Why a Millennial Ohio Mayor Could Signal a Blue Wave
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because if Democrats are winning over rural Ohio towns, it may presage a blue wave.
By Nick Fouriezos
- In 2016 the long-struggling Appalachian town of Ironton, Ohio, went big for Donald Trump, but last year a 28-year-old Democrat won a landslide mayoral election.
- Sam Cramblit’s campaign is one of several Democratic victories in this conservative patch of Ohio that signal openness to Joe Biden, and a possible flip of this key state.
Ironton needed a change. The Ohio River city was once a titan of the iron industry, a cosmopolitan town with four newspapers and a pro football team, a key cog in the underground railroad for slaves seeking freedom in the North. But its heyday was so long ago — more than a century — that no one remembers times without decline. Now, a fifth of its 10,000 residents live beneath the poverty level, and even the bartenders apologize to visitors for the condition of their town.
It’s no surprise then that surrounding Lawrence County responded well to Donald Trump‘s promises to restore manufacturing and revitalize the economy — backing the president by a margin of 70 to 26 percent in 2016, as Trump won nearly every precinct in Ironton City. But last year, Trump wasn’t the one offering change. It was Democrat Sam Cramblit, 28, running on a promise of better government. And Cramblit won in a 71-to-28 percent landslide over the incumbent GOP mayor. “I feel like the citizens, their voices were lost,” says Cramblit, who ran for mayor after watching a councilman bully locals at a city council meeting. “What this town was looking for is something different.”
His wasn’t the only one. In three other towns that Trump won with three-fifths of the vote — Norwalk, Coshocton and Archbold — Democratic mayoral candidates toppled Republicans with roughly the same margins. And those victories, combined with high turnout in the cities and suburbs, have state Democrats excited about the possibility of flipping Ohio back to blue after Trump won the state by 8 percentage points four years ago.
“These are the canaries in the gold mine,” says David Pepper, the chair of the Ohio Democratic Party. “The lesson is that in a lot of these communities, Trumponomics isn’t working: no infrastructure, cutting health care — it’s the opposite of the agenda people need.”
Instead of buying into the ‘me vs. you’ fight and running people into the muck, our focus needs to be on working together.
Standing in his casual Friday salmon polo, Cramblit, a 6-foot, 260-pound former all-state football lineman, sees signs of both progress and struggle from the windows of his corner office — a mural-laden building getting renovated a block from a few shuttered businesses, a pandemic-quieted downtown that nonetheless hosts a weekend farmers market. The room is littered with notes from yesterday’s late-night meeting, and the walls still adorned with sheets of paper listing goals from the past administration … which Cramblit says he just hasn’t gotten around to taking down. It’s hard not to see them as an unconscious reminder of the morass of “very old politics” he is trying to reject.
The son of a union ironworker and a nurse, Cramblit sees lessons in his mayoralty that other Democrats hoping to recapture working-class voters would do well to heed. His primary focus is kitchen-table issues, and he’s launching an audit to restore citizens’ trust that their taxpayer dollars are being used efficiently. “I work really well with both parties,” says Cramblit. “Instead of buying into the ‘me vs. you’ fight and running people into the muck, our focus needs to be on working together.”
But the real lessons are gleaned from Cramblit’s campaign. Before running for mayor in Ironton, he had worked to elect both centrist Republicans and liberal Democratic candidates everywhere from Texas and Tennessee to New York and Illinois, sporting a 15-1 record in the races he took on since graduating from Ohio University in 2015. “It’s experience: You learn what other communities do that make them great, and with that you can bring change,” he says. Those diverse ideological settings also prepared Cramblit to run as a candidate listening to people’s concerns rather than pontificating about his own platform as a lifelong Democrat.
“What do you want to see?” he’d ask of residents who hadn’t heard such a question in a long time. The answers led him to, surprisingly for a Democrat, oppose an income tax increase backed by Republican incumbent Katrina Keith. “You also had these huge fee hikes put on the utility bill, and everyone was angry because it was just a double whammy,” Cramblit says. He knocked on 4,000 doors, running as a team with council candidates Jacob Hock, also a Democrat, and Chris Haney, an older Republican — amplifying the change message while boosting future allies.
All three won resoundingly. “It’s a signal to everybody that you need to contest races, even in nontraditional areas,” says Pepper, the state party chair. And since, Cramblit says he has managed to keep the city’s fiscal house in order amid the pandemic. A dose of federal cash from the CARES Act has helped Lawrence County, but a coming budget crunch in localities across the country — as Washington negotiations stall on another round of aid — will likely be Cramblit’s sternest test to come.
Trump could still win Ohio despite the successes of small-town Democratic mayors like Cramblit. The OZY/0ptimus forecast — a predictive model that crunches polls, historical data, candidate traits and more — gives Trump about a 55 percent chance of winning the state. Democrats will need more than white, working-class voters to win. And some of Cramblit’s focusing on nonpartisan solutions is harder to replicate on the national stage. Local politics is “a big contrast to the federal level where Congress isn’t getting anything done, the president isn’t getting anything done, it’s just pure gridlock,” says Luke Feeney, the Democratic mayor of another southern Ohio town, Chillicothe, which backed Trump in 2016.
Still, Cramblit sees lessons for the Democratic Party. “When it comes to leadership, you need those moderate people willing to work together,” he says, and points to Biden as a strong candidate for that type of message in a year where Ohio’s voters — a national bellwether for generations — may seek a steadier hand. “In 2016, you saw an emergence of candidates of popular change in Trump and Bernie Sanders,” he says. “But now in 2020, you’re dealing with a pandemic and potentially an economic fallout, so people are looking for a leader who is going to tackle those issues. People are scared, and want to know there is hope.”