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In Ohio primary, campaign hinges on NAFTA

In a state that has lost 225,000 jobs since 2001, voters blame economic woes on free trade and globalization.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 28, 2008

Job hunt: Earl and Jill Conley look for work at the Job Transition Center in Dayton, Ohio. Mr. Conley, who once made $19 an hour at GM, learned to use a computer after he was laid off.

Andy Nelson - staff

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Dayton, Ohio

In Ohio, it feels like 1993 again.

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The coming Democratic presidential vote here has revived a debate over the merits of globalization and free trade – as epitomized by the long-reviled North American Free Trade Agreement.

In Ohio, which has lost nearly 225,000 manufacturing jobs since 2001, NAFTA is an easy target. For many working-class Ohioans – and the voters Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton hope to win in Tuesday's critical primary – it stands as a symbol for much that troubles their state. Against that backdrop, say experts, it's not surprising it's become a political piñata.

"It's nice to blame the bogeyman, rather than the failed business strategies of Ford, GM, or Chrysler," says Ned Hill, an economist at Cleveland State University. "And middle-class anxiety is a real issue." The bickering isn't so much over the candidates' current positions on NAFTA – both are eager to tell Ohioans just how much they dislike the pact and how quickly they would renegotiate a better deal – but how consistent they've been in that stance in the past.

Senator Obama never loses an opportunity to remind voters that Senator Clinton's husband was the one who pushed NAFTA through, or of certain pro-NAFTA comments she's made in the past decade. Senator Clinton, meanwhile, cites a 2004 speech to Illinois farmers in which Obama also praised trade agreements.

"It's clear that both senators have learned the Sherrod Brown playbook," says Professor Hill, referring to the Ohio senator who was elected in 2006 largely on the basis of an antitrade platform.

Hill says Ohio's economic woes are due to far more complex causes than globalization or a trade agreement, but the general hatred of NAFTA in the state makes it an easy target for politicians.

Here in Dayton, where some 15,000 manufacturing jobs have been lost over the past five years, the effects of globalization are seen in sharp relief. It's not all negative. The changes have forced certain businesses to shift their focus, become better managed, and target new sorts of value-added manufacturing.

Better business through free trade

Globalization "made us make better business decisions," says Dave Dysinger, whose family-owned tooling and machining company in Dayton almost went out of business at the end of the 1990s, dropping from 116 people down to 12, until he shifted away from the traditional commodity-based clients and local markets he used to serve.

Today, his company employs 42 people, is thriving, and designs tools for more specialized energy, agricultural, and appliance companies around the country.

Still, Mr. Dysinger acknowledges that the transition was painful. And for the thousands of people who lost good-paying union jobs as large factories such as Delphi shut their doors to move overseas, it's hard to see anything positive in a more global marketplace.

"The Dayton area is a classic example of what's happening in the changes in the world economy," says Joe Tuss, the Montgomery County economic development director, noting that the city hung on to traditional manufacturing jobs longer than many places in the state. "We're at the end of the line in Ohio in terms of production jobs."

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