In hard-hit Chillicothe, Clinton has receptive audience 'We need to give him a chance'

February 20, 1993|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,Staff Writer

CHILLICOTHE, Ohio -- There are deep currents of fear, anger and pent-up idealism in this struggling factory town, surrounded by snow-dusted farmland.

And in selling his economic package this week, Bill Clinton seemed to tap them all.

Whether the appeal will work as well in big cities and suburbs as this poor corner of the Midwest is an open question. But from his televised speech to Congress Wednesday night to his town meeting yesterday morning at Chillicothe High School, the president said what many folks here were ready to hear.

That, despite rosy economic news, the deficit could hobble the recovery. That ignoring the problem will only make it worse. And that Chillicothe's 23,000 mainly blue-collar residents will have to make sacrifices -- though the wealthy, who mainly live elsewhere, will have to sacrifice a lot more.

"His presidency signals the end of the vanities," said Rosemary Houf, 74, a retired teacher and staunch Democrat, after watching the Chillicothe High speech on television.

"In the past, it's been Reagan-style high-glitz, high-glamour," she said, sitting on a Victorian-style couch in the Chillicothe Bed and Breakfast, one of the stately brick homes on Paint Street. "They [the wealthy] have made a bundle of money over the years. This is restoring government to the people."

In the presidential election, George Bush beat Bill Clinton by 373 votes in Ross County, which includes Chillicothe. Ross Perot won 20 percent of the vote. Several voters who did not support Mr. Clinton in November now say they want Congress to follow his lead.

"I didn't vote for him because I didn't feel that he could carry out his campaign promises," said Robert Placier, 67, who is retired from a pot and pan factory that closed several years ago. "I think he's changed since the campaign. I think we need to give him a chance."

Mr. Placier, a Democrat, watched the Wednesday night speech on television at the bed and breakfast. He added: "I think the monkey's on the Democrats' back now. They control Congress. It's their responsibility to carry out his plan."

Mayor Joseph P. Sulzer, a lawyer and Vietnam combat veteran, said a lot of people in Chillicothe and Ross County share this view.

"Most of the county is saying pretty much the same thing: 'Let's give him a chance to change things. Let's try some of his program,' " said Mr. Sulzer, a Democrat.

Of course, plenty of people don't support the economic proposals.

Eugene Hoffmon, a white-haired police investigator who voted for Mr. Perot, sipped coffee at the Crispie Creme Donut shop and complained that Mr. Clinton broke his campaign promise to cut taxes for the middle class.

Mike Renison, 39, who owns the doughnut stand with his brother, took a break from pouring coffee and said Mr. Clinton's higher taxes on affluent people would trickle down -- that the well-off would raise prices and fees, helping kindle inflation.

And, Mr. Renison said, the president isn't cutting enough government spending. "I betcha 80 percent of the people disagree with [the economic plan]," he said.

Like many American cities, Chillicothe is trying to reinvent itself. It's trying to lure investors, some from overseas and Canada, to build new factories or buy vacant ones. It has begun dusting off and polishing its 19th-century downtown -- luring new merchants to formerly empty storefronts, for example, by building new brick sidewalks and installing new street lights.

It's trying to live on less, because there are fewer high-wage manufacturing jobs here and more lower-wage service jobs.

The Mead Corp. and its two paper mills are the town's largest employers. But other large factories have closed in recent years.

Now the town must rely more on jobs at the 600-bed Veterans Administration Hospital, the two large state prisons or the retail jobs at the strip malls out on Route 23 -- where thousands of county residents waited for almost two hours, some of them standing in the 7-degree weather, to catch a glimpse of Mr. Clinton when he arrived Thursday night.

The boom years of the 1980s bypassed Chillicothe, some residents said -- but not the recent recession. Some suspect no one outside their tight-knit community cares.

The city, split between two congressional districts in the past election, has two new members of the House of Representatives. But vot

ers still seem angry about the privileges and perks on Capitol Hill. (So far, though, they seem to think Mr. Clinton has avoided becoming part of the despised club of Washington insiders.)

"I was at the Greenbrier Hotel in West Virginia when they had [a] congressional tennis tournament," recalled a scornful Don Price, 52, a construction worker disabled in a fall. "I don't care who in the hell it is. You don't throw money around like that."

"This is just a middle-class, plain-Jane, Joe-Schmo town," said Melissa Hagen, 17, a senior at Chillicothe High School, who introduced the president before his town meeting yesterday.

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