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By Ben Penn
Oct. 28 — Democrats are trying to mobilize voters in Ohio by criticizing Donald Trump’s worker rights history, with the nation’s top labor official delivering the message.
If Trump were to pull off an upset presidential victory, it could come from Ohio’s blue-collar Democrats crossing over to the Republican ticket because of Trump’s anti-trade, job-growth promises. That’s where Thomas Perez, sitting labor secretary with strong ties to organized labor, fits in with the Hillary Clinton campaign.
Perez, speaking in his personal capacity, scheduled a seven-city tour of Ohio over 32 hours Oct. 27-28, to culminate at a union hall in Mahoning County. The county was once known as the battleground state’s Democratic stronghold.
“To have the secretary of labor here is a tip of the hat to us, and is going to help us mobilize those union households and those blue-collar workers that we need to elect Hillary Clinton,” David Betras, the Mahoning County Democratic Party chairman, told Bloomberg BNA Oct. 27.
Perez was focusing on “Trump’s history of cheating workers out of money and picking foreign workers over American jobs,” according to a campaign statement about the Ohio events.
Mahoning is part of the Appalachian region of Ohio that’s typically loyal to Democrats, but now showing signs of turning red, Kyle Kondik, author of the 2016 book “The Bellwether: Why Ohio Picks the President,” told Bloomberg BNA Oct. 28.
“Maybe Trump is the development that pushes them to the Republican category,” said Kondik, a researcher at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
If history is any indication, Ohio and its 18 electoral votes will likely decide the overall election. Since 1944, Ohioans have favored the losing candidate only once, in 1960.
Clinton and Trump are currently nearly neck-and-neck in the Buckeye State. As of Oct. 28, Trump holds a 1.1 percentage-point lead in a four-way race, according to polling aggregator Real Clear Politics.
Betras said he’s confident his county will turn out for Clinton on Nov. 8 but acknowledged that the Trump-Pence team has gained traction in the area. Eighteen of the 234 members on the Mahoning Democratic Party central committee voted for a Republican candidate in the presidential primary, he said. But the 18 were removed from the committee and the remaining members will all vote for a Democrat in the general election, Betras said.
Sandy Theis, executive director of policy organization Progress Ohio, said she’s been “flabbergasted” by the level of Trump-Pence signage in a county that Democratic campaigns have consistently relied on for Ohio votes.
She said she’s hoping Perez will contrast Trump’s stance with the agenda implemented by his own administration. Specifically, Theis said the labor secretary should highlight the DOL’s landmark regulation estimated to extend time-and-a-half overtime pay access to 4.2 million U.S. workers.
“The thing that distinguishes the Mahoning Valley is a strong work ethic,” Theis told Bloomberg BNA Oct. 27. The overtime rule, which takes effect Dec. 1, “is something that puts more money in people’s pockets, and it’s a meaningful amount of money, particularly if they find themselves living on the margins.”
Trump has talked about the need to repeal Obama regulations. He’s criticized the overtime rule as harmful to small businesses but hasn’t specified whether he would try to void it as president.
Mahoning is filled with former steel workers and their families, Theis said. Many of the workers are either still in a union or would like to be if they could find the work, she said.
County residents are consistently wooed by Democratic candidates and top surrogates every four years. The 2016 cycle is no exception, as Hillary Clinton has already stopped by twice, and Bill Clinton and Joe Biden have also made appearances, Betras said.
Perez, a relative newcomer to the national political stage, is a different voice.
To send Perez to such a key Democratic region this close to the election shouldn’t be viewed as a gamble, according to the Ohio senate minority leader. Rather, he’ll offer a fresh, pro-labor perspective that will appeal to working-class voters.
“People are familiar with having political figures come in, but I don’t think they’re familiar with having somebody with [Perez’s] status and position come into this area and talk about the importance of protecting workers’ rights and giving them the opportunity to succeed if they work hard,” Sen. Joe Schiavoni (D), told Bloomberg BNA Oct. 27. “Yeah he’s a political appointee, but he’s not a politician.”
Although he’s been in Obama’s cabinet since 2013 and previously ran the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, Perez has never run for national political office.
Labor unions have widely applauded his oversight of a Labor Department that’s taken a more prominent executive branch role than the agency historically holds. In addition to issuing the overtime rule, Perez’s DOL finalized regulations to expand disclosure requirements for employers that use advisers to help fight unionization drives; cut workers’ exposure to airborne crystalline silica; and raise the standards governing those who provide investment advice to retirement savers.
These are accomplishments Ohio voters need to hear about, Theis said. “Some people don’t realize that all the important pro-worker regulations that Obama has put forth are through Perez’s department, and I hope that’s what Perez is going to speak about at the rally,” she said.
Meanwhile, Trump campaigned in Ohio on the same day as Perez. At an Oct. 27 rally in Springfield, he hammered home his theme of the devastating trade deals that caused plants to close—deals he said a Clinton administration would support.
To the extent union-sympathetic voters in Mahoning and throughout the Rust Belt states vote for Trump, this is seen as the primary message that persuades them.
Seth Harris said the Clinton-Kaine campaign understands that Perez is the supporter who can convince these people to change their minds. Harris is a friend of the labor secretary and was deputy labor secretary under Obama.
“Because he’s a highly skilled lawyer, he’s especially talented at ripping the facade off of sham policies that won’t help working people,” Harris, who now practices at Dentons in Washington and teaches at Cornell University, told Bloomberg BNA Oct. 28.
“The combination of his experience with job training, job creation, strategies like infrastructure investment, regulatory strategies to provide added security to workers and retirees, makes him a unique powerful spokesperson for the Clinton effort to gather these middle class votes,” he said.
Still, when Perez heads to a union hall’s annual fish fry in Mahoning’s town of Boardman, he may need to introduce himself to some voters unaware of that track record.
But Betras, the county’s Democratic party leader, says the labor secretary’s name should already be familiar to many of them.
“To the labor people in town here, union members, they know who Secretary Perez is, so he’s helping mobilize that base,” Betras said. “If you’re in the labor force you know who Secretary Perez is.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Ben Penn in Washington at email@example.com
Copyright © 2016 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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