Wealthy Frenchman

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Ohio’s Morning After



APPARENTLY, Ohio’s Senate race is one of a half-dozen that will determine control of the Senate — one of America’s most closely watched, according to the national news media. But so far Ohioans don’t seem to be doing much watching.

It’s summer, of course, so who wants to think about November? And right now there are other issues occupying our thoughts. Down at the pet store, for example, some ladies are protesting “puppy mills,” picketing with signs that show photos of sad dogs in small pens.

In the local paper, people write in to express outrage about the closing of a neighborhood elementary school, and a movement is under way among some angry parents to oust the loathed school board.

But when you mention the Senate candidates — the incumbent Republican, Mike DeWine, and the Democratic challenger, Representative Sherrod Brown — people’s eyes tend to glaze over. There is an expression of blank and wary politeness, as if you offered to tell them about an interesting dream you had last night.

“Ugh,” says one patron at Parnell’s bar in Cleveland Heights, where I live. “The Senate race? Please.” And he takes a circumspect sip of his beer. “Somehow I got on Sherrod Brown’s e-mail list. And I’m getting, like, five e-mails a week from him. I’ll tell you what, I will never vote for Sherrod Brown because he has spammed me. He’s a spammer!”

“But,” I say, “what do his e-mails talk about?”

The guy only shrugs. “Hell if I know,” he says. “I delete them the minute they show up in my inbox.”

At least he knew the name of one of the candidates. Frequently, people didn’t. “The Senate race?” people would ask. “Hmmm. Who are they, again?” Local newspaper coverage — in The Plain Dealer, at least — has been relatively minimal. “You don’t really see much about it,” says an acquaintance at an outdoor dinner party. “Every once in a while you stumble across some tidbit in the Metro section, but it looks like an obituary.”

As for paid media, the campaigns have settled comfortably into their parties’ various greatest hits, stale material that must nevertheless have some life left in it. Senator DeWine’s latest ads, for example, recycle images of 9/11 — hijackers, burning Trade Center (which, in the campaign’s sole scandal this far, turned out to be digitally enhanced) and so on — as a backdrop for an attack on Mr. Brown’s record on national security.

Sherrod Brown, meanwhile, chips diligently away at Mr. DeWine’s relationship with lobbyists from energy, prescription drug and other Big Corporate interests: “His votes have betrayed middle-class families and helped to cause the erosion of the middle class in this country.”

Though they both seem like basically nice guys, so far neither comes across as particularly well endowed in the charisma department. Both exude a certain eau de bureaucrat: Senator DeWine might be an assistant principal at your local middle school; Representative Brown might manage the men’s wear department at the new Macy’s. My wife says, “It’s the bland leading the bland.” But my neighbor Susan frowns: “Blandness? That’s one theory, I suppose.”

We’re sitting in the screened bug tent out behind her house one evening, and she is showing me her copy of Rolling Stone, featuring an article by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. called “Was the 2004 Election Stolen?” that claims that “Republicans prevented more than 350,000 voters in Ohio from casting ballots or having their votes counted.”

“Personally,” says Susan, “I think there’s a point where it’s hard to distinguish apathy from discouragement. It’s hard to care about this stuff when it seems like your vote doesn’t really matter anyway. I think a lot of people on both sides of the fence have a sneaking suspicion that democracy is kind of falling apart.”


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