ASHTABULA, Ohio — To say that Ohio is a battleground state in the 2004 elections is only half the story. The state’s workers are the rest of the story, the grass roots, the people being bombarded by TV and radio ads, rhetoric and mass mailings. The suicide of the steel industry began in Youngstown, Ohio, in 1979, 24 years ago. Since then Ohio workers have seen and heard it all.

In this crucial election year, Ohioans are turning to each other. At the grass roots, workers have organized and are building independent coalitions of their families, neighbors, co-workers and new friends to defeat George W. Bush and as many Republicans as they can on Nov. 2. There is no waiting around or reliance on the “same ole, same ole.”

On the agenda are the issues that rank-and-file workers talk about — the Iraq war and terrorism, bills, jobs, health care, retirement security, education, the cost of gasoline, and a democratic future for themselves and their children. The goal is not just to make a difference on Nov. 2, but also to improve their lives.

Nestled in the northeast corner of the state along Lake Erie, Ashtabula County is geographically the largest of the state’s 88 counties and one of its most rural. Its three largest cities are Ashtabula, Geneva and Conneaut. In 2000, Al Gore won the county by 1,809 out of a total of 39,574 votes cast for president.

The trees were just beginning to bud when the Ashtabula County Coalition was born. The group doesn’t have officers, but Diana Dickson Sowry, a member of the Ohio Association of Public School Employees/American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, chairs their meetings. Sowry belongs to the local Baptist church, chairs her union’s legislative committee and is a married mother of two sons.

“Working through the Ashtabula Federation of Labor and the state AFL-CIO — I’m a local delegate — we sent out a mailing to the Farmer’s Union, churches, civil rights groups and local activists,” said Sowry, sitting down in the late afternoon for the first time all day.

“Over 20 people showed up and have been showing up once a month ever since. We are a real cross section of Ashtabula County. The response shows that people realized they can’t do it by themselves. It shows that it is not ‘God, guns and gays,’ but ‘How do I take care of my family?’” she said.

“We had to work through issues like the Iraq war. The coalition concluded that discussing and debating the war is not unpatriotic. … That is what we are supposed to do. All ideas are welcomed. We have to build bridges, face-to-face, family-to-family, neighbor-to-neighbor.”

Sowry said, “People have been abused for so long that changing things, like creating good jobs, providing a decent public education, just looks like pie in the sky. But people are beginning to connect the dots — if we unite, we have a voice.”

One of the coalition’s concerns was taking the campaign into the tiny hamlets in the southern part of the county, which usually gets ignored. So week after week they’ve been traveling on county roads —some paved, some not. Coalition members have been talking to residents, registering voters and reconnecting people to politics at the doorstep and in the fields. They bring all the experiences back to the coalition meeting, keeping their finger on the pulse.

The Ashtabula County Fair is the summer’s main event for the entire county. Here, members of the 4-H strut their stuff, young people showing off their prize cattle, pigs, or vegetables. A demolition derby, races and musicians delight the thousands who come from near and far.

Coalition activists decided to spend early August at the fair, not only to accompany their children who were competing in 4-H, but also to “politic.” Members volunteered at the Democratic Party’s trailer, right smack dab at the entrance to the huge fair.

Coalition member Gene Turner said that whole families have been registering to vote. “We don’t want any more of Bush,” they say. “We have had enough.”

Turner is president of the Ashtabula County AFL-CIO Seniors Council. For 36 years he was a member of United Steelworkers of America Local 3081 in Ashtabula.

“We are busy, busy and have been busy, busy through the fair,” Turner said, grabbing a soft drink to soothe his tired throat. “Republicans have been lining up to change their registration … Have to work with the young people, though. They feel that their vote doesn’t count. But we bring it home to jobs, health and education for their kids. “

Kerry/Edwards signs decorate the trailer’s front. The table is filled with the campaign paraphernalia of local candidates. The local press has been tough on Capri Cafaro, the Democratic candidate for Congress, Turner said. Cafaro faces incumbent Republican Steven LaToureete, who Turner believes has pulled the wool over the eyes of some in labor because he has occasionally voted right on union issues.

“That idea isn’t going to work,” political veteran Turner believes. “It’s not enough to take back the White House. To make things happen for young people, to make a better life, we need Congress. If you going to make a change, make a change.”

Not far from Ashtabula’s struggling farms, steelworkers in Stark County are also walkin’ and talkin’ and fighting for their pensions and health care. In 2000, Bush won this county by 2,845 votes out of the total of 159,844 votes cast.

Canton, the county seat, is now known as the home of the NFL Hall of Fame, not a bustling steel center. Connecting politics to bread on the table is no stretch for members of USWA Local 1200, who work at Republic Engineered Technologies (RTI), formerly Republic. They had just returned home from Federal Bankruptcy Court in Cincinnati, trying to save their pensions. The Bush administration’s Pension Benefit Guaranty Trust Corporation, (PBGC), a government agency, had the union in court trying to eliminate the hard-earned pension for hundreds of steelworkers. A decision is expected in two months.

Twenty-three years ago, when Patti Reich went to work for RTI, there were 6,000 workers there and another 10,000 at Timken Roller Bearing, a neighboring mill. Now, 400 steelworkers keep the RTI mill running and 1,300 at Timken. Following a Bush campaign stop there in May, Timken announced it was closing down.

“Imagine,” said Reich, seated at a table at the union hall with the union local’s vice-president, Paul Miller. “This judge, Buckholder, asks the union lawyer if we expected to get our pensions. Twenty-three years in the mill and expect a pension! RTI gave $7.1-million bonuses to their executives and this judge asks, asks, if we expected a pensions! This is the type of judge Bush sends us. It’s a corporate government.”

Reich wears her Kerry/Edwards T-shirt proudly. Stopped at a light in Canton, the motorist next to her shouted, “Great T-shirt! Do you really think they can win?”

“If we all register and vote,” Reich shouted back. “We’ve got to win this one!”

“It’s going to be tough, but we’ve been working hard. We are well organized and the unions are reaching out, doing their best,” she said. “Look at this town. For sale signs, people auctioning off their homes. That’s what the corporations leave behind. If Bush gets back in there, Canton is done.”

The nerve center in Canton is the USWA Local 1223 hall, the Timken local union. Reich and volunteers from unions across the county arrive, pick up their lists and head out.

It is not just union members. On this August day, representatives from the Americans for Democratic Action arrived. Democratic Party members, environmentalists and activists from across the Midwest pull up in Canton, pick up their election materials, grab their maps and head out the doors. It is organized and hectic.

Ashtabula and Canton are not unusual in the Buckeye State. Ever day from Toledo to Cincinnati, concerned Americans from around the country pull off the interstates and into union hall parking lots. NAACP members from Detroit, peace activists from California, Young Communist League members from Chicago and New York and members from New England are canvassing this state for Kerry, taking the message directly to the people. They are organized and are organizing.

Ohio is less about TV commercials and more about grassroots organizing. Hard times are not new to the residents here. Ohio workers have seen politicians come and politicians go. Working families themselves are taking this presidential campaign in hand, talking directly with their co-workers, neighbors and friends about issues. Personalities are not irrelevant, but the life-and-death struggle in Canton or Ashtabula cannot be left solely to the politicians. The stake for working families on Nov. 2 is survival. A Kerry victory, with long coattails, is their future.