U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders told an enthusiastic crowd of union members and workers from around Lordstown on Sunday that, if elected president, he would freeze government contracts to companies like General Motors who opt to shut down American factories like the Chevy Cruze facility to outsource jobs to lower-paying countries.
Standing just three miles from the now-idled factory in a packed auditorium at Lordstown High School, Sanders – an independent from Vermont running as a Democrat – made the pronouncement during town-hall meeting that functioned as a quasi-rally in front of a friendly crowd.
But the positive reception by the crowd to Sanders’ constant flurry of attacks against GM show that the factory closures could be a serious liability for Republicans in 2020.
“If entities like General Motors think that they can throw workers out on the street while they’re making billions of profit, and then move to Mexico and pay starvation wages and then line up for federal contracts, they’ve got another thing coming,” Sanders said, flanked onstage by activists and union leaders from the American Federation of Teachers.
It’s a bold claim against a company that currently has hundreds of millions of dollars in federal contracts, but a sign of the political potency the factory closings represent in Northeast Ohio, particularly the Mahoning Valley. But it also received arguably the most resounding response from the crowd.
Since GM closed the factory in March, leaving 1,400 people out of a job, the area has been in a sort of economic limbo.
General Motors CEO Mary Barra opted to idle the factory and instead invest in a Mexican facility.
While factory closings are nothing new to the Mahoning Valley, GM’s move is exactly the kind of thing Republican President Donald Trump campaigned against.
Coupled with the gain GM received from Trump and the GOP’s tax plan, his direct promise to bring jobs back to the area and his attack on local union members and leaders, it’s almost a gift-wrapped local issue with national implications for Democrats to use in 2020.
Take the story of Chuckie Denison, 40, of Lake Milton. Denison worked at GM for 20 years, transferring to Lordstown in 2008. His said his wife, Cheryl Janesco, also worked at GM for 10 years.
Denison told the crowd Sunday of his family’s plight at the hands of GM. He took early retirement due to health reasons. Janesco was part of the first round of layoffs, eventually transferring to Tennessee before returning, also due to health reasons.
When layoffs started, Denison – who is a Democrat – said he followed Trump around to several rallies with other Lordstown workers – including Republicans – to try to get Trump to address the issue head on.
“He ignored us. Matter of fact, he kicked us out of his rally for wearing a ‘Good Jobs Nation’ t-shirt,” Denison said. “He gave General Motors $700 million in federal contracts and did not do one thing here in Lordstown. He didn’t come to visit. He didn’t try passing legislation. He did nothing but come here and lied to these people.”
Sanders replied to Denison and the crowd that it was unfair for the public to shoulder the burden of giving a federal contract to a company that decided to not invest in America.
“Your tax dollars are going to provide a federal contract to General Motors after General Motors showed contempt for people in this community and communities around the country, and that is not acceptable,” Sanders replied. “We want those people who get federal contracts to have respect for working people and will give contracts to those large and small employers who pay their workers a living wage, who support the right for workers to join unions.”
GM spokeswoman Jeannine Ginivan declined to comment on Sanders’ statements, but said the company was investing money in American factories, which includes Ohio.
In a press conference before Sanders took the stage, Ohio Republican Party Chairman Jane Timken blamed Democrats for the economic devastation of the Mahoning Valley. She said Sanders and Democrats were out of touch with the needs of the area.
“What I know is Gov. DeWine and President Trump have been talking to leaders and folks and GM and trying to come up with a solution,” Timken said. “They’re not ignoring this.”
Despite Republicans controlling Ohio government for the better part of three decades, total Republican control of the federal government following Trump’s election and Trump promising during a Youngstown rally in 2017 that jobs were coming back, Timken said GOP lawmakers held no blame in the economic contraction of the Mahoning Valley.
“No, I don’t think they should at all,” Timken said.
Trump won Ohio in 2016 by 8-percentage points with a solid infrastructure in the state through the ORP. He has a higher approval rating than his national average according to Morning Consult, though still has a net disapproval rating that has fallen by 20 points since taking office.
The biggest question regarding Sanders’ second attempt at the presidency has been whether he would be able to build on the momentum from his upstart 2016 run. At 77, he’s the one of the oldest candidates in the race, which now includes nearly 20 people.
But if his Sunday appearance is any indication, he should have at least some support in Ohio. Denison, the former GM worker, said he started a chapter of Our Revolution – the pro-Sanders political group – on Saturday and already had 30 members.
While the crowd was invitation-only and mostly union members, they were emphatic about their support for Sanders’ policies like single-payer health care and tackling income inequality.