Tomorrow the Hoosier state votes in the Democratic primary. It has been a long time since Indiana has had such an important place in the electoral process – 1968 to be exact when Bobby Kennedy stumped through the state. Eight years earlier my grandmother shook another Kennedy’s hand as he campaigned at the Catholic church my family attended in Richmond, Indiana, near to where my family raised me. Years later my grandmother recounted that she didn’t wash her hand for weeks afterwards, letting the hope of a Catholic president linger physically as well as mentally.
The conventional wisdom in the Hoosier state is that if African-Americans turn out heavily in the rust belt of northern Indiana (Gary, Hammond, East Chicago to South Bend) and in Indianapolis, Obama should take the state. Obama needs their support to offset rural and small town white voters, who’ve voted for Clinton in Pennsylvania. In a recent poll by the Indianapolis Star and the local NBC television affiliate, Obama carries a small lead, but 21 percent of those surveyed had not made up their minds on either candidate (http://www.wthr.com/global/Story.asp?s=8224749).
Indiana is state full of little hometowns that have gotten a lot of attention recently. These small towns like Seymour, Indiana – birthplace to John Mellencamp (he appeared with both Clinton and Obama) will be key to the election. Indiana also has many small cities that have suffered under neo-liberal economic policies that the Clinton administration created. Neo-liberalism is “restraint on social spending, privatization, deregulation, and, most importantly, the reassertion of class power by the nation’s capitalist class,” according to scholar Kim Moody (see: http://www.indypendent.org/2008/04/10/nyc%E2%80%99s-many-storied-rise/)
NAFTA and other free trade deals decimated the $20/hour unionized factory jobs and replaced them with low-paying, non-union service and some factory jobs.
In 2005, I spent some time in Marion, a small factory city an hour north of Indianapolis, where the Christian right is strong and the job losses are greater.
But Marion, a working-class town of 25,000 an hour northeast of Indianapolis, is demolishing abandoned homes at a record clip as the population declines and homeowners default on mortgages. The city is also struggling to lease out empty factories while confronting tight budgets for schools and other basic services.
Once driven by mom-and-pop shops and union factory jobs, Marion’s future seems to be big Christianity and big retail.
The town square stands half empty or half full, depending on whom you ask, while the highway on the outskirts of town is lined with chain stores, including the king of low prices and low wages, Wal-Mart.
“I think the future is pretty good. There’s a collection agency moving into the square,” says Keith Alabach, executive director of Crisis Pregnancy Center, located on the square. “A major source of our funding is through the church.”
After pitting other Indiana counties against one another, Wal-Mart is expected to announce soon that it will open a large distribution center near Marion that will employ hundreds. Marion and local leaders are also optimistic about the rapidly growing Indiana Wesleyan University, which was ranked along with Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University as one of the nation’s top conservative colleges. Local leaders expect the college to hire more people in the years to come.
“I don’t think we will ever see the manufacturing base we once had. I think you’ll see more service-sector and distribution-warehouse jobs,” says Grant County Republican Chairman David Murrell. “We have two Christian universities – Taylor and Indiana Wesleyan. They’ve [Wesleyan] gotten really big, really quick.” As big Christianity moves up, big manufacturing moves out of Grant County, in which Marion is located. Last spring, hundreds of union workers at the Thomson/RCA electronics plant showed up for work only to be told it would be their last day: the factory was closing immediately. Today, the only workers left in the facility are security and contractors taking apart the machinery to be shipped to other factories throughout the world.
The effects of neo-liberal trade agreements, the globalization of capital and a race to the bottom on labor costs have caused a long list of Marion’s factories to shut down. One of the remaining unionized factories is the Atlas cast-iron foundry, started in 1893 by the Gartland family, which still owns and operates it. Atlas survives by picking up work that closed American foundries leave behind and by finding specialized market niches.
In today’s primary, Hoosiers will vote for two candidates that have no real answers for the economic woes of beleaguered towns like Marion and Gary, Indiana. The race is between a form Wal-Mart board member (Clinton) and a candidate who has taken tons of corporate dough (Obama). (For a list of who took what from which industry, see http://www.indypendent.org/2008/01/12/whos-buying-obama/)
Prediction, Obama in North Carolina, Clinton squeaks by in Indiana.