swearingen. Why, they ask, could the new team reverse many other Bush administration decisions, but not this one?

    "This was Al Gore’s first commitment to our community and it was also his first broken promise," said Swearingen, who has been arrested nine times protesting the plant. "He’s not going to get away from this issue."

    Persistent protesters Swearingen and other anti-incinerator activists have shown up at Gore campaign stops all year. Sometimes a question is shouted at the candidate - and usually ignored. Sometimes a handful of protesters stand outside Gore events.

    In January, when Gore was battling for the Democratic nomination, his aides sought a cease-fire. They promised an independent and expedited Environmental Protection Agency investigation of the incinerator case. In return, Swearingen and her allies promised no civil disobedience at Gore rallies.

    Now, the review is behind schedule - a public hearing by ombudsman Robert Martin is set for Saturday in East Liverpool - and some incinerator opponents feel they have been had. Ohio Citizen Action is raising money for radio ads that challenge Gore to live up to his 1992 promise. Green Party candidate Ralph Nader is planning to visit East Liverpool next week.

    "All we’re doing is holding a politician accountable for a promise," said long-time incinerator opponent Alonzo Spencer. "He can either uphold the promise or withdraw it."

    But in East Liverpool, the incinerator lacks the hot-button intensity of 1992. Though the plant has had troubles - the Ohio EPA is trying to settle alleged violations in handling and storage of toxins - many residents appreciate its nearly 200 jobs in a community whose once-thriving pottery business is now the stuff of memories and a museum.

    "A lot of animosity’s gone by the wayside," said East Liverpool City Treasurer Christina Clark. "I think everybody’s trying to forget that and get behind Gore now."

    Janice Andrason, who manages a hair care products store in downtown East Liverpool, is one of them. She still worries about the incinerator, but is a loyal Democrat who likes Gore on Social Security and education. "I think he’s done good so far," she said.

    For her part, Swearingen may vote for Nader. But even some of her comrades in the incinerator fight are leaning toward Gore.

    Wary of Bush Sandy Estell, lives across from the East Elementary. She shook Gore’s hand that day in 1992, says he looked her in the eye and said he would try to stop the plant. Maybe, she says with a shrug, he simply got overruled by Clinton: "I still want to believe him," Estell said.

    And she will also vote for him.

    "I think it’s the lesser of two evils," Estell said. "I’m a registered Democrat, and I think George Bush’s record on environmental issues is abominable. I don’t want to put the next four years of the country in his hands."

    Down in Weirton, Wendy Harrick now has four children. She calls herself a "stay-at-home volunteer" who serves on local social service boards. She understands the anger many of her steel-making neighbors feel, but will stick with Gore because she likes his stand on education.

    "This is a very Democratic area," said Harrick. "I think Gore will win."

    If so, he will probably do it without Mayor Harris. A lifelong Democrat, Harris isn’t sure for whom he will vote, or if he will vote. Clinton and Gore deceived him. Bush seems like a lightweight, Nader and Buchanan hopeless. He worries none of them can rescue the industry that has sustained his family for more than 90 years.

    "My grandfather came to Weirton Steel right after it opened. We’ve been here from the start," said Harris. "We don’t want to be here at the end."

    e-mail: jfrolik@plaind.com

    Phone: (216) 999-4548

    ©2000 THE PLAIN DEALER. Used with permission.


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