Where Obama and Romney are neck and neck

The first in a series of campaign reports from Hicksville, Ohio.

“A national political campaign,” the journalist HL Mencken once said, “is better than the best circus ever heard of.” Well, the circus is in town again. With the words, “I never said this journey would be easy,” Barack Obama sounded the starting-pistol for the sprint toward the Presidential election in November.

Six hundred miles north of where he was speaking at the Democratic National Convention in North Carolina, I had arrived in the town of Hicksville, Ohio, where I am spending the next sixty days following the campaign's every twist and turn for the New Statesman.

The picturesque main street is dominated on one side by a water-tower that serves as town sign, and on the other by a vast, imposing and incongruous grain silo complex. Small family businesses – Jodee's Video, Bob's Auto Repair, Yoder's Restaurant – jostle for attention as huge trucks rumble through on the way from foundry or farm to factory or silo. In the distance, the deeper thunder of industrial trains can be heard day and night. Further out, pretty and jumbled wooden houses skirted with verandahs share well-tended lawns strewn with children's toys.

Hicksville may seem tranquil on the surface as it basks in the late summer swelter, but it sits atop a political hornet's nest. Defiance County is in the middle of the rust belt, the north-eastern and mid-western industrial heart of the country. According to the Center for Automotive Research, the auto industry employs 1.7 million people in the US and supports 6.3 million more; most of them are nearby. Detroit, home of Ford and General Motors, is just a couple of hours drive to the north. Among car workers Obama should be on solid ground – his bailout of the auto industry saved hundreds of thousands of jobs – but outside the manufacturing towns, the countryside is small-c conservative heartland. Cars drive by tuned either to country music or Fox News Radio. If this was England, they'd all read the Daily Mail.

In 2008, Obama won here with 51.5 per cent, but now polls variously place the President and his Republican challenger neck and neck. Ohio is the battleground state; possibly the most important in this election. Both parties know it. The President was in Toledo, a bigger town just up the road, on Monday, where he spoke almost entirely in football metaphors (the season opened Wednesday night with the Cowboys beating the Giants); Vice-President Biden will be in the state this weekend – his third visit to the state in just over a week – and former President Bill Clinton will be campaigning here too.

Mitt Romney's campaign came through here last month, and his wife Ann was in the state a few days ago, trying to rally support for her husband among women voters. No Republican in modern times has won the White House without Ohio's 18 electoral college votes, and Romney is playing a strategy in which he concentrates his mighty campaign finances on a few key states, including this one. On Thursday, his campaign announced a major purchase of television advertising here, as well as in Florida, New Hampshire, and five other swing states.

“If this President wins another term,” says Connie, who runs the only hotel in Hicksville, “we're all screwed.” She is not alone in this. “I've been reading about this President, and what I read scares me,” says Mary-Ann Barth, who edits the Hicksville News-Tribune. Painted on a high street junk-shop window in big letters is: “One Big-Ass Mistake America – Cut Tax Spending”, and calls for the terrifying prospect of a “PALIN-BECK 2012” ticket.

Even Hicksville is not entirely lost to the President, however. On top of the scrawls in the window, some rebellious soul has stuck a small, lonely but audacious Obama-Biden sticker.

Street scene in Hicksville, Ohio

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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“We don’t BeLiviu”: how Romania is rising against corruption

Night after night, activists gather in Victory Square to demand the resignation of the government.

For much of the year, the large tarmac square in front of the main government building in Bucharest is little more than a glorified roundabout, busy with traffic and surrounded by towering, communist-era blocks on one side and a wedge-shaped park on the other.

But when Romanians gather to protest, as they have done these past weeks in record numbers, it becomes a place of pent-up frustration; against the ruling class, the direction in which the country is heading and the way many politicians continue to use the public purse as a source of cash for their personal use. This was not how it was supposed to be, ten years after the country joined the European Union.

On 31 January Romania’s new government, in power for less than a month, sneaked in a piece of emergency legislation during a late-night session to weaken the punishment for abuse of power, negligence while in office and conflict of interest. In effect, the move decriminalised some forms of corruption, if the financial damage caused amounted to less than roughly £38,000.

Many Romanians and international observers saw it as a brazen attempt to help politicians facing legal problems, prominent among them Liviu Dragnea, the leader of Romania’s largest political party, the Social Democrats, and the president of the Chamber of Deputies (Romania’s House of Commons). Dragnea is facing trial for supposedly getting colleagues added to the public payroll even though they do not work for the state. He is one of many public officials facing a day in court; in fact, he has already faced the courts, earning a 2015 conviction for electoral fraud that barred him from becoming prime minister despite his party’s strong showing in parliamentary elections last December.

The backlash against the ordinance was swift, as night after night tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, and, once, half a million took to the streets to protest. On 5 February, between 500,000 and 600,000 people protested across Romania, with 300,000 in the government square alone. Demonstrations have also taken place in 50 towns and cities in the country, as well as in the Romanian diaspora.

The government backed down on its immediate plans and repealed the decree, but trust was by then long gone. Protests are now in their third week and, despite snowfall, show little sign of ending.

“This government needs to go. You can’t be elected in December and have hundreds of thousands on the streets in a month,” said Dorial Ilie, a 33-year-old PR worker, one cold evening in the square.

Romanians are fed up with corruption. The country sits 57th in Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index – up from 69th place in 2014, but corruption remains endemic, and Romania is near the bottom of the list when it comes to EU countries.

Despite the efforts of the country’s much-admired National Anti-corruption Directorate (DNA), set up in 2003 and responsible for the successful prosecution of thousands of politicians, civil servants, judges and business leaders, there is a sense that the rich and powerful still operate as if they were above the law. This was certainly not helped by the attempts to change the anti-corruption legislation.

“They had been planning to do this for years,” said Dan Popescu, a 46-year-old priest protesting in the square, echoing the sentiments of many of those around him.

The demonstrations, the largest in the country since the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989, have been an impressive display of people power in a country that is increasingly using the streets as a communication platform. Large-scale protests in Romania also brought down the last elected government in November 2015, after corruption was blamed for a fire in a Bucharest nightclub that left 64 dead, and before that, mass protests during the 2014 presidential election, this time over mismanagement of diaspora voting, arguably helped tip the balance in favour of the now-incumbent, Klaus Iohannis.

Protesters are hoping for a similar impact this time around, although, having survived a no-confidence vote in parliament on 8 February, the new government shows little willingness to depart.

At the same time, most of those gathering night after night in Victory Square – as the drab square outside the government building is officially known – are still loudly demanding the resignation of the government, but would probably settle for the resignations of Dragnea and the prime minister, Sorin Grindeanu.

After so many nights standing out in the cold, protesters have become very creative. Elaborate banners filled with puns (“We don’t BeLiviu”) have appeared, as have messages written with lasers and projected on to nearby buildings. Some have shone the Batman symbol on to the roof of a nearby museum, a funny (or perhaps desperate) plea for help. The national anthem is often sung. On Sunday, a sea of protesters held up pieces of paper coloured over their phone lights to create a vast Romanian flag.

Despite these touches of humour and inventiveness, there is a steely determination evident and it has only grown since the first night or two.

On 13 February the national parliament approved a referendum related to the fight against corruption, as proposed by the protest-supporting president. But most of those on the streets these past weeks would argue that they have already given their opinion on the matter.

Many Romanians are increasingly frustrated that they have to head out to protest time and again in order to hold their elected officials to account. Few believe that the present political class can change. “They’ll try again, in another way. Maybe in parliament, where they have a majority,” said Ioana David, an administrative worker for a construction company.

Even so, she – like so many others – is likely to continue to go out into Victory Square in the days and perhaps weeks ahead, in order to make sure her voice gets heard.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times