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  • Local grievances could hurt Gore in Ohio

    Sunday, September 17, 2000

    Jonathan Riskind
    Dispatch Washington Bureau Chief

    WASHINGTON -- Al Gore, self-proclaimed friend of the environment and working families, could have trouble in parts of Ohio on both counts.

    On the campaign trail, the Democratic presidential nominee often presents himself as an environmentalist.

    But some eastern Ohio environmental activists are stewing about Gore's record when it comes to a waste incinerator in East Liverpool.

    At almost every stop, Gore also tells average Americans, "I will fight for you.''

    But hundred of southern Ohio workers are steaming about the Clinton-Gore administration's job-killing approval of the 1998 privatization of the corporation that runs the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Piketon.

    These region-specific issues obviously aren't the entire reason that Republican nominee George W. Bush led Gore 49 percent to 43 percent in a Sept. 3 Dispatch Poll. But even some Democrats acknowledge they present obstacles in a key state.

    "Any area where the Clinton administration has not delivered for the community is a problem for Al Gore,'' said Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Cleveland.

    Gore campaign officials say they don't think the election in Ohio will be won or lost on these issues and defend the record.

    "There are certain things you have to address in each state and each community,'' said Kara Gerhardt, Gore's Ohio spokeswoman. "These are particular things of interest coming up again and again, but they have been dealt with by the entire administration, not just in the election season.''

    Environmentalists, however, think Gore shrank from a 1992 promise to prevent the Waste Technologies Industries hazardous waste incinerator from operating near an East Liverpool elementary school -- and hasn't done enough to try to shut down the plant after it began running.

    The WTI issue "dissipates the energy the vice president should have as a friend of the environment,'' Kucinich said. "WTI is a glaring failure in the environmental policy of an administration that has otherwise been progressive.''

    WTI activist Terri Swearingen said Gore needs to return to the area to outline what he would do differently if elected president.

    "It's haunted him, and it's not going to go away,'' Swearingen said.

    Gore spokeswoman Gerhardt points out that a last-minute decision by President Bush's administration led to WTI's permit being granted. The Clinton administration kept promises to scrutinize plant operations, she said.

    Gore just might have an "October surprise'' to spring on voters unhappy about the planned closing of the Piketon plant.

    Administration officials are working on a lucrative package of cleanup money and other assistance to try to replace most of the 1,700 jobs that will be lost when the Piketon plant closes in June.

    The plan is to announce the help before Nov. 7, although Energy Department officials insisted last week that the package is being worked on with Republicans as well as Democrats. The time frame is dictated by a congressional adjournment planned by mid-October, not presidential politics, say both administration and Gore campaign officials.

    Still, southern Ohio is a key swing area of the state, with counties such as Jackson, Pike, Scioto, and Vinton -- all affected by the Piketon plant -- considered up for grabs.

    Gore officials say their polls show Gore holding his own in the region and they expect him to do at least as well as Clinton, who won and lost there by a single percentage point in his two elections.

    The Piketon closing has the potential to hurt Gore, said Rep. Ted Strickland, D-Lucasville, whose district includes the plant.

    "Is this a problem for the vice president right now? I think it is,'' Strickland said. "That doesn't mean it will be in November.''

    Strickland said he is hopeful that the administration will come up with the package of aid he has been advocating. And if the administration doesn't come up with the pre-election goods?

    "I think it would make it much more difficult to win'' Ohio, Strickland said. "This is an issue that involves multiple communities and multiple counties and hundreds of workers. In that sense it has long tentacles which extend beyond just the Piketon community.''

    Still, Strickland said it would be a reach to think that too many voters will make up their minds on a single issue.

    Larry Veach, Pike County Democratic Party chairman and a county commissioner candidate, said he has encountered only a few voters nursing a grudge against Gore over the plant closure.

    "Yeah, they're looking at the A-plant thing, but this area is so much better off now than when the Republicans were in there (the White House), it's not funny,'' Veach said.

    Republicans aren't sure what they might reap.

    Gary Abernathy, spokesman for the Ohio GOP, said the plant closing will devastate the region. Unless the Clinton administration comes up with some aid quickly -- Abernathy stressed that, politics aside, he hopes that happens -- "Gore will be hurt quite a bit.''

    Another Republican operative said he is skeptical that parochial issues such as Piketon and WTI will impact the election, even in a tight race. That operative, who spoke on condition of anonymity, agreed with Strickland that big picture issues are what will determine the outcome.

    But the Clinton-Gore administration has shown in the past that it recognizes the importance of confronting -- and trying to dilute -- anger about local issues, said William C. Binning, chairman of the political science department at Youngstown State University.

    Binning said that before the 1996 election, Youngstown residents were upset that a promised defense accounting center hadn't materialized over Clinton's first term. Presto! A few weeks before the election, millions of dollars in federal money was bestowed on the Youngstown area airport, Binning said.


    Copyright 2000, The Columbus Dispatch